The recorded history of Gaza spans 4,000 years. Gaza was controlled, destroyed, and repopulated by various empires, dynasties, and peoples. Originally a Canaanite town, it came under the early Egyptians’ control for roughly 325 years before being captured and becoming one of the Philistines’ major cities. Gaza became an integral of the Assyrian Empire around 730 BCE. Alexander the Great attacked and seized the city in 332 BCE. He killed most of the inhabitants during the attack, and the city, which became a hub for Hellenistic philosophy and learning, was resettled by Bedouins. The area switched hands between two Greek successor-kingdoms, the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria, until it was attacked and captured by the Hasmoneans in 96 BCE.
Let’s explore the Pre-Roman History of Gaza.
Bronze Age Gaza
Settlement in Gaza region dates back to 3300–3000 BCE at Tell as-Sakan, a place situated south of the present-day city, which started as an Ancient Egyptian fortress built in the Canaanite territory. Tell as-Sakan evolved as Canaanite cities began to trade farm goods with the Egyptians. However, when Egypt’s financial interests moved to the cedar trade with Lebanon, Gaza’s role was diminished to that of a harbor for ships carrying goods, and it weakened economically. The site was practically deserted and remained so during the Early Bronze Age II.
Gaza experienced economic and demographic growth again when the regional Canaanite people started to resettle Tell as-Sakan around 2500. Still, in 2250, the region yet again encountered a total collapse of culture and all of the cities in the Gaza region were deserted by the 23rd century BCE. In its place appeared semi-nomadic cultures with rural camps made up of agricultural family dwellings, which continued to survive throughout the Early Bronze Age IV. A city center known as Tell al-Ajjul began to appear inland along the Wadi Ghazza riverbed. In the Middle Bronze Age, Tell as-Sakan was the southernmost section in the Canaanite territory, serving as a fort. By 1650 BCE, while the Canaanite Hyksos occupied Egypt, a second city emerged on the ruins of the first Tell as-Sakan. About a century later, this city was destroyed when the Hyksos were thrown out from Egypt. Egypt established Gaza once again, and Tell al-Ajjul grew for the third time in the 15th century BCE. The town finally ceased to survive in the 14th century, as the Bronze Age ended.
Gaza in Ancient Era
A city that would become present-day Gaza began to grow on Tell al-Ajjul. This city served as Egypt’s official capital in Canaan and was the region’s Egyptian governor’s residence. A journey point of vital importance from the earliest times, it was regularly involved in the wars between Syria and Egypt and the Mesopotamian powers. It frequently appeared in Assyrian and Egyptian records. Under Tuthmosis III, it is stated on the Syrian-Egyptian caravan route and in the Amarna letters as “Azzati.” Gaza was in Egyptian occupation for 350 years until it was resettled by the Philistines, a seafaring people with direct cultural links to the Aegean, in the 11-12th century BCE. It then became a part of the pentapolis, an association of the Philistines’ five most powerful city-states.
The Hebrew Bible suggests the Avvites conquering an area that stretched as far as Gaza and that the Caphtorites dismissed these people from the island of Caphtor (modern day Crete). Some researchers speculate that the Philistines were direct descendants of the early Caphtorites.
Gaza is also discussed in the Hebrew Bible as where Samson was jailed and met his ultimate death. The prophets Zephaniah and Amos are believed to have predicted that Gaza would be ultimately deserted.
Alexander the Great attacked Gaza—the last town to resist his invasion on his Egyptian path—for five months, finally seizing it in 332 BCE. Managed by a eunuch, Batis, and preserved by Arab mercenaries, Gaza withstood the siege for a couple of months until it was overwhelmed by storm. The guardians, mostly regional elements, fought to the death, and the children and women were taken as captives. The city was again resettled by neighboring Bedouins, sympathetic to Alexander’s rule.
He then established the city into a polis or “city-state,” and Greek culture prospered in Gaza, which gained a reputation as a thriving center of Hellenic philosophy and learning.