This narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean coast between Israel and Egypt is tiny – just 141 square miles/365 sq. kilometers (about the size of Las Vegas or the British city of Sheffield) – and with a population of nearly 2.1 million, making it one of the world´s most densely packed territories.
And Gaza has of course massively been in the news since October 7 because of the tragic and horrific reasons with which by now we´re all too familiar. And when it comes to spots in Palestine of interest to visitors, many more non-Palestinians know about the West Bank than Gaza. But with a rich history dating back more than a staggering 3,500 years, including a bewildering succession of rulers, among them the Canaanites, the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, the Philistines, the Assyrians, the ancient Persian Empire, the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Mamluk Sultanate, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Turks, and more recently (and briefly) by the British in the early 20th century. And fragments of this legacy still remains – it even has three UNESCO World Heritage candidates (see below).
Even before the current Hamas-Israel war, access to the Gaza Strip for outsiders – and especially tourists – was already extremely limited and difficult. And obviously now for the foreseeable future it will be impossible. But it´s still eye-opening to take a look at what´s here – although how much will end up surviving the Israeli invasion is anybody’s guess – and when the day eventually comes when travel opens up again, consider making the trip, both on its own merits and because Gazans will need all the support they can get.
Gaza´s Old City is known for its ancient architecture, narrow alleyways, and bustling markets, and one of its key landmarks, in the Daray Quarter, is Gaza´s largest Muslim house of worship (44,000 square feet/4,100 sq. meters. Over the millennia, this site has housed a succession of temples, churches and mosques, and what´s seen here today – sometimes also referred to as the Great Mosque of Gaza – largely dates from the early 13th century, though it has undergone a number of restorations. Its minaret. half square-shaped, half octagonal – is an icon of the old quarter. And by the way, along its southern edge is a narrow passageway that´s home to the Gold Market – okay, it´s not Dubai but it does have its fair share of bling.
Qasr al-Basha (Pasha´s Palace Museum)
Another major Old City landmark also dates from the 13th century, built in sandstone by the Mamluks, a multinational military caste which originated in Egypt as slave soldiers and mercenaries and whose influence grew to the point where a Mamluk Sultanate ruled Egypt, the Levant (of which Gaza is a part), and western Arabia for 132 years. The second story was added by the Ottoman Turks who came after the Mamluks, and now it serves Gaza´s official museum of antiquities. It´s also known as Ridwan Castle (after the Ottoman dynasty which ruled Palestine in the 16th and 17th centuries) and Napoleon´s Fort (because Bonaparte supposedly briefly used it in 1799 during his army´s military campaign in Egypt and Palestine).
This Greek Orthodox church in Gaza City´s Al-Zaytoun district (above) is named after the 5th-century bishop of Gaza, known for his efforts in converting the region to Christianity during the Roman era, and is notable for its beautiful blue-vaulted interior. (Tragically, the church was severely damaged by an Israeli airstrike early during the fighting while it sheltered some 400 people – mainly from of Gaza´s 1,000-member Christian community – killing 18 and injuring at least 20.)
Also known as the Gaza Seaport, these ancient ruins in Gaza´s northwestern corner has its roots in the Mycenaean civilization (1750-1050 BCE); was a vibrant port city during the Hellenistic and Roman periods; and was still inhabited in the time of the Byzantines. Today some of the port structures are still visible, as are parts of the massive city walls, a Roman temple and villas, and floor mosaics. It´s currently listed as a UNESCO tentative World Heritage Site.
This small private museum is part of a hotel of the same name, and houses several exhibits and a collection of some 350 artifacts dating back to the Bronze Age and including the Roman, Byzantine, early Islamic and Crusader periods, as well as more recent history.
Gaza was once known for its hammams (public baths), particularly during the era of the Mamluks, and 14th-century al-Sammara is the only one left still in operation. notable example,
divided into a large steam room with many faucets and metal dishes for pouring; a small but deep hot-water pool; and a smaller space for lounging and massages.
St. Hilarion Monastery
Outside the town central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah, the site known in Arabic as Tell Umm el-´Amr holds the ruins of a Christian monastery and church complex dating back to the 4th century CE (during the late Roman Empire) and operating several hundred years until it was abandoned after an earthquake. It´s named for the 4th-century Gaza-born hermit Hilarion the Great, venerated as a saint by both Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox. Still visible are remnants of walls, rooms, various architectural details of a pair of churches, a baptism hall, a crypt, and more – and even several Byzantine mosaics. Unsurprisingly, this is another UNESCO World Heritage candidate.
Qalat Barquq Fort
In the town of southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis, it was constructed in 1387 during the reign of the Mamluk Sultan Barquq during perilous times when the forces of the much feared Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur (aka Tamerlane) were threatening the Levant. These days the only thing left are the façade of the fort and a single tower, behind which is a warren of residences and shops.
And finally, check out this pair of videos showing life in Gaza during “happier” times, as it were. How much of what you see here will survive, who knows.