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By Michael Avi-Yonah and Shimon Gibson

Gaza (Heb. עַזָּה,, Azzah) is a city on the southern coastal plain of Erez Israel. From earliest times, it served as the base of Egyptian operations in Canaan. Unlike the neighboring sites of Tell el-’Ajjul and Tell Ali Muntar, Gaza itself did not have much strategic and economic importance during the third and second millennia B.C.E. An important Middle Bronze II settlement, however, has been discovered at al-Moghraqa in the area of Wadi Gaza.

Gaza is first mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 10:19, where it is described as part of the land occupied by the Canaanites. From the outset, Gaza was geographically considered part of the Holy Land. 

Gaza was apparently held by Thutmose III (c. 1469 B.C.E.), and in his inscriptions, it has the title of "that-which-the-ruler-seized," signifying its role as the chief Egyptian base in Canaan. In the reliefs of Seti I (c. 1300 B.C.E.), it is called "the [town of] Canaan." It is also mentioned in the Tell el-Amarna and Taanach tablets as an Egyptian administrative center.

According to biblical tradition, the original inhabitants were the Avvites (Deut. 2:23; Josh. 13:3). At the time of the Israelite conquest it was allotted to the tribe of Judah (Josh. 15:47; Judg. 1:18), but it remained in the possession of the Canaanites until the beginning of the 12th century B.C.E. when it was occupied by the Philistines – possibly at first as an Egyptian garrison. It became the southernmost city of the Philistine Pentapolis (Josh. 13:3; I Sam. 6:17; Jer. 25:20).

At Gaza Samson performed some of his famous deeds, and there too, he perished in the temple of Dagon in the great slaughter of his enemies (Judg. 16). With the weakening of Egyptian support, the Philistines finally submitted to David (II Sam. 5:25).

In 734 B.C.E. Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria took Gaza, but it remained a Philistine city, and the short conquest of Hezekiah (II Kings 18:8) did not alter its status. Pharaoh Necho II occupied Gaza briefly in 609 B.C.E. Under the Persians (after a siege in 529 B.C.E. by Cambyses) Gaza became an important royal fortress called Kadytis by Herodotus (2:159).

In 332 B.C.E., it was the only city in Erez, Israel to oppose Alexander, who besieged it and sold its people into slavery. In the Hellenistic period, Gaza was the outpost of the Ptolemies until its capture by Antiochus III in 198 B.C.E. Its commercial importance increased in Persian and Hellenistic times when it served as the Mediterranean outlet of the Nabatean caravan trade and as the gateway for Greek penetration into southern Erez Israel. 

The city was attacked by Jonathan the Hasmonean in 145 B.C.E. (I Macc. 11:61–62) but was taken only by Alexander Yannai in 96 B.C.E. after a long siege. It was restored by Pompey and rebuilt by Gabinius in 57 B.C.E. It was held by Herod for a short time. Gaza prospered under Roman rule and contained a famous school of rhetoric. It was fanatically devoted to its Cretan god, Marnas, even under Christian rule; only in the fifth century was its temple destroyed, and Christianity made the ruling religion.

Although Jews were settled there in the Talmudic period, the city was regarded as being outside the halakhic boundaries of the Holy Land. Gaza is shown as a large city on the Madaba Map – “splendid, delicious” are the words of the traveler Antoninus – with colonnaded streets crossing its center and a large basilica in the middle, probably the church erected on the temple of Marnas. A depiction of the city of Gaza also appears in a mosaic floor uncovered at Umm er-Rasas in Jordan.

In antiquity, Gaza controlled an extensive territory, including the areas of Anthedon and its harbor, Maiumas. The sources mention an “Old Gaza.” This was probably at Beth-Eglaim – Tell al-Ajūl (the tell at the city proper, however, contains evidence of settlement from the Bronze Age onward). “Gaza the desert” in the New Testament (Acts 8:26), which is the city proper, was so called because of its devastation by Alexander Yannai. The “New City” (Neapolis) was the harbor; a synagogue was found there, paved with mosaics and dated 508/9.

In 1965, a mosaic floor was uncovered on the seashore of Gaza’s harbor. Its figures include one of King David as Orpheus, dressed in Byzantine royal garments and playing the lyre. The name “David” in Hebrew letters appears above it. A Greek inscription at the center of the floor, which mentions the names of the two donors (Menahem and Jesse) of the mosaic to the “holy place,” and the name “David,” testify to the fact that a synagogue stood there. The synagogue was cleared by A. Ovadiah in 1967/68.

Evidence of a considerable Jewish population during the Talmudic period in Gaza is provided also by a relief of a menorah, a shofar, a lulav, and an etrog, which appear on a pillar of the Great Mosque of Gaza, and various Hebrew and Greek inscriptions. According to the Karaite Sahl b. Maẓli'aḥ, Gaza, Tiberias, and Zoar were the three centers of pilgrimages in Erez, Israel, during the Byzantine period. Gaza was situated 3 mi. (5 km.) from the sea in a fertile plain rich in wheat, vineyards, and fruits. Its fair (panegyris) was one of the three main fairs in Roman Palestine.

In a great battle fought near Gaza in 635, the Arabs vanquished the Byzantines; the city itself fell soon afterward. It remained the seat of the governor of the Negev, as is known from the Nessana Papyri. The Jewish and Samaritan communities flourished under Arab rule; in the eighth century, R. Moses, one of the masoretes, lived there.

In the 11th century, R. Ephraim of Gaza was head of the community of Fostat (old Cairo). King Baldwin I of Jerusalem occupied the city which was known in Crusader times as Gadres; from the time of Baldwin III (1152), it was a Templar stronghold. In 1170, it fell to Saladin. Under Mamluk rule, Gaza was the capital of a district (mamlaka) embracing the whole coastal plain up to Atlit.

After the destruction of Gaza by the Crusaders, the Jewish community ceased to exist. Nothing more was heard of it until the 14th century. Meshullam of Volterra found 60 Jewish householders there and four Samaritans in 1481. All the wine of Gaza was produced by the Jews (A.M. Luncz, in Yerushalayim, 1918).

Obadiah of Bertinoro records that when he was there in 1488, Gaza’s rabbi was a certain Moses of Prague, who had come from Jerusalem (Zwei Briefe, ed. by A. Neubauer (1863), 19). Gaza flourished under Ottoman rule; the Jewish community was very numerous in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Karaite Samuel b. David found a Rabbanite synagogue there in 1641 (Ginzei Yisrael be-St. Petersburg, ed. by J. Gurland (1865), 11). In the 16th century, there were a bet din and a yeshivah in Gaza, and some of its rabbis wrote scholarly works. Farm owners were obliged to observe the laws of terumah (“priestly tithe”), ma’aserot (“tithes”), and the sabbatical year. At the end of the 16th century, the Najara family supplied some of its rabbis; Israel Najara, son of the Damascus rabbi Moses Najara, author of the “Zemirot Yisrael,” was chief rabbi of Gaza and president of the bet din in the mid-17th century.

In 1665, when Shabbetai Zevi’s visited Gaza, the city became the center of his messianic movement, and one of his principal disciples was Nathan of Gaza. The city was occupied by Napoleon for a short time in 1799.

In the 19th century, the city declined. The Jews concentrated there were mainly barley merchants; they bartered with the Bedouins for barley which they exported to the beer breweries in Europe. It was a Turkish stronghold in World War I; two British attacks made on Gaza in 1916–17 failed, and it was finally taken by a flanking movement of Allenby. Under Mandatory rule, Gaza developed slowly; the last Jews left the town because of the anti-Jewish Arab riots in 1929.


M.A. Meyer, History of the City of Gaza from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1907); G. Downey, Gaza in the Early Sixth Century (1963); Kena'ani, in: BJPES, 5 (1937), 33–41; Benayahu, ibid., 20 (1955), 21–30; Avi-Yonah, ibid., 30 (1966), 221–3; M. Ish-Shalom, Masei Noẓerim le-Ereẓ Yisrael (1965), index; Ben Zvi, Ereẓ Yisrael, index; J. Braslavski (Braslavi), Le-Ḥeker Arẓenu – Avar u-Seridim (1954), index; idem, Me-Reẓu'at Azzah ad Yam Suf (1957); S. Klein, Toledot ha-Yishuv ha-Yehudi be-Ereẓ Yisrael (1935), index; S. Assaf and L.A. Mayer (eds.), Sefer ha-Yishuv, 2 vols. (1939–44). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Garstang, “The Walls of Gaza,” in: PEFQS (1920), 156–57; C.A.M. Glucker, The City of Gaza in the Roman and Byzantine Periods (1987); J. Clarke et al., “The Gaza Research Project: 1998 Field Season,” in: Journal of Palestinian Archaeology, 2 (2001), 4–11; L. Steel et al., “Gaza Research Project. Report on the 1999 and 2000 Seasons at al-Moghraqa,” in: Levant, 36 (2004), 37–88; “Ghazza,” in: EIS2, 2, 1056–57 (incl. bibl.).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Avi Hoffman, Gaza in the Bible, Times of Israel, (October 11, 2024).