Layers of History Unveiled: Gaza’s Oldest Mosque, a Tapestry of Ancient Religions, Reduced to Rubble in Airstrike

The Omari Mosque in Gaza was mostly devastated through Israeli bombing on December. 8th 2023. It was among the oldest mosques in the region, and is a cherished Gazan landmark..

The mosque was constructed in the seventh century, and was named in honor of the second caliph of Islam, Umar ibn al-Khattab, one of the prophets’ successors Muhammad and the head of the first Islamic community. 

It was a beautiful construction of white stones that featured a series of vistas of arched pointed arches as well as an octagonal towering minaret, surrounded by a wood-carved balcony and crowned by the crescent.

The lower part of the minaret as well as the exterior walls are said as the only remaining parts of the mosque that are still in use.

Gaza is full of heritage sites, including 325 officially registered heritage sites within 141 square miles. This includes three sites that are on the UNESCO’s World Heritage tentative list. Omari Mosque Omari Mosque is one of more than 200 sites that have been destroyed or damaged by Israeli attacks since the Oct. 7th, 2023 Hamas attack.

As as a researcher in Islamic archaeology and architectural design I am familiar with that the Omari Mosque as a building that is a symbol of the past of Gaza itself as a place of constant loss, yet also one of the resilience and growth

While stories concerning Gaza typically focus on conflict and war the rich history of Gaza and its diversity as expressed in its rich cultural heritage also deserve to be recognized.

History layers

The sun-drenched coastal area of Gaza as well as the clean stone buildings of its ancient city as well as its lush orange and olive groves was a major hub of trade which connected to the Mediterranean to Africa, Asia and Europe for millennia. 

The city was famous as a place to transit incense, which was one of the world’s oldest products. Because of its vast resources in the maritime and agricultural realms, Gaza has known conquerors from nearly every power, from the early Egyptians as well as the Romans as well as earlier Islamic caliphs and The Crusaders along with the Mongols.

Gaza’s long history of constant conquest resulted in buildings being demolished, rebuilt and rededicated to adapt to changes in religious and political practices. 

New religious structures were constantly constructed over the old ones and often they were adorned with “spolia,” or stones that were reused from previous structures. 

In the case of Omari Mosque, it was a similar structure. Omari Mosque, too, was a perfect architectural simulacrum that embodied the multi-layered, live urban history in its material form.

The second millennium B.C., the site of the mosque is believed to be an altar to Dagon who was who was the Philistine god who was associated with the earth and of good fortune. This temple was referenced within the Hebrew Bible as the one whose walls were smashed by Samson, the warrior. Samson and is believed to have been laid to rest in its foundations.

At the time of the year 323 B.C., Gaza was adamantly resisting the invasion from Alexander the Great The city suffered devastating destruction until it was finally conquered. But after Gaza was defeated by the Romans in the year 50 B.C. 

it was able to enjoy new prosperity and wealth. The concentric domed temple was constructed in honor of Marnas god, who was the god of the storm and guardian of the city, located on the site of what would become the mosque. The temple was a place of worship until about the year 400 A.D., when the Byzantine Empress Eudoxia declared the new religion in Christianity and directed that the building be destroyed.

The temple’s priests locked themselves in and hidden the temple’s statues and other ritual objects inside an underground room. The temple was later destroyed, and the site of the temple was reconstructed and a Greek Orthodox church rose in its spot. 

The stones kept the story alive and in 1879 a huge 10 feet high statue of Marnas depicted as the god of Zeus was discovered and the discovery made news in the world media. The statue is now located in Istanbul Archaeological Museums. Istanbul Archaeological Museums.

The Byzantine church was also destined to undergo a transformation. In the seventh century, in the beginning in the seventh century, The Muslim general Amr ibn al-As conquered Gaza which led to the building being remodeled to an Omari Mosque. 

But the enduring existence of Gazan churches and synagogues proved the pluralistic standards that were prevalent in the region under diverse Islamic monarchies up to the present.

Suggested Read : Islamic Creation Story

Layers of History Unveiled: Gaza's Oldest Mosque, a Tapestry of Ancient Religions, Reduced to Rubble in Airstrike, News
Gaza under Islamic rule

Gaza flourished during Islamic administration: Medieval travelers described it as a beautiful, fertile and creative city, which was home to notable Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities. It was an urban hub that was flourishing prior to the time when it was awash with people when the European Crusaders arrived. 

The city was sacked by the King of the Crusaders of Jerusalem, Baldwin III, in the year 1100, the Omari Mosque was converted once again – this time as an Catholic Cathedral dedicated to Saint. John the Baptist.

The Muslim general Saladin defeated the Crusaders in 1187. Gaza was restored back to Islamic rule. The church was converted back to a mosque and then in the 13th century, its elegant oval minaret was elevated. 

However, the conversion into a mosque was not without its own merits. the Crusader church. In addition, its major portion of the nave as well as its west portal are still visible in the present.

It was during this time that the mosque gained acclaim for its library, which contained many thousands of books, with beginning with the year 13th. Following the library of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Omari’s library was one of the largest of its kind in Palestine.

It was in 13th-century that the mosque was subject to destruction from the Mongols as well as massive earthquakes that repeatedly threw the minaret. The mosque’s reconstruction following each of these disasters is a testament to the continuing importance of the mosque in the social life of the residents of Gaza.

These stones are the story

Then, Gaza continued to flourish as a port city on the coast in which Muslims, Christians, Jews and many others resided in the huge, cosmopolitan Ottoman Empire.

In the latter part of the 19th century, as researchers looked into the history of Gaza and culture, a powerful evidence of the building’s rich background was discovered in the form of A relief on a pillar of the mosque depicting the menorah with seven branches as well as Jewish ritual objects like an horn or shofar that was surrounded by wreath. The name Hanania is the name of a son of Jacob was engraved in Hebrew as well as Greek.

It isn’t clear when it was built however, it appears to be an ancient synagogue column that was reused in the building of the Byzantine church. It was utilized again during the construction of the mosque. another layer of the architectural palimpsest of Omari Mosque. Omari Mosque.

A few years later after that, during World War I, the mosque was badly damaged as the nearby Ottoman weapons depot became struck by British artillery. In the 1920s the stones were again taken down and the mosque rebuilt.

Following the establishment of 1948 as Israel, the State in Israel, Gaza became the refuge for tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Gaza was controlled through Egypt before it became taken by Israel in 1967.

It was following the war of 1967 that Jewish symbols began to be associative with the Israel state Israel as well as its conquest of Gaza the Menorah Relief was removed of the column in the mosque.

A new future Omari Mosque Omari Mosque

On the night of Dec. 8th, 2023 Israel became the latest military force to attack the mosque. The library, too could have been destroyed and is a treasure-trove of knowledge that can’t necessarily be rebuilt. 

An digitization initiative which was completed in 2022 leaves the library’s treasures. But, digital files aren’t able to take away the value that the manuscripts originally contained.

The countless other heritage sites that were destroyed or damaged include Gaza’s historic harbor as well as five centuries old Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius, one of the oldest churches in the world.

From a modern perspective it’s quite remarkable that the menorah relief survived for more than 1,000 years, It was a Jewish symbol, unsurprisingly, coexisting within an Muslim worship hall. 

Actually both the relief and its removal tell the history of Gaza itself, which is a appropriate reminder of the numerous years of destruction as well as coexistence and strength that are embodied in the mosque’s stones.

And if the Omari mosque’s complex background is any indication, the residents of Gaza will be raising the stones once more.

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