Issue No.
196, August 2014 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Hunting material from the Late Stone Age used also in later ages.
(article from Tell Es-Sakan)
Tell Al-Ajjul: vase in alabaster: Proficiency in the art of pottery is evident. Pottery continues to be an important handicraft in Gaza today although its development is hindered by the political sit
(pictures of antiquity pieces from balakhia)
Al Omari Mosque, Gaza, photo by Mohammed Alafrangi
Coins minted in Gaza demonstrate a degree of sovereignty as well as the skill of Gaza’s artisans.
Ornamentation of column crowns in this period featured the insignia of a governor, such as a lion, bird or other animals, faces of prominent figures, or reproductions of landscape. Crosses were also
The column crowns demonstrate how Muslim artists incorporated the arts of former civilisations into their own style in ornaments and interior and exterior decoration of buildings, which contributed to
The column crowns demonstrate how Muslim artists incorporated the arts of former civilisations into their own style in ornaments and interior and exterior decoration of buildings, which contributed to
Picture: pottery (blue vase)
(picture of Zeus statue)
Roman stone anchor

The Other Face of Gaza: The Gaza Continuum
By Rania Filfil and Barbara Louton

Aphrodite and Gaza

Can one speak of the goddess of beauty and a place known to the world only by images of conflict, brutality and war, in the same breath? The answer is an emphatic yes. Gaza is home to this marble masterpiece, which dates back to the Hellenistic period (336-30 BC). The piece is part of a collection of thousands of antiquities gathered over many years by Jawdat Al-Khoudary, a local Gazan. The collection, spanning 4000 years, is a vivid testimony to Gaza’s rich history and the deep roots of its people. Communities first developed in Gaza during the Stone and Iron Ages. The enduring quality of these two elements continues to characterise its people. Throughout the ages Gazans have been fated to live on the frontiers of the competing kingdoms of the world. Kings, emperors and sultans have fought bloody battles on Gaza’s soil, laid waste to its cities and rebuilt them. Beneath Gaza lies layer upon layer of tales so terrible, fantastic, and heroic that they rival the legends of the gods. But Gaza’s story is no fairytale. The Gazans who lived through these epic events at the crossroads of the world were real men and women who suffered under humanity’s lust for power but always rose again from tragedy to live on in the next generation. Their blood, culture and spirit live still in the people of Gaza today. Woven with the threads of many kingdoms, Gazans continue to adapt while preserving their distinctive identity.

In the crosshairs of the empires

Gaza’s geographical position has served the strategic interests of many powers throughout the ages. “It was not a seat of empires but a crossroads of civilizations passing through this pivotal link on the major sea and land routes between Asia, Africa and Europe.”i As empires made designs on each others’ territories, Gaza inevitably lay in their path and found itself the scene of many of the major military campaigns that took place in the Eastern Mediterranean. With the Negev Desert to the south, the Sinai Desert to the southwest, the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the coastal plain leading to Syria to the north, it was the strategic point to launch offensives against Egypt, and Gaza’s history has always been closely intertwined with that of Egypt. Gaza’s native population has been subjected to many rulers and many occupations, some more brutal than others. Inevitably elements of the cultures and bloodlines of these far-flung empires were assimilated into the native Gazan people.

Genesis of the first Gazans

Fossils, tools of silex, and evidence of domesticated animals dating back to the Stone Age (about 2.5 million years ago), which attest to the presence of hunter-gatherers (see photos) have been found between the mouth of the Arish River and the Gaza coastline. But no evidence of human habitation in Gaza has yet been found from the Late Stone Age (10,000-5500 BC) even though there is evidence of Natufian civilisation in Jericho by about 8500 BC. Traces of human life in Gaza appear again during the Copper-Stone Age (around 4500 BC) at Qattif in Wadi Ghaza. The people of this era had a distinct culture, which was primarily agro-pastoral but included unfinished ceramics. By the Late Chalcolithic Era (4500-4000 BC), larger villages began to develop in the area, with evidence of cemeteries and agriculture as well as craftwork in metal, pottery and ivory.

Gaza and Egypt

A wave of Egyptians moved north to Gaza during the Early Bronze Age (3500-3400 BC), before Egypt was unified under its first dynasty. The people of Gaza were known as Canaanites at that time. The Egyptians constructed Taur Ikhbanah, the first fortified Egyptian citadel outside of Egypt,ii on the site of the modern city of Gaza. Artefacts of both Egyptian and Canaanite origin that were made of copper mined in Khirbat Fenan, near Petra, have been recovered. iii By this time there was significant commercial activity, with most goods being transported by sea.

Gaza’s first ancient cities are built

Urban centres developed into Gaza’s first cities, many of which exist today in some form. The city of Gaza sits on one of the longest-inhabited sites on earth. Three capitals of the region have stood there: Tell Es-Sakan in the Early Bronze Age, Tell Al-Ajjul in the Mid-Bronze Age and finally the city of Gaza, which was built in the Late Bronze Age and still stands. Tell Es-Sakan, five kilometres south of present-day Gaza City, began as an Egyptian fortress built in Canaanite territory during the Early Bronze Age I (3300-3000 BC).

The relationship between Egypt and Canaan began to change significantly as leaders of developing Canaanite cities entered into trade agreements with Egypt, supplying agricultural goods by land. But as Egypt’s economic interests shifted, it began to focus on trade of cedar from Lebanon. Gaza’s role was reduced to that of a port for ships carrying goods and it suffered economic decline. No longer needed, Tell Es-Sakan was abandoned by the Egyptians and remained so throughout the Early Bronze Age II. In the Early Bronze Age III (around 2500 BC), Gaza enjoyed demographic and economic growth again and the local Canaanite population began to inhabit Tell Es-Sakan. But in 2250 BC, the area experienced a total collapse of civilisation. Tell Es-Sakan, along with all the cities of the area in the 23rd century BC, were abandoned.iv The city was rediscovered in 1998 by workers constructing a high-rise apartment building. No other ruins from the Early Bronze Age have been found in Gaza to date.

Over just a few decades, Gaza’s highly developed urban centres disappeared in an unprecedented way. In its place, a tapestry of semi-nomadic cultures with pastoral camps comprised of rustic family dwellings existed throughout the Early Bronze Age IV with socio-economic features similar to those of the Late Chalcolithic Age and Early Bronze Age I.v About 225 years later, Canaan and Egypt - now in its ninth dynasty - began to experience social and economic revival. Urban centres began to emerge once again, and the Mid-Bronze Age (2000 BC) was characterised by international exchange.

In Gaza, an urban centre began to grow at a site less than one kilometre south of Tell As-Sakan on the southern bank of Wadi Ghaza, which at the time was an estuary. Located further inland thanTell Es-Sakan, Tell Al-Ajjul provides an example of urban settlement in Gaza on a riverway rather than on the coast. During the Middle Bronze Age, Tell As-Sakan was the southernmost city in Palestine and served as a fort. By 1650 BC, during the Middle Bronze Age III while Egypt was occupied by the Canaanite Hyksos, a second city developed on the ruins of the first. This city was destroyed about a century later when the Hyksos were routed from Egypt. In the 15th century BC, Egypt settled Gaza once again and Tell al-Ajjul rose for the third time. The city finally ceased to exist in the 14th century BC, at the end of the Bronze Age. The city of Gaza began to develop, taking the place of Tell Al-Ajjul, and served as Egypt’s administrative capital in Canaan. Gaza gained importance as the land route to Egypt, with Rafah, Tell Ridan and Deir al-Balah developing during this time. At Deir Al-Balah, large sarcophagi in cooked clay have been found in addition to other Egyptian objects. The Sarcophagi resembled those of Tell al-Amarnah, the Sun City, in Egypt (14th century BC). Their covers have faces that could be a local adaptation of the models used by the Amarnian aristocracy. Excavations showed the presence of a fortress that was also administered in Amarnian style and that paved the way to find other less-famous sites such as Um-Alhajar, situated one kilometre from the beach.

Around 1200 BC the Philistines, arriving probably from Crete or another island in the Aegean Sea, occupied Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath along the southern coast of Canaan. The Old Testament story of Samson, an Israelite with legendary strength, took place in Gaza during Philistine rule. Samson made himself an enemy of the Philistines. His Philistine lover sold the secret of his great strength - which was his hair - to his enemies. They cut off his hair while he slept and, his strength gone, they were able to capture him and imprison him in Gaza. As his hair grew back, his strength returned. One day his captors decided to amuse themselves by having him perform for them inside the Temple of Marna. They had gouged out his eyes, but he was able to tie his hair around the pillars and pull down the temple, killing himself and many Philistines.

By 800 BC the city of Anthedon, near where the Ash-Shati Refugee Camp is today, had grown to be an important seaport. The city continued to be inhabited until 1100 AD, and was later called Tida by Muslimm historians, including Ibn Hawqal (907-981 AD) and Idriesi (1100-1166 AD). This is the site of Balakhia where archaeologists found many treasures.

Gaza came briefly under the control of the Neo-Assyrians from 605-601 BC and then the Neo-Babylonians from 601-550 BC. Under these two rulers, the Gaza region served only as a gateway between Egypt and Syria as different rulers were contesting the trade routes. They also displaced many of its people to various parts of their states. In 539 BC, Cyrus of Persia captured Babylon and with it the vast Neo-Babylonian Empire. The empire was comprised of many diverse nations and these were permitted to maintain their distinctive character and traditions and local government. Cities and nations were required to pay taxes, but Gaza paid a staggering 20 to 30 tons of incense to Cyrus every year to maintain its status as an ally and be exempted from paying tribute. Aramaic was the language of commerce and administration. Gaza developed rapidly during this period; money was minted there and Gazan mercenaries fought for Cyrus, seeking to secure a degree of autonomy in Gaza. Herodotus, a Greek historian of this period, refers to the city of Gaza by the name Cadytis. He describes it as a large city, with development extending inland beyond the city walls. Gaza’s port was busy but its harbour was less developed than those of Acre, Tyre and Sidon, indicating that it played a lesser role in maritime trade. Instead, Gaza’s primary role was as a commercial crossroads on the caravan routes. By 520 BC, Greek traders had established trading posts in Gaza. Major commodities for trade were incense, medicinal myrrh, Greek porcelain and minted money. In addition, Gaza was a centre for heavy trafficking of slaves; usually Asians brought to work in Egypt’s textile industry.

Alexander the Macedonian conquered Gaza in 332 BC. When the city of Gaza fell, Alexander slaughtered the men of the city, enslaved the women and children and went on to conquer Egypt. Upon his death Ptolemy, a military general and friend of Alexander, took leadership of the Egyptian part of Alexander’s empire. However, he soon achieved independence from the rest of Alexander’s empire and created a new dynasty in Egypt. Ptolemy seized control of Palestine and defended it from the Seleucids, who had inherited the Asian portion of Alexander’s empire. Aiming to invade Syria, Ptolemy engaged Demetrius of Macedon at the Battle of Gaza in 321 BC. Demetrius was routed, with Ptolemy capturing 8000 of his men and all of his war elephants. As the Seleucids and Ptolemies continued to vie for power, Gaza changed hands a number of times. Based in Syria, the Seleucids captured Gaza decisively around 200 BC. Gaza, at this time pagan and heavily influenced by Hellenistic culture, found itself the target of the interests of the Maccabeans, who were building a Jewish, anti-Hellenistic kingdom while at the same time the Seleucid empire was relaxing control of Gaza. In his campaign of 145-143 BC against the Seleucids, Jonathan the Maccabean captured Gaza from the Seleucids, destroying the cities of Gaza and Anthedone. Alexander Jannaeus the Hasmonean besieged the city of Gaza in 102 BC. The inhabitants of the city withstood the siege for a year, hoping for aid from the Nabateans in Petra. When they finally surrendered, Alexander destroyed the cities of Gaza, Anthedone, and Raphia. In 64-63 BC the Romans, ruling from Pompey, conquered Gaza and rebuilt its cities, restoring public institutions. Gaza was made part of the Syrian province and its cities were given a fair degree of autonomy. In 35 BC the Roman Emperor Augustus gave Gaza to the local Jewish client king, Herod.

While the Jewish community in Gaza grew significantly during Herod’s rule, Gaza remained overwhelmingly pagan. Temples were devoted to the eight most prominent gods: Marnas (the Cretan Zeus), the Sun, Aphrodite, Apollo, the Maiden, Hecate, the Fortune of the City, and a hero who was worshipped at a shrine called the Heroon.

In 66 AD, Jews were massacred in Caesarea. The Jews of Gaza took up arms and destroyed both Gaza and Anthedone and their surrounding villages in retaliation.

As Christianity started to spread in the fourth century, tensions developed in Gaza between pagans and the small Christian community. The Roman Emperor Julian promoted pagan practices in Gaza and restored pagan temples, aiming to stem the growing influence of Christianity. But in 396 Porphyrius was appointed bishop of Gaza and had considerable success converting the local pagan population to Christianity. At his request the Empress Eudoxia ordered the closure of pagan temples in 402 AD. Porphyrius erected a church on the ruins of the temple to Marnas. Upon his death in 420 he was buried there. The church of St. Porphyrius was restored in 1856.

Gaza became an important city of the early Christian world and served as the starting point for pilgrimages into the Sinai. The churches built in Gaza during this period provide striking examples of Byzantine architecture.

The monastery of Saint Hilarion in Deir al-Balah was built in 29 AD at the burial place of Saint Hilarion, a Gazan hermit who lived in the nearby desert and attracted many disciples. The city gained its name from the monastery (deir) and surrounding palm trees (al-balah). In the sixth century, Procopius of Gaza and many other famous scholars taught at Gaza’s academy of rhetoric. A school dedicated to mosaic art was founded in Gaza and continued to function through the Islamic period. Gaza also played an important role in trade during the Middle Ages under various Muslim rulers.

In 634, while Gaza was still part of the Roman Empire, the Muslim army marched north from the Arabian Peninsula to secure the Palestinian coast before attacking Egypt. Their first target was Dathin, which lay to the south of the city of Gaza and is now called Khirbat ad-Damitha. The city of Gaza was conquered three years later without great resistance. Strong relationships already existed between the peoples of Gaza and the Arabian Peninsula, and it is possible that allies of the Muslim army inside the city facilitated its takeover. The vast majority of the population of Gaza converted to Islam, in contrast to their response to Christianity. Those who remained Christian were permitted to continue to practice their religion.

Over the many layers of the city of Gaza, which had already developed throughout the ages as the city fell and was rebuilt, a new city began to emerge from the Gaza of the Roman-Byzantine era. Christian architecture became intertwined with Islamic architecture. The Umar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque dominated the centre of the city and Gaza became a reputable centre of Islamic studies, producing theologians such as Muhammad al-Shafi, who founded the Shafi’ite Shari’a Islamic School. Arabic, the language of the Holy Qur’an, became dominant. Greek and Aramaic remained widely spoken, however, particularly by Christians.

Many different Muslim dynasties ruled Gaza over the next thirteen centuries, during which Gaza fell into the hands of the Crusaders a number of times. Gaza was first conquered by Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, the second caliph (successor to the prophet Mohammed). The Umayyads succeeded the four caliphs (companions of the Prophet) and ruled Gaza from Damascus from 637 to 750. The Abbasids then ruled Gaza from Baghdad from 750 to 909, followed by the Tulunids from 868 to 905, the Ikhshidids from 935 to 969, the Fatimides from 969 to 1171, the Ayyubids from 1171 to 1250, and the Mamluks from 1250 to 1517. The Ottoman Empire captured Gaza, along with the entire Muslim world, in 1517. Four centuries later, in 1918, the British and French defeated Turkey in World War I and divided the Ottoman Empire between themselves.

In 1099 the Christian Crusaders of Europe, under pretext of providing protection to the Christians of the Middle East, entered Egypt and captured Palestine. Gaza became part of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Crusader conquerors were eager to gain control of the trade route in the region and planned to build a canal between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The sons of Mohammad Ali, who ruled Egypt and Sudan as well as parts of Palestine from 1805 until the fall of their last king Farouq in 1952, eventually built the canal. The city of Gaza was strategically located for controlling the route between Egypt and Ashkelon, and in 1149 Baldwin III, king of Jerusalem, fortified the city of Gaza to be his base of operations for attacking Ashkelon. He entrusted Deir Al-Balah (Fort Darum), to the south of Gaza, to the Knights Templar (the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, commonly known as the Knights Templar or the Order of the Temple, were among the most famous of the Western Christian military orders. The organization existed for approximately two centuries in the Middle Ages, founded in the aftermath of the First Crusade of 1096, with its original purpose to ensure the safety of the many Christians who made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem after its conquest.).

In 1178, the Ayyubide Dynasty, under Saladin, routed the Crusaders and Gaza returned to Islamic rule after 80 years under Christian rule. Saladin defeated the Crusaders in the battle of Hittine in Palestine, near Lake Tiberias. Following the Fatimids, who were predominantly Shiite, Saladin conquered the fort of ad-Darum after strong resistance by the Knights Templar. St. Hilarion Monastery, which served as ad-Darum Fort, was converted into Al Khader Mosque, which still stands in Deir al-Balah today. Saladin promoted a strictly Sunni religious and educational policy that was instrumental in unifying his Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab subjects. In the city of Gaza, the Crusaders had converted the Greater Mosque into the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist. Over the following centuries this structure served alternately as a mosque or a church, inscribing thus the history of its city in architecture. The basilica of the cathedral remains today in the Great Omari Mosque in Gaza’s old city, despite the massive damage that the mosque sustained during World War I. After Saladin’s victory over the Crusaders, the An-Nasr Mosque was built in Beit Hanoun to commemorate those who had died in battle. Unfortunately, this mosque, which represented one of the marvels of Islamic architecture, was destroyed in a raid carried out by the current occupying forces of Gaza, Israel. The Ayyubids also created a new neighbourhood in the city, As-shuja’iya, named after Shuja’ ad-Din Uthman al-Kurdi, one of the Mulsimm emirs who died in the battle against the Crusaders. This was the first extension of Gaza beyond its borders. This neighbourhood still exists to date under the same name. However, as many years elapsed, it is now called the Old City of Gaza.

The Mamluks, originally slaves and soldiers brought from Eastern Europe to serve in the Ayyubid castles and armies, succeeded Saladin’s Ayyubid Dynasty in 1250. Their rule was made possible through the marriage between the Ayyubide king Alsaleh and Shajarat Aldur. With the death of her husband, she assigned herself as queen of Egypt, Sudan and Ash-sham. However, the Abbasside Caliph in Baghdad, who still had a kind of spiritual influence over this part of the Middle East, objected to having a woman ruling. She therefore married Ezzeddin Aybak who ruled after her. The Mamluk emir Baybars (1260-1277) halted the Mongols (a strong army from Mid Asia that had put an end to the Abbasside rule and destroyed Baghdad) under Hulagu on their march to Egypt and defeated them in Ein Jalut in 1260. Baybars renovated many of Palestine’s holy cities and established a number of public institutions, including a chain of trade and postal stations along the coastal route, which was called Darb as-Sultan after the sultans who used it to travel between Cairo and Damascus. Today, the ruins of a caravanserai (khan), which served as one of these postal stations still stands at the centre of the city of Khan Younis, a city that was one of the first to bear the name of the khan and its emir. The Mamluk contribution to Gazan architecture includes mosques and Islamic schools, hospitals, caravanserais, and public baths, including the Assamara bath, which still stands today.

The Qasr al Pasha was established to serve as the residence of the walis (governors) and sultans passing through the city and for some time bore the name of the Ottoman wali Al Radwan It is believed that Napoleon Bonaparte, during his military campaign in Egypt and Palestine in 1798-1799 resided in this castle and it is sometimes referred to as Napoleon’s castle. The structure incorporates materials from nearby ruins, and stones can be found in the walls which bear the lion insignia of 13th century Mamluk Sultan Baybars.

In 1879 a statue of Zeus, believed to have come to Gaza in the first century AD, was discovered in Gaza and sparked new interest in the wealth of history beneath Gaza’s soil.

Since that time, many more artefacts that tell the story of Gaza and its people have been found. Jawdat Al-Khoudary is one Gazan whose fascination was captured by the insights into his own history that these pieces provided. To share this “buried” face of Gaza with the world and give Gazans greater access to their own heritage, he has recently opened Al Mathaf, Gaza’s first museum of archaeology, near the ash-Shati Refugee Camp. The museum features a beautiful exhibition hall designed using old railway ties, stones from old houses, bronze lamps and excavated marble columns.

The collection offers much to entice visitors. But the journey is not over. There is no doubt that beneath Gaza’s crowded streets and sands lie many more clues to the history of Gaza’s people. Zeus’ arms remain buried beneath Gaza’s sands, as if he himself continues to search for Gaza’s ancient treasures. Much of recorded history tells Gaza’s story through the eyes of the kings and conquerors who sought to immortalise themselves: it is the story of military conquest and political dominion - much like the reports of Gaza that reach the world today - which leaves the stories of the ordinary people who lived there to be read between the lines. But as the sands of time are carefully swept back to reveal Gaza’s other face, more of their story will come to light, the story which is continued today by the Gazans who have the blood of these ancient peoples running through their veins.

Rania Filfil is a professional translator born in Gaza with an interest in history and archaeology. She could be reached at
Barbara Louton is a professional editor living in South Africa.

Artefact photos are part of Jawdat Khoudary's collection

i Armaly Fareed, “Crossroads and Contexts: Interviews on Archaeology in Gaza,” Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. XXXVII, No. 2 (Winter 2008), p. 43.
iv Gaza à la croisée des civilisations, several articles.
v idem.
Courtoisie to
Alternative Tourism Group, Online:
Morhange, Christophe, The Coastal Scenes since the Bronze Age (in French), Gaza à la croisée des civilisations, Chaman Editition, Geneva

Focus, Cultural Heritage, Vol. 1, 2004, UNDP - Program of Assistance to the Palestinian People, online:
Todd Bolen, Photographer, Assoc. Prof., The Master's College (on leave),

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