When driving through Gaza one cannot miss all the damage of the ongoing battle between Hamas and Israel.
Gaza has a “second face: the face of culture, the face of tourism,” says Hassouna, who teaches archaeology at Gaza’s Islamic University.
“We want to be Gaza open, for the people, for the world. Only that.”
Records exist indicating continuous habitation at the site of Gaza for more than three millennia, the earliest being a reference by Pharaoh Thutmose III (18th dynasty; 15th century bce). Gaza is also mentioned in the Tell el-Amarna tablets, the diplomatic and administrative records of ancient Egypt. For people who read the Bible it is known for the Peleset (Philistines), one of the Sea Peoples, settling the city and surrounding area, after 300 years of Egyptian occupation, it becoming an important centre of the Philistine Pentapolis (league of five cities: Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza, all combined to make Philistia). The Nazirite and last of the judges of the ancient Israelites mentioned in the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible (chapters 13 to 16), was forced him to grind grain in a mill at Gaza. Whilst there his previously cut hair (under the order of his lover Delilah, began to regrow. When the Philistines took Samson into their temple of Dagon, Samson asked to rest against one of the support pillars; after being granted permission, he prayed to God and miraculously recovered his strength, allowing him to grasp hold of the columns and tear them down, killing himself and all the Philistines with him.
Because of its strategic position on the Via Maris, the ancient coastal road linking Egypt with Palestine and the lands beyond, Gaza experienced little peace in antiquity; it fell, successively, to the Israelite king David and to the Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Persians. Alexander the Great met stiff resistance there, and, after conquering it, he sold its inhabitants into slavery. Throughout its history it was a prosperous trade centre. In Hellenistic and Roman times the harbour, about 3 miles (5 km) from the city proper, was called Neapolis (Greek: “New City”).
Relics of Gaza’s ancient past — and reminders of its former glory — are on display in a small exhibit at the stately Pasha’s Palace, built by a Mamluk sultan in the 13th century and completed during the Ottoman era. Napoleon is said to have spent a few nights here.
Among the antiquities on display are two long ceramic jars, dating to the third to seventh centuries, that travelled on ships from Gaza across the Mediterranean, carrying olive oil and wine, in a period there was peace and a good economic status.
Old Town Antique Store
In between caged rabbits and heaps of vegetables in Gaza City’s Zawiyeh market is a kind of shrine to the days when Gaza was open to the world.
Saleem Elrayes has run the Old Town Antique Store for more than 30 years. The small shop brims with dusty treasures, from English books and old maps of Palestine to ancient coins and small brass hamsa pendants that are shaped like hands and ward off the evil eye.
Inside, Elrayes sells us what he calls “the last postcard in Gaza.” The vintage print is a relic from a different time, with a photo collage of fishing boats and veiled women selling pottery. It was printed by the Israeli postcard company Palphot in 1967, the same year that Israel captured Gaza from Egypt in the Six-Day War (the third of the Arab-Israeli wars) and Israelis and international travellers began visiting for shopping sprees and excursions.
“Many tourists used to come here from the street,”
Elrayes says about his antique shop.
“French, Italian, British, American.”
By the 1990s, the Palestinian Authority government was formed, an airport was built in Gaza and there were hopes for peace. Then came deadly violence in the 2000s, with the Palestinian uprising and Israeli reprisals. Israel bombed Gaza’s newly built airport runway after a deadly Palestinian attack, and in 2005, Israel pulled out of Gaza. In 2006, Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections and a year later expelled its Fatah rivals from Gaza and took control.
Today, Elrayes buys his merchandise from Palestinians selling their household goods before they emigrate to escape Gaza’s current miseries.
Tombs, mosques and churches
A short walk through Gaza City’s Old City reveals Gaza’s rich religious history. There’s a small building said to be the tomb of Samson from the Bible and a domed tomb said to be the resting place of the Prophet Muhammad‘s great-grandfather, Hashim ibn Abd Manaf.
It is believed to stand on the site of an ancient Philistine temple, where the site was used by the Byzantines to erect a church in the 5th century. In the first half of the 7th century as part of the Islamic conquests, the Muslims transformed the church into a mosque. Described as “beautiful” by an Arab geographer in the 10th century, the Great Mosque’s minaret was toppled in an earthquake in 1033. In 1149, the Crusaders built a large church, but it was mostly destroyed by the Ayyubids in 1187, and then rebuilt as a mosque by the Mamluks in the early 13th century, but its architectural elements reveal still that the mosque was previously a Crusader church. It was destroyed by the Mongols in 1260, then soon restored only for it to be destroyed by an earthquake at the end of the century. The Great Mosque was restored again by the Ottomans roughly 300 years later. Severely damaged after British bombardment during World War I, the mosque was restored in 1925 by the Supreme Muslim Council.
Today, there are other churches serving Gaza’s small Christian community in the neighbourhood — the same neighbourhood that hosted an ancient Jewish community that existed until 1929, when the community fled amid violence.
Today there are not many Jews living in the Gaza Strip because of Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gush Katif in 2005, removing the 8,600 residents from their homes over there. But even without Jewish residents, the connection of Jews to this area remains as significant today as it was in the past. Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776) also called (by acronym) Yaabetz, son of the Chacham Tzvi, and a descendant of Elijah Ba’al Shem of Chelm was a distinguished German Jewish rabbi and Talmudic scholar, a traditionalist who taught about three hundred years ago that Gaza is an intrinsic part of the Jewish people’s national heritage. He wrote in his Mor U’ketziyah that
“Gaza and its environs are absolutely considered part of the Land of Israel,”
“there is no doubt that it is a mitzvah (commandment) to live there, as in any other part of the Land of Israel.”
This ruling was endorsed by many rabbinical authorities in subsequent generations.
Across the street from the Omari Mosque is the Samaritan Hammam, the only active Turkish bath in Gaza. It was originally run by members of the ancient Samaritan religion, and Gaza’s Mamluk governor restored it in 1320.
Today, there are separate hours for men and women, who douse themselves with buckets of hot and cold water, relax on a hot marble slab in the bathhouse’s steamy central room and enjoy a vigorous olive oil scrub from a bathhouse attendant.
Beit Sitti cafe
Veteran Gaza playwright and caricaturist Atef Salama converted an old mansion into a cafe-restaurant called Beit Sitti, Arabic for “my grandmother’s house.” Opened in 2017, the three-floor cafe in a narrow alleyway of Gaza’s Old City is an ode to Palestinian cultural heritage.
Set around an airy courtyard with caged birds and plants climbing the walls, the cafe serves a traditional Palestinian breakfast spread of jams and mini flatbreads topped with cheese and za’atar spices. On Thursday evenings, it hosts a young clientele for dinner, water pipes and live Arabic music.
Salama, the owner, wears a white suit he bought in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he studied. He has seen the world, and many of his friends have emigrated, but he insisted on staying and opening the cafe.
“Why not invest in Gaza? Gaza’s my homeland. I love Gaza. I will not leave Gaza,”
This 34-room boutique hotel with sea views is named after the Arabic word for “museum” — its owner’s private collection of Gazan antiquities is displayed in the foyer.
Al-Mathaf Hotel itself is a museum, with its resplendent reception area and ground floor a patchwork of Gazan architectural designs, built from colored tiles and beige stones collected from old Gazan homes. Rooms, from $100 per night, feature a mix of modern Arabic designs and traditional furniture.
Al Salam Abu Haseira fish restaurant
At the beachside Al Salam Abu Haseira fish restaurant, with wide windows facing the Mediterranean, locals dine on grilled fish — seasoned with hot pepper, parsley, onions, lemon and tomato — or shrimp zibdiyeh, a spicy tomato stew served in Gaza’s traditional clay zibdiyeh cooking pot. The pots are made from clay at a cavernous factory in Gaza City.
The restaurant’s specialties are its sides. Dagga Ghazawiyeh, or Gaza salad, is a fiery-hot mash of tomatoes, cucumbers, dill and hot pepper pulverized with a mortar and pestle and bathed in olive oil. Qedra is spiced rice and meat cooked for hours in a zibdiyeh pot.
Hassouna used to bring his tour groups here at the end of their excursion, before Gaza’s years of upheaval since 2000.
At the long dining table facing the sea, the tour guide ends the day dwelling on a tragedy of his homeland. Even if the territory were open to tourists today, he says, he would not be able to guarantee their safety to show them the riches that are Gaza’s heritage.
Find also to read
- A Brief History of the Jewish Presence in Gaza
- Gaza in Bible Prophecy
- Hamas the modern Philistines
- Signs of the times – “Gaza – once more a flashpoint”
- Palestinians in Gaza stage concert to rival Eurovision
- Instruments for the fulfilment of the prophecy
- Masked men storm HQ of Gaza’s broadcasting authority