Recent violence in the Gaza Strip has meant that its estimated population of 1.7 million people were again the focus of world media attention as Israel and Gaza’s Hamas controlled government come to the brink of war.
The Gaza Strip, a mere 24 miles long and six miles wide, is an isolated enclave bordered by Egypt to the south, the Mediterranean Sea to the west and Israel to the north and east. Its principal administrative city and main population centre is Gaza City.
A student of Gaza’s long history might note its recent bloody history, the period of British rule 1917-1948 and before that it’s development during the Ottoman period.
However for many anxious to gain a fresh perspective on this troubled part of the world a look at its earliest history is essential, for Gaza, thanks in many ways to its strategic geographical position, has a pedigree that stretches back to pre-Biblical times.
An indication of its early significance was revealed following the discovery and deciphering of the Tell el-Amarna inscriptions, a series of cuneiform tablets dating to around 1400 BCE from the ancient Egyptian city of Akhenaton. The tablets allowed modern scholars an important historical overview of relations between Egypt, Palestine and other important city states of the period.
Around 1190 BCE, 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 saga of Samson, one of the great Biblical characters, is 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.”
From the 3rd century BCE until the 2nd century CE, great camel caravans made the long journey along the Incense and Spice Route from the southern shores of the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean port of Gaza bringing precious frankincense and myrrh, destined for the avaricious Roman and Hellenistic world.
The Bible is also littered with mentions of Gaza: Genesis 10:19 says, “The different tribes of the Canaanites spread out until the Canaanite borders reached from Sidon southwards to Gerar near Gaza.” The prophet Amos (Amos 1:6) condemned the city for slave trading and said that the people had sinned against God and for that fire would consume the city walls.
Of course this short article only mentions only a few of the great empires that held sway in this part of the world. A detailed examination of Gaza’s history, almost a lifetime’s work, would expose: Egyptian, Canaanite, Babylonian, Assyrian and Greek ambition – all struggling for dominance of this unhappy, yet fascinating, region.
Perhaps things haven’t changed much after all.