Gaza City – One of the Five Great Cities of the Philistines
Today the Gaza Strip is an isolated, overcrowded enclave bordered by Egypt to the south, Mediterranean Sea to the west and a hostile Israel to the north and east.
Gaza’s chief administrative centre is Gaza City home to around 400,000 people who are mainly Palestinians. Students of its history, anxious to make sense of the region’s current chaotic situation, might well choose the period of British rule between 1917- 48 as a starting point for research.
To do so would of course allow a modern perspective, but fail to give an understanding of a history that stretches back to Biblical times.
The early existence of Gaza is confirmed in Genesis 10:19: “The different tribes of the Canaanites spread out until the Canaanite borders reached from Sidon southwards to Gerar near Gaza.”
The city’s name appears again in the Old Testament when the prophet Amos (Amos 1:6) condemned it for trading in slaves and told its people that they had sinned and that God would bring fire upon the city walls.
The city’s strategic position on the Mediterranean coast meant that in ancient times it became an important trade centre on the caravan route between the markets of Egypt, Syria, Central Asia and parts of southern Europe. It f also formed the northern outpost on the Frankincense Trail that stretched to Yemen and western Arabia.
At some point during the 15th century BC the Egyptians took the city, which was then used as the residence of the Egyptian Governor. Two centuries later, the Philistines became the occupying power and during that period Gaza grew in importance and became one of the five ‘great cities’ of the Philistines.
The exploits of Samson, one of the great Biblical heroes, are inextricably linked with Gaza and in particular the destruction of its Temple. Judges 16:25-30 tells the story of his revenge on the Philistines, for gouging out his eyes, as they met to offer “a great sacrifice to their God Dagon.”
Evidence of Gaza’s early importance has also been found among the Tell el-Amarna letters, a series of cuneiform tablets, originating around 1400 BC, from the ancient Egyptian city of Akhenaton on the River Nile. These tablets are a valuable historical record of relations between Egypt, Palestine and Syria among others.
In 332, the entire male population of Gaza was put to death when a victorious Macedonian force commanded by Alexander the Great, in his conquest of the Levant, destroyed the city when its governor refused to surrender.
In the following centuries the fortunes of Gaza would continue to fluctuate in the ebb and flow of the volatile world of Middle East politics.
In the 12th century Gaza fell to the Crusaders and during the 16th century it was absorbed into an aggressively expanding Ottoman Empire where it remained until the British arrived in 1917.