Today, the Palestinian enclave of Gaza is known as a flashpoint for conflict that far eclipses its minuscule size. At 140 square miles--sharing an eight-mile frontier with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and hugging Israel's border for nearly 32 miles--the sliver of desert is only twice the area of the District of Columbia. Yet modem Gaza's reputation for turmoil is not new: Throughout its history, this Middle Eastern territory has rarely been at peace.
Known as "the outpost of Africa, the door to Asia," in ancient times, Gaza was a key port city and a hub of religious diversity, with Jews and Christians once living in harmony under Muslim rule. Unfortunately, its prime trade location also made it a perennial target for invaders. Cycles of conquest--from the Hyksos of Syria to the Philistines to King David to Alexander the Great to Napoleon Bonaparte--have wracked Gaza's much-trespassed borders for millennia, leaving upheaval and devastation in their wake. In modern times, the region made up of 1.8 million inhabitants is at the heart of a drawn-out struggle with its neighbors.
Moment asked Matt Rees, former TIME Jerusalem bureau chief and author of The Palestine Quartet series, to step back from the headlines about this historic city and illuminate the deep roots of the ongoing turbulence.
The first confirmed settlement of Gaza occurs at Tell as-Salcan, an Egyptian fortress that was located a little south of today's Gaza City. Archaeologists believe that the Egyptians located the outpost there to protect their eastern frontier from invaders from the Levant. The Canaanites who inhabit the land alternately submit to and resist Egyptian rule.
The Hyksos--"Asiatic hordes" from. Northern Syria--conquer Egypt and settle in Gaza, destroying whatever is in their path, according to the Reverend Archibald Sayce in his 1895 book, Patriarchal Palestine. The Hyksos rule Egypt--and Gaza--until they are driven out in the late 16th century.
Gaza gets its name from the Amarna Tablets, which were "letters" written in Babylonian cuneiform that were sent to Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose Ell--who expanded his rule into Asia Minor and Ethiopia. In the tablets, Gaza is called Zzati, which becomes Ghazza (pronounced razza) in Arabic.
The Philistines, who come from Crete and Asia Minor, take over Gaza and make it one of their five most important cities. They call it Philistia, from which the name Palestine is derived. According to the Book of Judges, they capture Samson--a long-haired Jew of supernatural strength: The Philistines "seized him and gouged out his eyes. They brought him down to Gaza." About to be sacrificed, Samson leans against a pillar of the Temple of Dagon, and the building crashes down killing his enemies.
King David brings Israelite rule to Gaza. When the Israelite kingdom splits in 930, Gaza becomes part of the northern Kingdom of Israel, which is conquered by the Assyrians in 730. In the Bible, the prophet Amos reports God as saying: "I will send down fire upon the wall of Gaza" (Amos 1:7) to punish the Philistines for their transgressions. Around 600, the Philistines vanish without a trace.
The Persians overrun Gaza after a long siege. In his writings, the fifth-century Greek historian Herodotus refers to Gaza as "Kadytis" and calls it "one of the greatest cities of all time."
During his several-month siege of Gaza, Alexander the Great is wounded in the shoulder--by a missile, according to the ancient historian Arrian. After Alexander's victory against thousands of Persians and Arabs, the men of Gaza are slaughtered, the women and children enslaved. Batis, the commander of the Gaza fortress, is treated with...