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Volume 45, Number 5September/October 1994

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Contested Crossroads

Written and photographed by Dick Doughty

"A city so rich in trees it looks like a cloth of brocade spread out upon the land ," wrote the 14th-century Syrian scholar al-Dimashqi of his expansive view of Gaza. He was not the first to pen the city's praises: Herodotus, Pliny, Strabo and others had all complimented it in antiquity. Indeed, as early as 1500 BC, Pharaoh Thutmose III had chiseled into the Temple of Amun at Karnak a note that Gaza was "flourishing," and today, Gaza historian Ibrahim Skeik recalls seeing, in the early 20th century, "trees all about the city, olives and almond groves."

But the very name of Gaza, or Ghazza in Arabic, often evokes a different aspect of its history, one less pastoral, often violent; both are parts of the legacy of one of the oldest, most economically and militarily prized cities in the Middle East. The name has no dictionary meaning in Arabic, but in other languages across 3500 years, etymologists have linked it to words translated as "strong,", "the treasure," "the chosen place," "to invade," and, "the ruler's prize." More precise definitions quickly become superfluous.

Much of Gaza's historical turbulence came about because the city sits on a geographical edge. Gaza's low, circular hill, now barely detectable amid urban sprawl, rose for ages like a gentle, topographic freckle in the southwest corner of ancient Palestine. From here the city served the most heavily traveled trade route linking Central Asia and Arabia with Egypt and Africa, called the Via Maris by Romans and the Horus Road by Egyptians. For traders, pilgrims and conquerors in both directions, Gaza lay, crucially, at the eastern edge of the Sinai Desert, which took eight days to cross by caravan.

Gaza also marked the northernmost station of the rugged Frankincense Trail from Yemen and western Arabia; this trade may have been the city's first. Gaza's port, just three miles from the city, was also one of the most convenient deep-water ports for the road from Babylon and Persia. Commerce to and from Asia, Africa, Arabia and southern Europe all passed for centuries through Gaza's markets.

More locally, the city was also known for its farms. All around Gaza, natural underground cisterns trap the irregular winter rains, and the warm, moist climate allows growing year round. Figs, dates, almonds and olives; oranges, lemons, melons and apples; wheat, barley, corn, dozens of vegetables and prized vineyards: all have grown abundantly in their time from Gaza's sandy soils. "Gaza was designed first as an agricultural and land trading center," explains Skeik, and "only secondarily" as a sea trading center.

"Gaza has been both a connector and a barrier," observed Islamic archeologist Don Whitcomb of the University of Chicago. For Egyptians, Gaza and the neighboring cities of Raphia, Ascalon and Isdud were both the gateway to Syria and a strategic location for remote fortifications to slow invasion from the north and east. For the peoples in the north and east, in Palestine, Syria, Turkey and the Fertile Crescent, on the other hand, Gaza was the gateway west to the riches of the Nile. For them, Gaza could buffer invasions rising out of Egypt. So coveted has Gaza been through the ages, Whitcomb said, "it's always been on the edge of somebody's empire."

Like traders and conquerors, pilgrims also regarded Gaza mostly as a means to an end, a transit station. Centuries of Christians passed through to retrace the flight of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus along the Via Maris to Egypt, and to visit what was long believed to be the ruins of the temple razed by Samson. Later, curious Muslims traveling through the city stopped to visit the tomb of the great-grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad, Hashim, who died in Gaza; even today, Gaza is sometimes referred to as Ghazzat Hashim—Hashim's Gaza.

And if pilgrims passed through, scholars have largely passed over Gaza. In English, Martin A. Meyer's 1907 History of the City of Gaza remains unique in its comprehensive historical scope. Studies in Arabic have been penned mostly by Gazans themselves: one volume within Baladuna Filistin (Palestine, Our Homeland) by Mustafa al-Dabbagh; 15 chapter-length volumes by Ibrahim Skeik; and Gaza and Its Strip, by geographer and archeologist Salim Arafat al-Mobayed. "There is still too much we don't know," said al-Mobayed, pointing out that only one archeological dig has ever been conducted in the city, a preliminary excavation carried out in 1922 by a British expedition.

What is known, however, is that 3500 mostly uninterrupted years of trade formed the backdrop against which Gaza's conquerors came and went. Control of the trade routes through Gaza was as much coveted as the city on the little round hill itself.

The founders of Gaza remain unknown. There is, however, little doubt that the modern city has been inhabited continuously since that founding. According to al-Mobayed, before the spice trade began in the 18th century BC, Gaza may have been a pre-Canaanite agricultural village subject to a nearby military center that, excavations show, dates from nearly 3000 BC. The Horus Road was well-known in Egypt as early as 2300 BC, when Pharaoh Pepi I entered Canaan five times, probably seeking Lebanese timber to build ships. His records, from the dawn of writing itself, make no references to settlements in Canaan. The first written record of the city appears in the inscription of Thutmose III, who made Gaza, even then outfitted with two defensive walls, his base for lucrative campaigns into Syria and Babylonia in 1500 BC. Meyer conservatively speculated that Gaza had not been founded until several centuries before this, at the same time the Arab Minaeans—centered in today's al-Jawf in Saudi Arabia—marked out the first frankincense trade road up from Yemen.

Around 1200 BC, Gaza and the south Palestine coast came under the control of one of the several tribes who in ancient accounts appear as the "Sea People." Most historians believe that their uncertain origins lay in Crete and other Aegean islands—though a persuasive new theory has recently been proposed. In any case, Egyptian records show that Ramses III drove them from the Nile Delta, and they settled in the first fertile lands to the east. There they became known as the Philistines, and Philistia stretched from south of Gaza north to Carmel.

Under the Philistines, Gaza grew into the largest of five city-states. In the following centuries, all became targets of the Israelites from the east, the Egyptians from the west and the Assyrians from the north. In about 1030 BC, after years of border battles, Gaza fell under the influence of the kingdom of Prophets David and Solomon for a centuryf though most historians do not list the city as part of the kingdom proper.

In 525 BC, when the Persian king Cambyses set his eyes on it, Gaza was wealthy and strong enough to be the only coastal city to resist his siege. When the city finally fell, Cambyses used it as a base for his Egyptian campaign; the ensuing trade in Persian goods only increased Gaza's wealth.

But it was Alexander the Great who encountered Gaza's most dogged resistance. By his arrival in 332 BC, Gaza was trading in spices and goods from as far away as India and Ethiopia, including gold, olive oil, silks, medicines, perfumes, ivory, ostrich feathers and slaves, all in addition to frankincense, the keystone of Gaza's export economy. Meyer noted that Alexander's heavy catapults, dragged hundreds of miles from the north for the siege, bogged down in Gaza's soft fields. His forces battled for two bloody months to breach the ramparts held by allied Persians and Arabs. By the time Alexander's forces prevailed, he himself had been wounded. In revenge, he put nearly 10,000 men to the sword, enslaved the women and children, and packed the wealth of Gaza's merchants into 10 ships that set sail for Greece.

Alexander reorganized Gaza as a polis, or Greek city-state, and moved in large numbers of politically sympathetic new citizens, but trade continued. In the following centuries, as the city changed hands violently more than six times among Alexander's Egyptian successors, his Persian successors, and the Israelites, Gazan traders followed the flag by redirecting trade and taxes toward whichever land was in power. New routes to western Arabia, Persia and India opened up with the rise of the Nabatean civilization to the southeast, with its capital at Petra (SeeAramco World, July-August 1994).

The city's most luminous era began when it succumbed bloodlessly to Roman rule in 63 BC. All the coastal cities of Palestine—Gaza, Ascalon, Isdud and Jaffa—grew in the following centuries. The unity of empire left trade unhindered along all major routes, and sea traffic from Gaza's port increased. A 500-member senate governed Gaza, and in the streets could be found Philistines, Greeks, Romans, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Jews, Egyptians, Persians and Bedouin. Under Rome, Gaza's mint stamped out coins adorned with the busts of gods and emperors. One hundred thirty-five years after the birth of Christ, the emperor Hadrian personally inaugurated wrestling, boxing and oratorical competitions in Gaza's new stadium, which soon became famous from Alexandria to Damascus.

Just as the city had resisted Alexander, so too was it the last city on the Levantine coast to submit to Christianity. Sixty-three years after Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Byzantine Empire, the ascetic Bishop Porphyrius arrived in Gaza, where the city's merchant elite worshipped the Hellenistic god Marna in a famous domed temple, one of eight about the city. Until then, the emperor had been reluctant to force the new faith on Gaza, fearing that if prominent citizens fled or were killed, "its trade will be ruined."

His fears were unfounded. Historian Glanville Downey, in his book Gaza in the Sixth Century, wrote that even though imperial troops burned the temples, "beat the pagans with clubs and staves" and quickly built a church upon the rubble of the temple of Marna, the city prospered overall and even, in this early Christian era, reached new heights. Gaza was adorned with a new wall and moat, new baths, new churches, a market, and a main street lined with marble columns. A library was constructed, and a school of rhetoric developed that in the early sixth century was esteemed as second only to Alexandria's. Enormous outdoor banquets celebrated the dedications of new churches, and the games begun by Emperor Hadrian four centuries earlier were carried on as an annual festival.

The spice trade diminished in this Byzantine era with the fall of Nabatean Petra to the east, but it was supplanted by rapid growth in local wine exports. Using Nabatean irrigation techniques, vineyards around Gaza reached an extent not surpassed for more than a thousand years. Gazan vintages found favor as far away as France and Spain, while the old Frankincense Trail continued to bring Arabian trade from the south.

In the twilight of the Byzantine era, Gaza became the home of an increasingly influential group of Arab traders from Makkah. Among them was 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, later to become the second Caliph of Islam. Another, much earlier, trader, Hashim, would die in Gaza before he could see his great-grandson Muhammad change history.

In the years before his prophethood, Muhammad is believed to have visited Gaza more than once. In his early 20's, he arrived with the summer caravans, in the employ of the Makkan merchant Khadija, who would later become his first wife. More than 30 years later, when Muslims set out to capture the weakening Byzantine lands for Islam, Muhammad's commanders knew that Gaza held the key to both Palestine and Egypt. The easy victory of 'Amr ibn al-As over the Byzantines in 634 is often attributed to a combination of Arab strategy, Byzantine weakness and the influence of Gaza's Arab residents (See Aramco World, November-December 1991). Under the governors installed by al-'As, Christians and Jews were taxed, though their worship and trade continued, as noted in the writings of St. Willibald, who visited Gaza in 723.

Islam gradually added a new dimension to Gazan commerce: the Hajj. Muslim pilgrims on the long journey from North Africa to Makkah found safe passage along the Via Maris through Gaza. From northern Palestine, too, pilgrims often preferred the coastal route through Gaza to the King's Road along the Jordan River. Even pilgrims passing directly from Cairo to Arabia through the Red Sea port of Aqaba bought grain, fruit and meat imported from Gaza to the north.

This was, however, a politically unstable era. The city was regularly sacked, besieged and revived in struggles among Egyptians, Syrians and Bedouin. By 985, Arab traveler and historian al-Maqdisi, "the Jerusalemite," reported that Gaza was a "chief city of the district of Filistin," but Mediterranean trade had fallen off with the collapse of Byzantine rule, and the Byzantine navy regularly harassed the coast.

The crusaders fell upon Gaza in 1100, a year after they took Jerusalem. The mosques of the city were demolished, and a new, far larger church rose on the ancient site of the Marna temple. Gaza's citadel was refortified. Although the crusaders directed much of their trade through the rival city of Ascalon to the north, the Arab geographer al-Idrisi passed through Gaza in 1154, and commented that it was still "a very populous station."

When the Mesopotamian-born hero Saladin (Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub) tried to recapture Gaza in 1170, he won only the hinterlands, not the walled city itself. Seventeen years later, after victories to the north in Galilee and Jerusalem, he returned and entered with little resistance. But his grip on Gaza lasted only four years. In an 1191 treaty with Richard the Lion-Hearted, Saladin relinquished Gaza, on condition that its castle and walls be torn down. Richard complied, and since then, they have never been rebuilt. Today, although the perimeter of the walls can be inferred from a few steep edges of the city's hill, no trace of the crusader castle has ever been unearthed, and even its exact location remains a mystery.

The Egyptian Mamluk era that followed was punctuated by the conquests of rival Syrian rulers, the invasion of the Mongols, and a devastating sweep of plague. One of the most famous medieval travelers, Ibn Battutah of Morocco, passed through Gaza twice (See Aramco World, January-February 1978). Staying but one night each time, he commented in 1326 on Gaza's abundant markets; he noted in 1348 that the city lay nearly deserted as a result of the plague that had struck in that year; it carried off between one third and one half of the population.

Most of Gaza's oldest remaining buildings today are Mamluk. To protect the trade that fueled their Cairo-based empire, the Mamluks constructed khans, or fortified caravan hostels, throughout Palestine. Gaza's 14th-century Khan al-Zayt, or [Olive-]Oil Khan, built by Sanjar al-Jawali, fell to the bulldozers in 1960, but the city of Khan Yunis, south of Gaza, bears the name of its khan, which today lies crumbling in the town square. Al-Jawali did not destroy the crusaders' great church; rather, he converted it into the present-day Mosque of 'Umar by adding a fourth aisle and canting its southeast wall to face Makkah. He also built a hospital, a new school and a racetrack for the city; to this day his baths keep a warm fire burning beneath their worn mosaic floors, and residents of Gaza still find a steamy respite within.

Heavy pilgrim traffic—Muslims, Christians and Jews alike—bolstered Mamluk trade through Gaza. But as Europe cast its gaze again outward with the Renaissance, competition for the Far East trade grew. By 1500, Portuguese domination of Far East shipping set off the long decline of both the Mamluks and the Arab caravan merchants.

As its intercontinental trade shrank, Gaza relied more than ever on its rich agriculture and its home industries in pottery, soap and weaving. When the Ottoman Empire took Palestine from the Mamluks in 1516, Gaza remained a regional capital.

For its first century under Ottoman rule, Gaza did well. In 1660 a French visitor compared Gaza's baths and markets favorably with those of Paris, and noted that Arabic, Turkish and Greek were all spoken in the streets. But by the 18th century, Ottoman taxes had grown heavy, Bedouin raiding again choked off land trade, and the city found itself playing a diminishing role.

In 1799, Napoleon entered Gaza unopposed. Like Cambyses, Alexander, the crusaders and a score of others before him, he sought Gaza only as a springboard into Egypt. He stayed three days in the modest palace of the governing Radwan family; in Gaza today, the palace, now a girl's school, is still called "Napoleon's Castle." With World War I, as the shells of the British navy pounded Gaza's hill and residents fled, the city passed into the modern era with a violence befitting its turbulent past. With the renewed European strategic interest in Palestine, the city had been growing rapidly, and reached a population above 40,000 for the first time.

Soon after the war, a railway threaded iron along the hoof-worn trail of the ancient Via Maris, and the caravan trade ended forever. Sharp flowers of modernity, houses began to rise in the hundreds over the following decades, covering over Gaza's fields and spilling far beyond the faint, circular ripple of the old walls, until, by the early 1990's, the city came to be home to more than 300,000 people.

Today, the past endures, scattered amid streets dense with homes and small shops. Only the Mosque of 'Umar—the converted crusader church—and the small Greek Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius, which still serves Gaza's 700 Christians, hark back to pre-Mamluk times. The Mamluk maze of arched, covered streets collapsed under World War I's shells, except for a lone, musty passage in Gaza's gold market. The tomb of the Prophet Muhammad's greatgrandfather, Hashim, still lies in a corner of a 19th-century mosque and former pilgrim's hostel. Several smaller, Mamluk-era mosques and tombs dot Shuja'iyyah, Gaza's old Lower Town; one, the Mosque of ibn 'Uthman, is considered by historian Salim al-Mobayed to be architecturally "the purest Islamic mosque in Gaza." The Mamluk baths open in the morning for men and in the afternoon for women, and in the narrow, ancient quarters of Daraj and Zaytun, cinder-block walls rise everywhere atop the worn stones and antique arches of earlier eras.

One of the most curious of Gaza's relics is an unmarked hole in the courtyard of the Mosque of 'Umar. It is the entrance of a tunnel, dug as an escape hatch in case of siege, that likely reached beyond the edge of the city walls. No one is sure who built it, or where it resurfaces, for today it is clogged with rubble, but historian Skeik recalls that, as a boy, he held a candle and navigated it for 200 bat-infested meters.

Many details of Gaza's past hang today as equally unanswered questions. Where was the crusader castle? Where was Hadrian's famous stadium? What of the sixth-century library and school of rhetoric, known throughout the Mediterranean, or the eight Greek temples? Or, indeed, what of the remains of Gaza's cultural life in every era? And who, at the dawn of history, really founded Gaza, the city whose name has meant "strong," "treasure," and "the ruler's prize"?

Archeologist al-Mobayed believes that systematic excavation may begin to yield answers. With Gaza's Islamic waqf, he has planned several digs. "Up to today, every relic we have from the city is what we call a 'surface find,'" he explains. "Every time a new building goes up, we get a kind of archeology-by-accident: Someone is always finding something. Gaza is layer upon layer upon layer. We hope soon to learn what we can."

Photojournalist Dick Doughty's book Gaza: Coming Home to Occupation is scheduled for publication in early 1995 by Kumarian Press.

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the September/October 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1994 images.