CHAPTER VIII. GAZA DEFENCES
Meanwhile there were important happenings at the other end of the line. Gaza was about to submit to the biggest of all her ordeals. She had been a bone of contention for thousands of years. The Pharaohs coveted her and more than 3500 years ago made bloody strife within the environs of the town. Alexander the Great besieged her, and Persians and Arabians opposed that mighty general. The Ptolemies and the Antiochi for centuries fought for Gaza, whose inhabitants had a greater taste for the mart than for the sword, and when the Maccabees were carrying a victorious war through Philistia, the people of Gaza bought off Jonathan, but the Jews occupied the city itself about a century before the Christian era. Later on the place was captured after a year's siege and destroyed, and for long it remained a mass of mouldering ruins. Pompey revived it, making it a free city, and Gabinius extended it close to the harbour, whilst under Caesar and Herod its prosperity and fame increased. In succeeding centuries Gaza's commerce flourished under the Greeks, who founded schools famous for rhetoric and philosophy, till the Mahomedan wave swept over the land in the first half of the seventh century, when the town became a shadow of its former self, though it continued to exist as a centre for trade. The Crusaders made their influence felt, and many are the traces of their period in this ancient city, but Askalon always had more Crusader support. Napoleon's attack on Gaza found Abdallah's army in a very different state of preparedness from von Kress's Turkish army. Nearly all Abdallah's artillery was left behind in a gun park at Jaffa owing to lack of transport, and though he had a numerically superior force he did not like Napoleon's dispositions, and retreated when Kleber moved up the plain to pass between Gaza and the sea, and the cavalry advanced east of the Mound of Hebron, or Ali Muntar, as we know the hill up which Samson is reputed to have carried the gates and bar of Gaza. For nearly a century and a quarter since Napoleon passed forwards and backwards through the town, Gaza pursued the arts of peace in the lethargic spirit which suits the native temperament, but in eight months of 1917 it was the cockpit of strife in the Middle East, and there was often crammed into one day as much fighting energy as was shown in all the battles of the past thirty-five centuries, Napoleon's campaign included.
Fortunately after the battles of March and April nearly all the civilian population left the town for quieter quarters. Some of them on returning must have had difficulty in identifying their homes. In the centre of the town, where bazaars radiated from the quarter of which the Great Mosque was the hub, the houses were a mass of stones and rubble, and the narrow streets and tortuous byways were filled with fallen walls and roofs. The Great Mosque had entirely lost its beauty. We had shelled it because its minaret, one of those delicately fashioned spires which, seen from a distance, lead a traveller to imagine a native town in the East to be arranged on an artistic and orderly plan, was used as a Turkish observation post, and the Mosque itself as an ammunition store. I am told our guns were never laid on to this objective until there was an accident within it which exploded the ammunition. Be that as it may, there was ample justification for shelling the Mosque. I went in to examine the structure a few hours after the Turks had been compelled to evacuate the town, and whilst they were then shelling it with unpleasant severity. Amid the wrecked marble columns, the broken pulpit, the torn and twisted lamps and crumbling walls were hundreds of thousands of rounds of small-arms ammunition, most of it destroyed by explosion. A great shell had cut the minaret in half and had left exposed telephone wires leading direct to army headquarters and to the Turkish gunners' fire control station. Most of the Mosque furniture and all the carpets had been removed, but a few torn copies of the Koran, some of them in manuscript with marginal notes, lay mixed up with German newspapers and some typical Turkish war propaganda literature. That Mosque, which Saladin seized from the Crusaders and turned from a Christian into a Mahomedan place of worship, was unquestionably used for military purposes, and the Turks cared as little for its religious character or its venerable age as they did for the mosque on Nebi Samwil, where the remains of the Prophet Samuel are supposed to rest. Their stories of the trouble taken to avoid military contact with holy places and sites were all bunkum and eyewash. They would have fought from the walls of the Holy City and placed machine-gun nests in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Mosque of Omar if they had thought it would spare them the loss of Jerusalem.