Ascalon, Gaza, Negev and Sinai

123. Gaza - (Gaza, al -'Azzah)

A city on the coast of Palestine on the route to 'Egypt, the last halt before entering the desert. A caravan point of strategic importance from the earliest times, it was constantly involved in the wars between Egypt and Palestine, Syria and the Mesopotamian powers, and appears frequently in Egyptian
and Assyrian records. Under Tuthmosis III it is mentioned on the Syrian-Egyptian caravan route. In the El Amarna letters it appears as Azzati. The Hebrew form is Aza, the Greek, Gaza.
The Roman city extended to the seashore, but modern Gaza is about 3 miles from the coast, which agrees with Arrian's account of the siege of Alexander the Great. It seems certain that the medieval and modern city stands on the site of the ancient one, though the evidence of classical authors is not always clear on this point. For about 350 years the city was under Egyptian rule. From the 12th century BC it became one of the five Philistine coastal cities (I Sam. 6:17) and appears in the story of Samson (Judg. 16). Dagon was worshiped there (Judg. 16:21-30). It was Israelite since the time of David but became Assyrian under Tiglath-Pileser III and Sargon 11 (around 730 BC). In the 7th century it again came under Egyptian control, but in the Persian period (6th-4th centuries BC) it enjoyed a certain independence and was a flourishing city.
Alexander the Great conquered Gaza in 332 BC after a siege of five months. Belonging at first to the Ptolemaic kingdom, it passed after 200 BC to the Seleucids. In the 1st century BC and the first half of the 1st century AD, it was the Mediterranean port of the Nabateans, whose caravans arrived there from Petra or from Elath on the Red Sea. In 96 BC the Hasmonean Alexander Jannaeus attacked the city (Josephus, Antiq. XIII, 357; War I,87). The inhabitants hoped for help from the Nabatean king, Aretas II (Josephus, Antiq. XIII, 360), but when this did not come the city surrendered after a siege of a year. Jannaeus slaughtered the population and destroyed the city (Josephus, Antiq. XIII, 364). Under Pompey it was refounded and rebuilt by Gabinius (Josephus, Antiq. XIII, 75-6). In the New Testament Gaza is mentioned as being on the caravan route to Egypt (Acts 8:26). Granted to Herod by Augustus (Josephus, Antiq. XV, 217; War I, 396), it formed a separate unit within his kingdom, and Cosgabar, the governor of Idumea, was in charge of its affairs (Josephus, Antiq. XV, 254). On the division of Herod's kingdom it was placed under the proconsul of Syria. In the Roman period it was a prosperous city and received grants and attention from several emperors, especially Hadrian. It was adorned with many temples, the main cult being that of Marnas. Other temples were dedicated to Zeus, Helios, Aphrodite, Apollo, Athene and the local Tyche. Shortly after the conversion of its inhabitants to Christianity, under Bishop Porphyrius (AD 396-420), all the temples were destroyed. It then became an important city of the early Christian world and many famous scholars taught at its academy of rhetoric, the best known being Procopius of Gaza (born at the end of the 5th century AD). Gaza's church buildings are important examples of Byzantine architecture. In At) 635 the town was conquered by the Arabs. The Crusaders repeatedly captured and occupied it.
In 1966 remains of a synagogue were found on the sea coast south of Gaza. Near it were living quarters and installations for dyeing. Of the synagogue only the mosaic floor has survived. The building consisted of a nave with two aisles on each side, broader than it was long, and orientated east-west. In the western part of the nave the mosaic floor depicts David as Orpheus, identified by his name in Hebrew letters. Near him were lion cubs, a giraffe and a snake listening to him playing a lyre. In the southern outer aisle a further portion of the mosaic pavement is preserved. The floor was divided by medallions formed by vine leaves, each of which contains an animal: a lioness suckling her cub, a giraffe, peacocks, panthers, bears, a zebra and so on. In one medallion is an inscription naming the floor's donors and the date, AD 508-9. In style the floor is very similar to that of the synagogue at Maon (Menois) and the church at Shallal. The same artist most probably worked at all three places.

Avraham Negev (Ed.), The Archaeological Encyclopaedia of the Holy Land, ad v. "Gaza" (extract)

Herbert Donner (The Mosaic Map of Madaba, Kampen 1992, 75-76)
Ancient Gaza (now Gazza) is very often mentioned in the Bible and in other literary sources from all periods of history. The city was the most important political and commercial centre on the southern Palestinian coast. Its large representation, approximately half of which is preserved, cannot be easily explained, mainly because only small tentative excavations have been made there and because Byzantine Gaza is covered by the still inhabited Old City, situated upon a huge Tall. The city is walled. We note five towers, two of them flanking the southern gate. The ground plan is of roughly circular or elliptic shape like the Tall within the ancient city wall, very similar to the representation of Jerusalem. Two colonnaded streets (cardo maximus and decumanus) are shown. The main street runs from the eastern gate (formerly Bab al-Halil to the western gate (formerly Bab Maimas), its course is approximately identical with present as-Suq al-kabir. The other street goes from the southern gate (formerly Bab ad-Darun) to a square in the very centre of the city, situated in the area of present Han az-Zet and its environs. Obviously, there is no intersection, as in the modern city: the street coming from Bab ad-Darun does not lead to Bab 'Asqalan, the northern gate, but disappears in the medley of lanes around the centre. Directly inside the eastern gate we see another square place with some kind of passage-way to the north, and leading to a large semicircular building surrounded by colonnades on its southern side, most likely a theatre, whose stage even has the conventional three gates. If we follow the main street to the west, we see on the south side a small domed building, probably a public fountain (Nymphaion), and opposite to it a small square. Another small square is seen on the north side of the main street beyond the central square, or is it the beginning of a street leading to a northern gate (the present street passing Han al-Kittan or Suq al-Hajar)? In the southwestern quarter we note two churches: a larger one on the left with a portico, and a smaller one on the right. The larger one is probably the main basilica of Gaza, built by the empress Eudocia around 440 above the ruins of the temple of Zeus Marnas (Marnas = our Lord), the so-called Cretian Zeus, in Greek also named ho patrios theos. The smaller church might have been devoted to St. Stephanus or St. Sergius. There is, however, a problem concerning the main basilica. According to the principle of inheritance of sanctuaries we may assume that the basilica was situated on the same place as the present Jami' al-kabir 'the Great Mosque', the successor of the Crusaders' church of St. John. But Jami' al-kabir is not located southwest, but northeast of the central square. is what we think to be the main basilica another church, while the main basilica was in the broken northeastern part of the city?

Noël Duval ("Essai sur la signification des vignettes topographiques", in The Madaba Map Centenary, Jerusalem 1999, 136)
Gaza. On voit clairement dans l'enceinte tourrelée une grande rue à portiques conduisant, à l'extrémité gauche conservée, vers une place carrée, à laquelle aboutit une autre rue à portiques venant de l'Ouest. Il y en peut-être une troisième au premier plan devant la façade du bâtiment à fronton. Un théâtre à la lisière de la ville est nettement reconnaissable à l'Est (et peut-être un nymphée, dit Donner, à droite). Deux bâtiments à toiture en bâtière sont identifiés comme des églises par Donner mais l'un est anormalement long. Notre collègue remarque que la topographie n'est pas sans rappeler celle du 'Vieux Gaza' actuel, mais que la grande église, érigée sur le temple de Zeus détruit, doit être à l'emplacement de la Grande Mosquée et ne se situait donc pas dans le quartier sud-ouest comme les églises visibles sur la carte.
Outre la présence habituelle de rues à portiques qui ne dessinent pas un quadrillage complet, l'élément propre à cet image est la figuration d'un théâtre.
Les fouilles récemment entreprises permettront peut-être de préciser notre connaissance de la topographie antique.
Gaza est représenté à Saint-Etienne d'Umm al-Rasas et sur la bordure de Ma'in. A Umm al-Rasas, Gaza est symbolisé par une grande église dans une enceinte. A Ma'in, la vignette (non conservée) montrait trois corps de bâtiment, sans doute à recomposer en une église (la façade et deux flancs). (See also the complete article)

Bellarmino Bagatti (Ancient Christian Villages of Judaea and Negev, Jerusalem - in the press)

Christian Gaza

Gaza was for centuries a very important city and studies illustrating it are not lacking. For example, a beautiful overall view is The History of the City of Gaza by Martin A. Meyer, published in New York in 1907. Discoveries and new editions of texts complete this information, one might say, year by year. In discussing the Christian settlements, we shall restrict ourselves to providing information on Christian Gaza.
Gaza cannot be studied alone without mentioning Maiuma of Gaza, its port. This distinction is essential because Christianity had a different history in the two centers: first it developed in the port and its environs and later in the city. In the latter Christianity encountered many difficulties because pagan worship was very strong.
The cult of Marnas, which appears for the first time in city coins minted under Hadrian, was well organized in Gaza. Marnas was identified with Zeus as a rain god: Juppiter pluvius. It is especially this cult that challenged Christianity from the beginning. The new religion remained in the shadows and was resisted until the Christians were able to close the temple of Marnas and destroy it.
The Clergy. According to Dorotheus, bishop of Tyre, the first bishop of Gaza was Philemon, believed to have been one of the 72 disciples of the Lord and mentioned by St. Paul.But the first cleric whose connexion with Gaza is known with certainty is the martyr St. Silvanus who, during the persecution of Maximinianus (310), was arrested along with about 30 other Christians, and condemned to the mines of Phaenon, a place of atrocious sufferings. At that time Silvanus seems to have been a priest who exercised his ministry in the neighborhood of Gaza. After the deportation, he became bishop but was soon killed. The first bishop of Gaza was Asclepas who took part in the Council of Nicaea in 325. He was a strenuous supporter of St. Athanasius. In the Council of Tyre in 335 he was deposed on the charge of having overturned an altar; but he was rehabilitated after an appeal to Rome and the revision of the council by the Semi-Arians in 340. He took part also in the Council of Sardica, in 342/3, along with St. Athanasius. On that occasion Quintianus, who had usurped Asclepas' episcopal see when this had been exiled, was excommunicated. Asclepas succeeded in building an oratory outside the city. This was referred to as "the old church" situated about 2 miles from the city to the west.
Ireneus succeeded him. He seems to have been able to erect a small church in the city. Ireneau attended the Council of Antioch in 363, and is commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on December 16.
Ireneus was followed by St. Porphyrius who succeeded in 409, with the help of the imperial family, in destroying the Marneion and replacing it, with the aid of the architect Rufin of Antioch, with the large church which was called the Eudoxian, as it was erected by the efforts of the Empress Eudoxia. A Life of St. Porphyrius is extant: it is attributed to his deacon Mark, but many other later hands were involved in its composition. In any case, the Life preserves some eye-witness accounts of the saint's daring actions and of the reaction of paganism that was slowly becoming extinct. Porphyrius died February 20, 420.
Other bishops are: Netoras, who attended the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, and in the 6th century Cyril,who was at the Council of Jerusalem in 518, and then Marcian who was at the next Jerusalem synod in 536. To Marcian is owed the decoration of the churches of St. Sergius and St. Stephen which the rhetor Choricius of Gaza accurately described. The bishop also contributed to the costs, as Ovadiah notes (RB 82 [1975], p. 553).
The Martyrs. As in other pagan cities, some Christians were martyred at Gaza under Diocletian: Timothy (whose body was later venerated in a church near the city) and Thecla, both were martyred in the city in 304.
Under Julian the Apostate, priests and virgins were killed in 362 and their bodies, filled with grain, were thrown to the pigs (Chronicon Paschale, PG 92, cols. 741-42). The enraged mob went so far as to destroy the hermitage of St. Hilarion which was at a fair distance from the city, because, as Jerome notes (Life of Hilarion, ch. 33; PL 23, col.46), with his miracles he had played a notable part in the implanting of Christianity in the region.
Churches Erected in the Fifth-Sixth Centuries and their Decorations. The description of the wall mosaics of the main churches in Gaza, written by the rhetor Choricius and dedicated to Bishop Marcian, enumerates the subjects represented; from the description we deduce that these churches were similar tothose in Ravenna.
In the church dedicated to St. Sergius the propylaea.were ornamented with sculptures and medallions featuring symbols of the Lord's Passion. In the central apse mosaics on a gold background represented the Virgin with Child and the saints Stephen and Sergius, as well as a vine growing out of an amphora with birds flying heavenward, and fruits.
The following subjects were in the central nave: the Annunciation, the Lord's birth, the presentation to the Temple, the wedding feast at Cana, the miraculous cure of Peter's mother-in-law, the healing of the man with the shriveled hand, the centurion of Capharnaum, the resurrection of the widow's son in Naim, the pardon of the sinning woman, the calming of the storm, Jesus and Peter walking on the water, the men possessed, the hemorrohagic woman, the resurrection of Lazarus; then the Last Supper, Judas' kiss, Jesus' arrest, Jesus before Pilate, the insults and the Crucifixion, the soldiers near Jesus' tomb, the appearances of the Risen Lord to his mother and the other women, and the Ascension. In the dome were the figures of the prophets.
The church has this structure: propylaea or vestibule, atrium with four equal galleries, a south annex for the bishop's reception, a baptistry to the north, then the three-nave basilica with three apses. The central nave had a dome resting on an octagonal basis.
The mosaics of St. Stephen's church featured in the apse St. Stephen with a model of the church, flanked by St. John Baptist, and our Lord above them. The central nave had matronaea and above them, near the windows, a row of wild animals. The Nile was depicted in the portico.
The structure of the building was as follows: an entrance preceded by a wide staircase, atrium with four porticos, a south annex for the sacristy, and the bishop's palace. The western façade was the most monumental becase the entrance to the basilica was on this side. The church had three naves but only one apse. Four porphyry columns separated the prayer hall from the sanctuary.
A comparison between the mosaics described above and the mosaic pavements found in the vicinity of Gaza inclines us to the conclusion that the city had a mosaics school in the 6th century.
The School at Gaza. The erection of these buildings and their decoration indicates that the city enjoyed a prosperous time. Also the school of letters, which flourished in that time, shows the same state of things. Scholars cultivated neo-Platonic philosophy and fostered literature. Some wrote also religious works, among them Procopius (d. 538) who composed biblical commentaries using the "chains" system, and Aeneas of Gaza (d. 518) who wrote the Theophrastus or A Tract on the Immortality of the Soul, and many epistles, of which only 25 remain. One, addessed to Alphius the priest, deals with money business, perhaps regarding the church; in another, addressed to the priest John, the author intercedes for a young man accused unjustly, and in a third to the priest Stephen Aeneas declares to the addressee: "With your words you reform the customs of the citizens. Thus, the mason and the carpenter today have something to say about divine things and during their work they discuss virtue, who before hearing your words used to chatter about blocks and stones" (L. Massa Positano, ed., Le epistole di Enea di Gaza , Naples 1962).
Other writers belonging to the Gaza school are Zosimus, Proclus, the above-mentioned Choricius, Ulpianus, Isidore, Commodian, and others.
An interesting historical document is John of Gaza's description of a public bath-house decorated with allegorical elements of the cosmos. At the center of the dome was a cross which cut three concentric circles into four sections, each including a series of symbolic figures of the heavens and the earth. The cosmic cross and the three heavens alludesto God One and Trine, artificer of the entire universe. C. Cupane-Palermo gives a detailed description of this composition, illustrated with a sketch (Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik 28 [1979,] pp. 195-207). The figures represented were already known to the classical repertory; but the artist, or his clients, adapted them to the Christian conception.
The anonymous pilgrim of Piacenza passed through Gaza about 570 and wrote: "Gaza is a splendid city, full of delights, with very nice inhabitants who are adorned with every liberality and fond of pilgrims" (Antonini Placentini itinerarium, ch.33, CCSL 175, p. 145).
Some Citizens of Gaza. Many inscriptions, especially epitaphs, discovered in the city and mostly found in the collections of Latin and Greek religious institutions, acquaint us with some persons who lived during this flourishing period in the city's history. We shall recall some of them gleaned from the compilations made by Clermont-Ganneau and Father Abel (Arch. Res. II, and RB 34 [1925], pp. 579-80; 40 [1931], pp. 94-95 check pp.). In the fifth century a priest named Ireneus, who died in 450, had an epitaph which reads: "Here lie the remains of our thrice-blessed father Irenaeus the priest, but his spirit is with God." In the sixth century we know the names of the deacons Patrick, who died in 540, and Alexander, who died in 570; and those of Zenon, died 505, Gerontius, Theodote, Anastasius, Stephen, Abraham, and Theodora who all died in the following years.
Probably from this period is a singular stamp published by Father Saller (LA 21 [1971], p. 173), with a monogrammed name that can be read "Samuel"; on the other side is an abbreviation of the usual invocation: "Lord Jesus Christ help".
Two contractors are mentioned on a stone block in secondary use in a house: George and Thomas, who restored the city walls, possibly in the 7th century. From the 7th century we know also Megisteria, daughter of Timotheus, who died in 602; Anastasia, daughter of John, and a few others. One inscription quotes the opening line of Ps 23: "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof: the world and those who dwell therein." A characteristic of some inscriptions is the representation of the cross standing on a mountain top, in memory of Golgotha.

Christian Epitaph from Gaza
with the representation of Golgotha

One stone is particularly interesting because it has the two words fos (light) and zoe (life) monogrammed within a cross (Clermont-Ganneau, Arch. Res. II, p. 416); these words refer to Christ, Life and Light of the world, according to the Gospel of St. John (1, 4 & 4, 13) and have been regarded as apotropaic by the Church from the very beginning (B. Bagatti, The Church from the Circumcision, pp. 194-203). The cross containing this monogram is also standing on a trilobed Golgotha. An inscription with a similar pattern was found by Flinders Petrie (Gerar, London 1928, p. 26). Clermont-Ganneau (Arch. Res. II, p. 430) published also the drawing of a fragmentary chancel screen with a bas-relief representing a doe. It probably came from a church where the balaustrade separating the sanctuary from the nave was decorated with two does facing one another. G. Schumacher (PEFQS 1886, p. 176) copied a fragmentary marble inscription at Gaza, but he did not know if it had been found in the city or had been brought from Ascalon. The fragment seems to be a piece of a chancel screen with various names, of which only that of Callistus remains.
The Early Arab Period (638-1149). Under the Arab rule the city gradually went over to Islam and the Christian community was reduced to a negligible minority subject to high taxes in order to be permitted to exist. As appears from the Passio of the Sixty Martyrs (Analecta Bollandiana 23 [1904], pp. 290-303), immediately after the conquest of the city in 638 the Moslems put pressure on the defenders to embrace their religion; but sixty Christian soldiers resisted. They were therefore transported to Jerusalem where, having been encouraged to resist by the patriarch St. Sophronius, they died martyrs. Their bodies were buried in the church of the Trinity at Eleutheropolis.
About 680 Peter of Edessa was the Jacobite bishop of Gaza. During a brief stay in Jerusalem, he could venerate the remains of the Persian martyr St. James "the Intercise." Peter is venerated as a saint in the Ethiopian Synaxary on November 27 (S. Grébaut, Le Synaxaire Éthiopien , Paris 1926, PO 15, pp. 549-52) because miracles took place when he celebrated Mass. A Jacobite church dedicated to the Virgin was still mentioned in 985 by the Arab writer al-Makrizi (L.Leroy, ROC 12 [1907], p. 279).
There was also a church dedicated to St. Matthew; it was precisely in this church, while Mass was solemnly celebrated, that St. Willibald lost his eyesight, which he recovered only after two months (Tobler-Molinier, pp. 268-69 & 292). This happened between the years 723 to 726.
The Life of St. Stephen the Sabaite - who came himself from Julis near Ascalon - recounts that there was in Gaza a leper whose family was all afflicted with the same illness, and who had tried every possible means to be cured. Finally he asked to be taken to the laura of St. Sabas and was healed by St. Stephen. While the monk Leontius was writing the biography of the saint, immediately after his death in 794, the cured man was still living in Gaza and performing good deeds.
In 796 the monk Stephen, then living in Palestine, reports that various cities were laid waste and depopulated by the Saracens, Gaza among them (Acta martyrum Sabaitarum, AASS Mart. III, p. 167). On this occasion many monks of St. Sabas met their deaths. Among them was one called Theoctistus, a native of Gaza, who was much loved by his master St. Stephen who had seen beforehand the glory his disciple was to receive through martyrdom.
Muhammad ibn Idris el-Shaffi was born in Gaza in 767; he was the founder of the Sunnite sect. At this time there were violent conflicts among the various aspirants for governorship. The Byzantines took advantage of this situation to approach the port of Gaza in their ships in order to redeem the slaves, at the price of 300 to 400 dinars apiece.
In Oriens Christianus (62 [1978], pp. 144-57) J. Nasrallah tells us about Suleiman al-Ghazzi, Arab poet and theologian, who in his old age became bishop of Gaza. The author dates him to the 10th century, but he does not commit himself on the question of his martyrdom. Suleiman, having remained a widower, became a monk and composed an elegy for his son who died at 20.
Reference is made in 1065 to a bishop of Gaza called Samonas, who had a debate with a Moslem named Ahmed regarding the Eucharist and whether it really was the Body and Blood of Jesus. Although it does not seem that the exchange ended badly, the bishop was killed by the Moslems. In PG 120, cols. 819-20 there is a report on the martyrdom and on columns 821-32 the full text of the discussion in Greek and Latin.
Some authors have maintained that the name is fictitious and the discourse is a late falsification. I. Dick disagrees, and considering that the exchange follows the model of Abuqurra and that names are often transformed in different languages; he identifies Samonas with the above-mentioned Suleiman al-Ghazzi (Proche-Orient Chrétien 39 [1980], pp.l75-78).
During the Crusader Occupation (1149-1187). On the Crusaders' arrival the city was deserted and Baldovin rebuilt its walls in 1149. However, a part of the city was razed by Saladin in 1170 and in 1187 he conquered it. Richard the Lion-Hearted's recapture of the city was shortlived.
In 1173 mention is made of a Syrian bishop named Meliton and a Greek one from the monastery of St. George. The Latins built two churches: a large one which is believed to have been erected over the site of the ancient Eudoxian church; and a smaller one, dedicated to St. Porphyrius. No excavation was ever made to check the antiquities but the churches are still extant. The first was transformed into a great mosque by the Moslems. Clermont-Ganneau had a plan and the sections of both drawn up by the architect A. Lecomte du Noüy. Afterward no further work was done on this project.
The church of St. Porphyrius is officiated by the Greeks. It has only one nave; it can be entered from the façade or from a side door which opens onto a modern gallery, equipped with stairs for going down to the level of the pavement. There are some cornices and bases of the Crusader period to be seen but the other parts are later additions. The church was restored in 1856.
On November 16, 1944 we saw an ancient capital lying on the ground in the little lane which opens out into the large piazza in front.
The church dedicated to St. John Baptist, now a great mosque, is only partially preserved; the apses no longer exist but the doorway is still standing, as are many pillars.
In the middle of the 19th century, Father Bassi visited the mosque "built with three naves" and reports: "On top of the pillars we were shown an inscription in Latin characters, but because of the height it was impossible to make out a syllable" (p. 289). In fact it was a Jewish bilingual inscription (Greek and Aramaic) in secondary use (SEG VIII, no. 276).
Aly el-Muntar. This is a curious hill southeast of Gaza, topped by a Moslem makam; for centuries it has been pointed out as the place to which Samson brought the city gates. The lintel of the doorway of the makam has two medieval sculptures.

See also the two articles:
"The rivers of Paradise in the Byzantine Church near Jabaliyah - Gaza" (by Jean-Baptiste Humbert)

"Mosaic Pavements recently found in the Gaza Strip" (by Mohammed Moain Sadeq)

For more sources and bibliography see:
Tabula Imperii Romani. Iudaea - Palaestina (Jerusalem 1994) s.v. "Gaza", 129.

Map Section 9 Place Sources

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