Why Do Armies March through Gaza?
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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern

Why Do Armies March through Gaza?

a line drawing of Palestine, Syria, and south-eastern Turkey with coasts, rivers, ancient cities, and dotted lines indicating roads
The roads of Palestine in the Achaemenid period, after Graf 1994: figure 1

On another site, someone asked why armies have been marching through Gaza for thousands of years. I don’t have anything useful to say about Hamas’ torture, murder, and kidnapping of about a thousand unsuspecting elders, civilians, children, and tourists, or the Israeli government’s blockade of water, food, and medicine to the several million civilians in Gaza in response to the murders and kidnappings, but I can talk about geography and ancient warfare.

My regularly scheduled post (about Vitruvius and the design of forts during the Roman Principate) will come out next week instead! When commenting, keep in mind that my site is not the place for people to share angry opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and I will moderate accordingly. Because I will not have time to moderate or respond to comments until Tuesday 31 October, comments on this post will not be enabled until then.

Gaza is the first place east of the Nile Delta which has enough water, fields, pastures, and so on to support a city year-round. Grapes have been grown there for export since at least Islamic times. The Sinai peninsula is barren mountains and desert and I don’t know that it contains a single settlement with more than a few hundred people except Rafah which is part of the same area as Gaza just across a modern border. Most of the inhabitants are Bedouin or employees of the Egyptian government. Herodotus III.5 describes a three-day stretch of the road from Gaza to the Nile as “wondrously waterless.” Before motorization, armies had to move as quickly as possible wherever rivers did not run and grass did not grow, which meant following the roads near the coastline and moving from supply depot to supply depot (they could not be supplied by sea because there are no good harbours between the Nile and Ashdod north of Gaza, and the coast has areas of lagoons, shoals, and quicksand which make it difficult to sail close to shore and unload). So if you wanted to invade Egypt from Asia, or Asia from Egypt, you had to march through Gaza.

Gaza is about two and a half miles from the sea; the approach to it is over deep sand, and the sea off-shore is encumbered with shoals. It is a large town, standing high on an eminence, and encircled by a strongly-built wall- the last town, on the edge of the desert, as one travels south from Phoenicia towards Egypt.

Arrian, Anabasis, 2.26 tr. Aubrey de Sélincourt

Egypt sent a column north through Gaza into Palestine in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and retained control of Gaza until 1967. The British and the Ottomans fought a battle at Rafah in 1916, then two Battles of Gaza in 1917. The Republican French marched through Gaza in 1799 after landing in Egypt to try to overthrow the Mamluke and Ottoman empires. Mamluk troops from Egypt tried to stop Ottoman troops from Anatolia at the Battle of Yaunis Khan in 1516. King Amalric of Jerusalem marched through Gaza to invade Egypt in 1163. Caliph Umar’s Arabs and Khosrow’s Sasanid Persians invaded Egypt through Gaza to take it from the Romans. There was trouble at Gaza during the Maccabean Revolt (Josephus, AJ 13.148) and in complicated wars between various Ptolemies and Alexander Janaeus the Hasmonean King of Jerusalem which saw the city sacked (eg. Josephus, AJ 13.348). Ptolemaic kings sent armies east from Pelusium on the Nile to fight armies from Syria at Raphia or Gaza in 217 BCE and 312 BCE (Diodorus Siculus 20.81-83). Alexander the Great besieged and sacked Gaza on his way to Egypt in 332 BCE. When Pharaoh Necho II invaded Asia to help the Assyrians, he must have marched through Gaza, and Herodotus 2.159 records that he conquered the city (possibly Herodotus’ way of understanding why Gaza remained in Egyptian hands after Palestine was conquered by the Babylonians, although Herodotus does not say much about the Neo-Babylonian Empire). The oldest Iron Age reference to Gaza is the Assyrian Eponym Chronicle for 734 in which we hear that to prevent the Egyptians from intervening in Philistia, Tiglath-pilser III lead his army to Gaza, forced its king Ḫanunu to flee, and proclaimed it a royal trading center. Gaza is probably mentioned in three of the Amarna Letters, and it was the gateway to Asia during the New Kingdom when armies marched up the Nile from Memphis and east towards Palestine. David F. Graf reports that the Egyptians called this road the Way of Horus.

Before motorization and the modern Suez Canal, Gaza was a natural end point for the caravans of the incense trail which moved along the west coast of Arabia or up from Aqaba on the Red Sea (its not clear how long the Achaemenid canal was open, and whether it was used for everyday trade or just royal expeditions). A different type of Arabs such as the Nabateans and Himyarites controlled the roads east of the Dead Sea and built cities in the desert using marvelous techniques to direct and store the winter rains. Before Esarhaddon invaded Egypt from Raphia in 671 BCE he had the kings of the Arabs provide camels which he loaded with waterskins (Herodotus 3.9 describes the Arabs providing the same service for Cambyses in 528, and tells another story that they redirected water from rivers that would otherwise flow into the Red Sea by means of oxskin pipes). Diodorus Siculus has satrap Pharnabazus accuse rebels in Egypt and the Arabs of plotting against Phoenicia in 411/410 (DS 13.46.6). Gaza was an outpost of the urban culture of Palestine, and sometimes an Egyptian outpost in Asia, but it was also an Arab city. When kings like Alexander killed or enslaved its people they often brought in the local country folk and pastoralists to replace them (eg. Arrian, Anabasis, 3.27.7). Herodotus is unsure whether Gaza belongs to the Syrians of Palestine or the Arabs of Sinai.

a French language map of the West Bank of Palestine as a collection of islands
Another kind of geography: the West Bank (eastern Palestine) circa 2010 as an archipelago of places where Palestinians can move freely separated by Israeli military and settler occupation. From an Al Jazeera English piece July 2010 as reproduced at https://smuhlberger.blogspot.com/2010/07/one-state-solution-for-israelpalestine.html

Today the lawless men who rule Egypt and Israel don’t want to fight each other, and they can route their land trade around the small territory of the Gaza Strip. Because of motor vehicles and water pipes, armies don’t need to take the shortest route any more. But Gaza is still a place where many people can live, bordered by places where few can live. The Israeli government won’t let those people move east, and the Egyptian government won’t let them move west, so they are stuck whenever fighting starts. Because the Sinai has so few people and so little water, its almost impossible for refugees to take shelter among ordinary people in the way that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan took shelter.

Further Reading

David F. Graf, “The Persian Royal Road System,” Achaemenid History 8 (1994), pp. 167–189 https://www.nino-leiden.nl/publication/continuity-and-change (see also the article by J-F. Salles which warns on page 193 and 194 that Bronze Age references of Palestinian wine in Egypt don’t necessarily refer to wine from Gaza)

Katzenstein, H.J., 1989, ‘Gaza in the Persian Period,’ Transeuphratene 1, pp. 67-86.

Nadav Naʾaman, “The Boundary System and Political Status of Gaza under the Assyrian Empire,” Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins, Bd. 120, H. 1 (2004), pp. 55-72 https://www.jstor.org/stable/27931733

Wikipedia on St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai (established by Helena the mother of Constantine and by Justinian the accursed!)

Edit: The Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax ch. 104 lists Ashkelon near Ashdod as the last city of Palestinian Syria so implies that Na’aman was correct that to Herodotus Gaza is an Arab city

(scheduled 24 October 2023)

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