Gaza (Heb. ‘Azzah, the strong), a titular see of Palaestina Prima, in the a Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Gaza is one of the oldest cities in the world. Its first inhabitants were the Hevites (Deut. ii, 23). The Rephaïm and the Enacim, expelled later by Josue, inhabited the surrounding mountains (Josue xi, 22). The Hevites were driven forth by the Philistines who came from Caphtor (D. V., Cappadocia; Deut., ii, 23; Amos, ix, 7; Jer., xlvii, 4). Little else is known as to the origin of this warlike people, who occupied the whole Mediterranean coast between Phoenicia and Egypt, and whom the Hebrews could never wholly subdue. It is agreed, however, that they came from the southern coast of Asia Minor and the islands of the Aegean. Jeremias (xlvii, 4) speaks of the island of Caphtor, the isle of Cappadocia in D. V. According to Stephen of Byzantium (“De Urbibus”, s. vv. Gaza, Minoa) the city of Gaza was a colony from Crete (cf. Soph., ii, 5). This statement is in accordance with the Biblical narrative which tells of reprisals made by the “Cerethi” (Cretans), a Philistine tribe. Philistines were established in the vicinity of Gaza as early as the time of Abraham; their leader, Abimelech, who bore the title of king, resided at Gerara (Gen., xxi, 33; xxvi, 1). Some critics, however, hold that the title of “King of the Philistines” was given to Abimelech, not because he was himself a Philistine, but because he dwelt in the country afterwards inhabited by that people. In any case the Philistines certainly possessed Gaza when Moses and the Hebrews arrived in the Holy Land. Though it was assigned to the tribe of Juda, the city could never be conquered by Josue on account of its high wall (Gen., xv, 18; Jos. xv, 47; Amos, i, 7). The tribe of Juda possessed the city by right but not in fact.
Gaza appears to have been the metropolis of the five satrapies which formed the territory of the Philistines; and like the four other cities, Ascalon, Accaron, Azotus, and Geth, it had a king whose power extended to all the cities and villages of the region. Samson, to escape from the hands of the Philistines, bore the gates of the city away on his shoulders during the night to the neighboring mountain (Judges xvi, 3); it was at Gaza that, blind and a prisoner of the Philistines, he pulled down the temple of Dagon on himself and his enemies (Judges xvi, 21-30). Dagon was not the special deity of Gaza. He is to be met with also at Ascalon, Azotus, and the other Philistine cities to which the term “Beth-dagon” is applied. To a certain extent the Philistines had transformed into a national deity this god of Assyrian origin, a monster having in part the shape of a fish, in part also the form of a man. The Israelites, who had captured Gaza shortly before the time of Samson (Judges i, 18), were still in possession of it in the time of Solomon (III Kings, iv, 24). It is probable, however, that at this later date the city merely paid tribute, retaining its autonomy.
The people of Gaza continued to manifest their hatred for the Jews, and carried on a brisk commerce in Jewish slaves (Amos, i, 6), which drew upon them the terrible maledictions of the prophets of Israel (Amos, i, 6-7; Zach., ix, 5; Jer., xxv, 20; xlvii, 5). The evils foretold began when the rulers of Egypt and those of Assyria or Chaldea engaged in their long and eventful struggle for the domination of Asia and world-supremacy. Being on the great highway of the conquering armies, Gaza was destined to special suffering. About 734 B.C., Theglathphalasar III numbered among his vassals Hanon, the King of Gaza, who had joined Rasin and Phacee, Kings of Syria and Israel, in revolt against the Assyrian monarch. On the approach of the Assyrian army Hanon fled to Egypt and the city was taken and sacked. But the victors had scarcely departed when Hanon returned to Gaza; and in 720 we find him on the battlefield of Raphia, among the allies of Pharao Shabaka, where he was defeated and taken prisoner. Shortly after this the—Philistines of Gaza were defeated by Ezechias, King of Jude, (IV K, xviii, 8), and were forced to revolt with him against the Assyrians; the latter, however, returned and again compelled the Philistines to submit. Asarhaddon and Assurbanipal numbered among their tributaries Tsilbel, King of Gaza. When the Assyrian empire had been destroyed Egypt sought to enrich itself from the spoils, and Pharao Necho II captured Gaza (Jer., xlvii, 1; Herodotus II, clix) on his way towards Carchemish, where he was defeated by the Babylonians, who, under the leadership of Nabuchodonosor (Nebuchadnezzar), took the offensive and recaptured Gaza. The city was especially ill-treated, and had afterwards to pay tribute to King Nabonides for the building of the great temple of Sin at Haran. Later the Babylonians gave way to the Persians. Cambyses, on the occasion of his expedition to Egypt in 525, besieged Gaza, which alone dared to resist his march (Polybius, XVI, 40). It submitted, nevertheless, and under the Persian dominion, according to Herodotus (III, xv), who compares it to Sardis, one of the most beautiful cities of Asia, it enjoyed great prosperity. The people of Gaza, who seem to have been very courageous and very loyal to their masters, whoever they might be, refused to open the gates to the army of Alexander the Great (332). He was forced to begin a regular siege, which lasted two months and cost him many men. After storming the city, Alexander laid waste to Gaza, put the men to the sword, and sold the women and children into slavery. He afterwards allowed the place to be recolonized; but the new-corners were of a different stock from the old inhabitants. The Philistine stronghold made way for an Hellenic city (Diodorus Siculus, XVII, xlviii, 7; Arrian, II, xxxvi; Quintus Curtius, IV, xxxiii). Henceforth there is little peace for Gaza. For several centuries it was the battlefield for Egyptian, Syrian, and Jewish armies. It was taken three times by Ptolemy I, King of Egypt (320, 312, and 302 B.C.), and twice by Antigonus (315 and 306). Finally it fell to the Lagidae, who retained it for almost a century. In 219 Antiochus of Syria took possession of it, and organized there the invasion of Egypt; but he was defeated at Raphia in 217, and compelled to abandon his conquest to the Egyptians. In 198 he again took Gaza, routed the Egyptians in the following year, and this time was able to retain his conquest Jonathan Machabeus appeared with his army before Gaza, which refused to open its gates, so the suburbs were burnt, and the inhabitants compelled to give hostages, 145-143 B.C. (I Mach., xi, 60-62).
Alexander Jannaeus besieged the city for a whole year (98) and finally captured it through treachery, sacked it and slew a large number of the inhabitants (Josephus, “Ant. Jud.”, XIII, xiii, 3; “Bel. Jud.”, I, iv, 2). It was rebuilt later by Pompey and by Gabinius (Josephus, “Ant. Jud.”, XIV, iv, 4; Appian,. “Syr.”, 51). Anthony ceded to Cleopatra the whole of the Mediterranean coast between Egypt and Phoenicia, and Augustus gave Gaza to Herod the Great (30 B.C.). At Herod‘s death it became subject to the governor of Syria. In A.D. 66 the revolted Jews sacked the city, which was of course soon recaptured by the Romans (Josephus, “Bel. Jud.”, II, xviii, 1). The era of Gaza, found on its coins and on numerous pagan and Christian inscriptions, dates from a journey of Pompey through Palestine, October 28, 61 B.C. Gaza is mentioned only once in the New Testament (Acts, viii, 26), in connection with the route followed by the eunuch of Queen Candace. The Hellenistic city had transformed its Oriental deities into Graeco-Roman gods, and was long hostile to Christianity, which as late as the first quarter of the fourth century had scarcely secured a foothold there. It is true that Philemon, to whom St. Paul addressed an epistle, is spoken of as its first bishop; but this is merely an unreliable tradition. St. Sylvanus, its first bishop, martyred (310) at the mines of Phaeno, is called “bishop of the churches about Gaza” (Eusebius—”Hist. Eccl.”, VIII, xiii; “De Mart. Palst.”, xiii, iv); Asclepas, his successor, is also called “bishop of the churches about Gaza”. He assisted at the Council of Nicaea in 325, and was one of the Catholic bishops most feared by the Arians. He is always found among those who suffered the most severely in the Arian conflict, with men like St. Athanasius, Marcellus of Ancyra, and others of that type.
Constantine the Great forcibly introduced Christianity into Gaza, but such was the hostility of the pagan population that Bishop Asclepas deemed it prudent to build the church outside the city. Near the church, but likewise without the walls, arose later the oratory of the martyr St. Timothy; in the same place were relics of the martyrs St. Major and St. Thea. Christianity, however, spread rapidly in Majuma, the port of Gaza, between two and three miles from the city and owing dependence to it. The citizens of the port obtained from Constantine the privilege of municipal independence for their city, under the name of Constantia, with the right to have its own bishops. When, later, Julian the Apostate withdrew its civic rights from Majuma, it still retained its bishops, the most famous of whom were Peter the Iberian, a Monophysite ascetic, and St. Cosmas, foster brother and friend of St. John Damascene. In the neighboring cities, e.g. Anthedon, Bethelia, and Menois, Christianity was also introduced with difficulty. Under Julian the Apostate three brothers, Eusebius, Nestabos, and Zeno, were put to death at Gaza by the populace. St. Hilarion, born in the neighboring Thabatha, a small village, was compelled to flee to Sicily to escape persecution by the pagans (Sozom., “Hist. Eccl.”, V, ix; Greg. Naz., “Invect. I in Jul.”, 66-67). The first church built in Gaza itself was the work of St. Irenion (d. 393) whose feast is December 16. He was succeeded by Aeneas, and later by St. Porphyry (395-420), the true restorer of Christianity in Gaza. This holy bishop first sent Marcus, his deacon and historian, to Constantinople to obtain an order to close the pagan temples. The Christians then scarcely numbered 200 in Gaza; though the rest of the empire was gradually abandoning its idols, Gaza was stubborn in its opposition to Christianity. The decree was granted by the emperor, and the temples closed, with the exception of the Marneion, the temple sacred to Zeus Mamas, which had replaced that of Dagon. There was no great change, however, in the sentiments of the people; so St. Porphyry decided to strike a decisive blow. He went himself to Constantinople during the winter of 401-402 and obtained from Arcadius a decree for the destruction of the pagan temples, which Cynegius, a special imperial envoy, executed in May, 402. Eight temples, those of Aphrodite, Hecate, the Sun, Apollo, Core, Fortune, the Heroeion, and even the Marneion, were either pulled down or burnt. Simultaneously soldiers visited every house, seizing and burning the idols and books of magic. On the ruins of the Marneion was erected, at the expense of the empress, a large church called the Eudoxiana in her honor, and dedicated April 14, 407. Paganism had thus ceased to exist officially.
Gaza, now a Christian city, became rich and prosperous; and during the fifth and sixth centuries was the seat of a famous school of Christian rhetoricians. Monasticism also flourished there; and the Church recognizes as saints many religious of Gaza, e.g. Dorotheus, Dositheus, Barsanuphius, and John the Prophet; the Monophysite monks were also, for a time, actively engaged in its environs. At the Arab invasion, about 637, the city fell before General Amr. The Eudoxiana was converted into a mosque, and the Roman garrison, consisting of sixty soldiers under the command of Callinicus, having refused to apostatize, was slain at Eleutheropolis and Jerusalem (“Analecta Bollandiana”, XXIII, 289-307; “Echos d’Orient”, VIII, 1905, 40-43). The Arabs venerate the city as the burial-place of Hachem, the grandfather of Mahomet. When the Crusaders came, Gaza was almost in ruins; owing, however, to its situation on the way from Egypt to Syria, it soon regained prosperity. Baldwin III built a fortress there (1149) and confided it to the Templars. Saladin pillaged the city in 1170, but the fortress did not fall until 1187. Richard the Lionhearted held it for a brief time. In 1244 the combined forces of Christians and Saracens were defeated by the Kharezmians. The Turks finally took Gaza in 1516; and in 1799 Bonaparte held it for a few days. It is now known as Ghazzeh and is a kaimakamat in the sandjak of Jerusalem. It numbers over 40,000 inhabitants, nearly all Mussulmans. There are only 1000 Greek schismatics, 150 Jews, 50 Protestants, and 150 Catholics. The latter have a Catholic pastor under the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The Greek Church contains the tomb of St. Porphyry. Mosques are very numerous, among the most remarkable being Djamiael-Kebir, the ancient cathedral of the crusaders, dedicated to St. John the Baptist; also Nebi-Hachem, in which is the tomb of the grandfather of Mahomet. The city is unclean, and its streets narrow and crooked. But seen from a distance, amid its surrounding vegetation, it appears magnificent. The entire district is well irrigated and cultivated; the soil is extremely rich, and the trade of the city rather prosperous.