Gaza: a city both cursed and blessed

Alexander the Great was one of a multitude of conquerors, from pharaohs to British generals, who recognised in the city a key to the control of the Middle East.

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In 2013, a Palestinian called Joudat Ghrab was fishing in the shallows off the Gaza Strip. Peering over the side of his boat, he saw an arm protruding from the sand. It looked dark; so at first the fisherman thought that he had netted a badly charred corpse. Soon, however, he realised that what he had actually found was a statue.

He summoned help, and he and his friends took four hours to haul it on to dry land. His mother, shocked by the fact that it was nude, demanded that its private parts be covered. Soon afterwards, the find appeared for sale online, offered at a knock-down price. Archaeologists, identifying it from photographs as a statue of the Greek god Apollo, scrambled to alert the Palestinian authorities. The police were duly sent to Ghrab’s house. Confiscating the statue, they removed it into the custody of the Hamas-led government. As yet, no archaeologists have been permitted to study it. The statue remains locked away, an object of curiosity, rumour and suspicion.

In Gaza, the past is never neutral. It is the past that explains why some two million people live crammed within a tiny strip of land, fenced into what is in effect an open prison; it is the past that explains why, in recent days, thousands of people have risked death by attempting to force the border.

It is hardly surprising, at the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, that Palestinian memories should be focused on the miseries of their recent history: on the Nakba, the “catastrophe” of their expulsion from their ancestral lands, and everything that followed from it. Yet the discovery of the statue of Apollo is a reminder that the history of Gaza long predates the convulsions of 1948. Already, when Alexander the Great conquered the city from the Persians in 332 BC, and brought it into the ambit of the Greek world, it was millennia old. Long before the coming of Apollo to Gaza, there had been killings, conquests, catastrophes. It is the city’s tragedy that geography has always been its fate.

Buried in the story of the most celebrated ruin visited on Gaza – Samson’s destruction of the temple of Dagon – is evidence of what, throughout Mediterranean history, has been a constant theme: hostility between the uplands and the plains. It may even be that the Philistines, the ancient people from whom today’s Palestinians derive their name, were originally Greeks: peoples from the sea. Yet Alexander, when he came to Gaza, arrived not by ship but along the road: one of a whole multitude of conquerors, from pharaohs to British generals, from Thutmose III to Edmund Allenby, who could recognise in the city a key to the control of the Middle East.

In 634, when Arab armies inspired by the teachings of Muhammad invaded Palestine, Gaza was their first target. They knew what it constituted: the pivot between Egypt and Syria, the vital link in the chain that bound together the two richest provinces of the Roman empire. After their defeat of the local garrison, they sewed its commander into a freshly flayed camel hide and left him to suffocate to death as the stinking skin dried out. The Israelis are not the first to have made Gaza a stage for the spectacle of a defeated enemy’s humiliation.

Yet there is indeed, for all that, something unprecedented about its recent sufferings. If Gaza has always been cursed by its location, then so also has it been blessed. Herodotus, writing about the city a century before Alexander, noted that it was one of the richest markets in the Persian empire: a natural entrepôt. The very name “Gaza” in Greek meant “treasure”: a word that derived ultimately, like “paradise”, from Persian.

Today, though, it is a cruelly mocking statistic that the only stretch of the Mediterranean coastline to have a population density equal to that of the Gaza Strip should be Monaco. A landscape praised by Napoleon as “almost exactly like the Languedoc” has been lost to refugee camps and slums.

So, too, have many of the sites that bear witness to the brilliance of Gaza’s ancient past. The Greek port of Anthedon is now a base for Hamas fighters. The Byzantine mosaics of Jabaliya have suffered damage from Israeli bombs. The great complex of Saint Hilarion, the oldest monastery in the Holy Land, stands exposed to the elements. Gaza’s ancient splendours are literally crumbling away into dust.

It is no surprise, of course, in a stretch of land so cramped and poverty-stricken, where buildings can no sooner be erected than they are blown up or bombed, that the preservation of archaeological heritage should fail to be a priority. Yet if Palestinian identity is to have any future, then it must be rooted in something more than the miseries of the present. The bloody grind of the war against Israel cannot forever be permitted to serve as its sole index.

The statue of Apollo provides a reminder of an age when Gaza was one of the great cultural centres of the ancient world, a gem to be prized by Greeks, and Romans, and Arabs. That inheritance is still not entirely gone. Its potential to provide inspiration to future generations is evident in the various speculations that swirl around the statue of Apollo.

One Palestinian archaeologist has suggested that it was not found in the shallows at all, but somewhere on land, at an as yet undisclosed site. The odd Western scholar has even proposed that it might be a fake. Yet whatever the statue’s precise provenance, the dramatic reappearance in Gaza of Apollo suggests that there may be income as well as inspiration to be found in its past.

The Gaza Strip, for most of its long history, has been a place where people have very much wanted to live. As in other reaches of the Mediterranean that can boast antiquities as well as beaches, it has the potential to make a living out of its past. Such a prospect may seem unimaginably distant now.

Yet perhaps, all the same, it does offer just a hint of something in grievously short supply at the moment: hope. 

Tom Holland is a historian and author of “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World”

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war