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Notes from Limmud 2005

Jew and non-Jew in Ancient Gaza

Dr Joshua Schwartz

Standard disclaimer: Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.

Appolonia [present-day Herziliya]
Joppa [Jaffa]J
(Yavneh Yam†) JamniaU
Mediterranean  (Ashdod Yam) Azotus [Ashdod]D
Sea Ascalon [Ashkelon]A
Maiumas* Gaza GazaA
† Coastal (Hebrew)
* Coastal (Greek??)

Gaza was one of the Philistine cities. [The Philistines never united into a single nation, but remained five city-states, the other four being Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath and Ekron.] But it started out in the Bible as a city of the חוי, the Hivites. It was a big, rich and fortified city.

When you're a rich city, and invaders come, you usually open the gates, because if you're dead and your city is burned, it's not exactly to your advantage.

However, when this kept happening to Gaza, they kept deciding to fight, and time and time again lost and the city was burned. Following which it would be rebuilt, because it made good economic sense. The original inhabitants had been killed or carted off; the new inhabitants came from villages in the hinterland. Such inhabitants generally did not support their metropolis in the war, but helped the oncoming army - showing them where to get water, for example - because they were jealous of the wealth of the people in the big city. So then they got to become the people inside (until the next time the cycle repeatd).

In Ashkelon, by contrast, when an invading army came along, the residents always opened the gates, gave the invaders bread and wine, did business deals with them, and were never conquered.

Now, were the people in Gaza going to like Jews? No, because they got conquered. In Ashkelon, however, they don't like the Jews either! So what was different about Gaza?

According to the Bible the tribe of Judah conquered the Gaza area from the Hivites. In practice it was probably never conquered by the Jews, but went on to become a Philistine city; this is where the Samson story takes place.

The Philistines eventually integrated or assimilated by the Second Temple period. So, who lived in Gaza? The other coastal cities were occupied by Phoenicians, people from Tyre and Sidon and the coast to the north. Down the coast as far as Ashkelon and Gaza, however, the demographic began to change. On the coast of the Negev [Desert], we find an Arab population instead. This distinction is important; it means the cities to the north had a lot in commmon, and have connections to their north. Gaza by contrast had connections to its south, to Egypt.

Maiumas Gaza was one of the first cities to accept Christianity, because it looked to Egypt, and Egypt had early monasticism, and early Christian charismatic figures, who influenced the merchants who went to Gaza and brought Christianity there.

In 525 BCE, Cambyses of Persia (Kambuzi in Hebrew) knocked on the gates of Gaza, and demanded they open them. The Gazans refuse; Cambyses conquered the city, destroyed it and rebuilt it.

In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great came down from the north, knocked on the gates of the cities of coastal Palestine, and demanded they open them. All of the cities open them apart from Tyre and Gaza - perhaps the two most major cities along the coast. Alexander was royally narked by this, and spent the next two months besieging Gaza - a lot of time for someone in a hurry. The residents of Gaza fought to the end. The commander of Gaza, Bethis, fought to this dying breath; after he was killed, Alexander had his body dragged around the city attached to his chariot. And once again the city was destroyed and rebuilt.

In 301 BCE, Ptolemy, king of Egypt conquered Palestine, bringing Gaza under Egyptian control until 198 BCE. This was great for Gaza; Gaza got even richer: it could now trade with the new Egyptian territories to the north.

Trade caravans also come in from the east. Eventually the trade routes come under the control of the Nabataeans. They had no harbour, so they began to use Gaza as a harbour. This turned Gaza into an extremely rich city. There still were no Jews in Gaza at this stage, but they're certainly interested in it. However, they can't live there. It's now a city of Hellenised Arabs: they would be a minority in an uncomfortable setting. At this time the Jewish state was restricted to the Judaean mountains; the Philistine plain was not at all a Jewish area.

In 198 BCE the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) conquered Palestine*. The people of Gaza supported the Egyptians, but got conquered; once again Gaza is burned and rebuilt. By contrast, the Jews made the right decision. When the Syrians attacked, Jerusalem opened its gates. What they really wanted was a change. (The contemporary documents said they had issues with tax.)

Was this the right decision or the wrong decision? It was the wrong decision because the Egyptians were forced out of the city, and when they came back, they raped and killed and pillaged. But it was also the right decision because then the Syrians came back and drove the Egyptians out, and because the Jews had supported them, the Syrians rebuilt the city and conferred on it many privileges.

* Damn, that's an anachronism, belonging to after the Bar-Kochba revolt. What should I use instead? Canaan's also anachronistic, and we've just established in the previous paragraph that Judaea is not appropriate. ארץ ישראל does nicely, but the Land of Israel is almost as icky in English as "the Holy Land".

Gaza kept flourishing despite the many rebuildings; it had great economic potential. The agriculture in the Gaza area, if taken care of, is good. Because it kept being rebuilt and started thriving again, there is no reason why Gaza can't start thriving again today, except for the politics: it needs trade access.

Now on to the Hasmonean period.

In 161 Judah haMaccabi died and his brother Jonathan took over. He was expansionist; he attacked Gaza, conquered and burned it, but then withdrew, because he can't maintain his line far enough to keep control over it.

What he burned in Gaza was temples, specifically idolatrous Canaanite temples (as opposed to the Hellenic temples). It has been argued that in the Hasmoneans' eyes they were continuing the battle of Joshua, cleansing the land of Israel of the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites.

When Jonathan died, his brother Simon took over; then Simon's son John Hyrcanos followed by Judah Aristobolos; then Alexander Yannai became king in 104. At this stage, all of inland Palestine is under Hasmonean control, but the only port they have is Joppa. They need ports! He tried to conquer the north, half successfully.

In 100 BCE he tried to conquer Gaza. This was a rich city, made rich by Nabataean trade. You can't fight the Nabataeans in the desert: they just fade away and wait for you to die of dehydration. [They survived themselves because they had strategic cisterns full of water in the desert, but they were hidden, and you couldn't find them by looking.] Alexander Yannai figured the solution was not to attack the Nabataeans in the desert, but to conquer Gaza. The Gazans expected the Nabataeans were going to come and protect them.

Consequently, during the siege, when it was night and the forces of Yannai thought the Nabataeans were coming, the local Gazans were winning; when the sun rose and they saw there were no Nabataeans, Alexander Yannai began to win.

The Nabataeans could have defended Gaza; they had everything to win by it.... but they never turned up. Alexander Yannai conquered the city, and the Nabataeans switched from commerce to farming in the Negev - the opposite direction to everyone else. [Their techniques of constructing low walls to channel the water from the winter rains have been revived today to make the desert (or at least its northern fringe) bloom.]

(The Nabataeans who later became filthy rich outrunning the Romans on trade across Arabia were, according to Dr Schwartz, a different people. [First I heard of this!])

So why did the Nabataeans abandon the Gazans? Dr Schwartz guesses Alexander Yannai bought off the Nabataeans and later reneged on his deal. It would not be the first time he did that.

During the siege, how were the Jews to get in? Force their way in and get killed along the way, or wait it out? The problem is feeding your own army in the processes. You can't hold soldiers; they get itchy feet and dissipate. What Yannai did was to send a spy into the city of Gaza, and offer the brother of the governor the job, in exchange for killing his brother and opening the gates.

The governor's brother did indeed do this - murder was an accepted political device in the ancient world. And of course what Alexander Yannai did was reneged on his deal and razed the city to the ground and killed everyone. Then rebuilt the city.

For the first time now, Gaza was Jewish. Or partly Jewish at least. The same went for the hinterland. Some Arabs moved, some were enslaved, and some stayed there. There's a new demographic mixture.

This lasted from 97 BCE until 63 BCE, when Pompey turned up in the east. He cut away from the Hasmonean empire [huh? pretty small empire!] areas he felt were too pagan, and returns them to the pagans. Gaza becomes pagan, and the Jews would never rule Gaza again until modern times. Some of the original settlers returned to the city, who had fled to Syria for thirty years.

After this, there were still Jews in the area. However, there was a great deal of animosity; the thirty years of Hasmonean rule did not do anything for good relations. (Not that there were good relations beforehand.) There were economic problems and political problems.

Fast forward to 66 CE, and the Judaean revolt against the Romans which would result in the destruction of the Temple and the Jews being carried off into captivity. At the beginning it was not fighting against the Romans; but the Jews fighting against the local pagans. The Jews began fighting the pagans; the pagans fought back. The Jews were a minority, and got wiped out in the coastal cities.

The ברייתא* of boundaries describes the boundaries of the Land of Israel, and reflect what people thought were the boundaries during the time of the restoration of Zion after the Persian conquest. So, does this describe Gaza as part of the Land of Israel? It is clear that it does not: the boundary starts at Gaza, goes up the coast to Akko, then southern Lebanon up to the River Litani, then up into Syria, down the Jordan and back to Ashkelon.

* baraitha - a piece of Oral Law contemporaneous with the Mishna, but which did not get included into it.

In five of the six versions of this - from mosaics on church floors and so forth - this is the case. In the sixth the boundary goes to Rafiaḥ.

Gaza was also exempt from the Law of Shmittah - it did not have to lie fallow every seven years.

However, there were some minor attempts by sages to make it neutral territory, because there were Jews there.

There were even a few sages there: R. Eleazar ben Isaac lived in כפר דרום [Kfar Darom, "Village of the South"] or דירו בלך (sp?) [Diro Balakh], never Gaza. Now, if there was one Jew in a place, there were probably two, and if there were two, there were probably ten (for a minyan [quorum of ten adult males for prayer]), but you can't really extrapolate beyond that.

Migdol Tuta [Tower of <something>] also in the area of Gaza produced Jewish sages and famous Christian monks.

Gaza had an important fair in the Roman and Byzantine period. One reason Jews might want to go back is to make money. If it's not Jewish, this could cause problems: you could become ritually impure.

People tried to justify going to the trade fair; they wanted to go there because it's cheaper: tax exempt. But there were all kinds of cultic practices there, altars and pillars and so forth. They asked a rabbi from the north, who said no. They continued to ask this question until they ask someone from the south, R. Acha, from Lod. R. Acha wants to strengthen the Jewish presence in the south, and said yes.

After this, Jews began to show up there. In 508 CE the Jews built a synagogue in Maiumas Gaza. The synagogue in Gaza was discovered in 1966 by Egyptian archaeologists; they publicised it immediately, but described it as a church. Gaza at this time was Christian (though there are still pagan overtones).

(They later found a mosaic of King David (spelled plene, דויד, like in the Book of Chronicles), labelled in Hebrew - and still refused to acknowledge it, calling it a depiction of Orpheus!)

This is the largest Jewish synagogue ever found in the ancient Land of Israel. Why did they build a big synagogue? For lots of people? No! There were not thirty thousand people in the Gaza area. They built a big synagogue because they were rich. There's an inscription talking about wood merchants; in Israel wood was an expensive commodity. [Much of the country is chaparral, without big trees; think about the praise in the Psalms of the cedars of Lebanon, and of King Solomon having to import wood from Lebanon to build his Temple.]

(Sadly, this synagogue was destroyed in the second intifada.)

The Great Mosque in downtown (inland) Gaza has an inscription mentioning one חנניה [Ḥanina]: this too was a synagogue.

So how did the Jews survive, in a pagan city? The Christians and the pagans hated each other. There were chariot races, and when a Christian driver won, the pagans called out Marna victus est, "[the god] Marna has been conquered!" When the pagans and the Christians were fighting each other, the Jews in Gaza kept out of it and made money.

When the Arabs came to fight for Gaza, the Jews fought along with the Byzantines; they remained loyal. The Muslims conquered Gaza, but Jews remained in Gaza down through the ages: such figures as R. Yisrael Najara (composer of a Friday night זמר [Sabbath table hymn]) and Shabbetai Tsevi's associate Nathan of Gaza. The Jewish presence in Gaza only finally ended in 1948.

Which isn't intended to argue one way or other as regards disengagement from Gaza today; but simply to set it in its historical context, which is not enough well known.

Jewish learning notes index


Date: 2006-01-25 03:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
Who were the Nabateans?
I understood now that the Jewish people sneeked into the Gaza and conquered it. I heard that Gaza was actually not Jewish territory.

Re: Nabateans

Date: 2006-01-25 10:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Read all about it! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nabataeans)

Shmita year

Date: 2007-06-10 07:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] teachesl.livejournal.com
What do I do this shmita year - buy produce from Gaza to help the poor farmers whose lives are being made miserable by the terrorists? Or boycott Gaza produce??

Re: Shmita year

Date: 2007-06-10 07:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
I can't tell you what to do; I can only give you my opinion, which you may choose to ignore as, living in the Diaspora, I don't know what it's like in Israel.

But from my perspective, people who are prepared to sell their produce to Israel are unlikely to be supporters of terrorism against Israel. What will boycotting them achieve? Merely to deepen their poverty and turn them further against Israel.

That's my opinion, in brief.

Re: Shmita year

Date: 2007-06-10 07:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] teachesl.livejournal.com
First of all, their poverty wasn't created by Israel. And they know that. Matter of fact, more than fifty percent of Gazans want Israel back! Having said, that, I have no problem buying their produce if I know the money for it isn't going to buy weapons! But there is no way for me to know that, is there?? I'm one of these strange persons - a liberal conservative. I don't trust Arabs as a whole; but on an individual level, I want to give people a chance.

Re: Shmita year

Date: 2007-06-10 07:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] teachesl.livejournal.com
Oh, yes, something else - I really enjoyed reading your history of Gaza! Are you a Professor of Middle East Studies??

Re: Shmita year

Date: 2007-06-10 08:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
It's not my history of Gaza; this blog entry is of notes I took at a talk I attended at Limmud, a Jewish educational conference here in the UK. The speaker was the Dr Schwartz mentioned at the top. <adds link to my other Limmud notes>

Re: Shmita year

Date: 2007-06-11 11:25 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Slicha!/Excuse me! I thought YOU were Dr. Schwartz! You took really good notes! What do you do? And what is Limmud exactly?

Re: Shmita year

Date: 2007-06-11 07:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Slicha!/Excuse me! I thought YOU were Dr. Schwartz!

Nope—see my user profile.

You took really good notes!

Thank you. Here's some other ones I've taken. (http://www.michael-grant.me.uk/limmud.html)

What do you do?

I'm a software engineer for interactive television.

And what is Limmud exactly?

Limmud (http://www.limmud.org/) is an annual Jewish educational conference in the UK. (Though it's also got offshoots in lots of other countries now, and single-day Limmuds in different cities in the UK throughout the year, and LimmudFest (a camping event) in summer.)


Date: 2007-06-11 07:56 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I just signed up for a Taste of Limmud!! All those 'notes' you took are amazing! Do you get many visitors??

Re: Limmud

Date: 2007-06-11 09:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
All those 'notes' you took are amazing!

That's three and a half years' worth, there!

Do you get many visitors??

Not all that many people comment when I post them—more did when I was posting them occasionally, at the start—but from time to time people such as yourself stumble across them and comment.

I actually typed them for myself, so I could go back and revisit them; and I took notes in the first place because I felt having paid all that money for Limmud, I ought to get value for money out of it by having notes I could refer back to. (It's common at Limmud for someone to say "Did you go to any good sessions today?" and I'll say "Yes, some of them were really great, but I can't remember any of them!" Limmud does that to you.) And then, having my notes ready typed up, I reckoned, I might as well blog them and share them with friends.


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