The Great Mosque of Gaza (Jāmaʿ Ghazza al-Kabīr) also known as the Great Omari Mosque ( Jāmaʿ al-ʿUmarī al-Kabīr) is the largest and oldest mosque in the Gaza Strip, located in Gaza’s old city.
The present mosque was built in 406 CE as a large Byzantine church by Empress Aelia Eudocia. The upper pillars of the church are from a 3rd-century Jewish synagogue in Caesarea Maritima. It is also a possible that the church was built by Emperor Marcian. In 1870, an ancient Jewish ceremonial art carving was discovered on the upper tier depicting a menorah, a shofar, a lulav and etrog surrounded by a decorative wreath; it bore an inscription reading “Hananyah son of Jacob” written in both Hebrew and Greek. The church appeared in the mosaic Map of Madaba in 600 CE.
The courtyard and minaret of the mosque. Photo taken by Mohammed Alafrangi, 2007
According to tradition, the mosque stands on the site of the Philistine temple dedicated to Dagon the god of fertility which Samson toppled in the Book of Judges. Later, a temple dedicated to Marnas, god of rain and grain was erected. Local legend today claims that Samson is buried under the present mosque.
The ancient bas-relief inscriptions of Jewish religious symbols were allegedly chiseled away intentionally at some stage between 1987 and 1993. During the Battle of Gaza between the Palestinian organizations of Hamas and Fatah, the mosque’s pro-Hamas imam Mohammed al-Rafati was shot dead by Fatah gunmen on June 12, 2007, in retaliation for the killing of an official of Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential guard by Hamas earlier that day. The mosque is still active and serves as a base of emotional and physical support for Gaza’s residents, being a focal point of Palestinian pride.
Menorah engraving, Great Mosque of Gaza
Believed to stand on the site of an ancient Hellenic temple, the site was used by the Byzantines to erect a church in the 5th century, but after the Muslim conquest in the 7th century, it was transformed into a mosque. Described as “beautiful” by an Arab geographer in the 10th century, the Great Mosque’s minaret was toppled in an earthquake in 1033.
In 1149, the Crusaders built a cathedral dedicated to John the Baptist, but it was mostly destroyed by the Ayyubids in 1187, and then rebuilt as a mosque by the Mamluks in the early 13th century. It was destroyed by the Mongols in 1260, then soon restored only for it to be destroyed by an earthquake at the end of the century.
The Great Mosque was finally rebuilt by the Ottomans roughly 300 years later, and was described by travelers as the only “historically important” structure in Gaza. Severely damaged after British bombardment during World War I, the mosque was restored in 1925 by the Supreme Muslim Council. The Great Mosque is still active today.
The Great Mosque is situated in the Daraj Quarter of the Old City in Downtown Gaza at the eastern end of Omar Mukhtar Street, southeast of Palestine Square. Gaza’s Gold Market is located adjacent to it on the south side, while to the northeast is the Welayat Mosque and to the east, on al-Wehda Street, is a girls’ school.
Philistine and Byzantine era: The Byzantine church was transformed into a mosque in the 7th century by Omar ibn al-Khattab’s Arab generals, in the early era of Gaza’s rule by the Islamic Caliphate as part of the Islamization of Palestine. The mosque is alternatively named al-Omari in honor of Omar ibn al-Khattab who was the caliph when the Muslims conquered Palestine. While under Abbasid rule, Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi writes of the Great Mosque in 985 CE as a “beautiful mosque”. On December 5, 1033, an earthquake caused the pinnacle of the mosque’s minaret to fall off.
In 1149, the Crusaders (who had conquered Gaza in 1100) built a cathedral dedicated to John the Baptist atop the ruins of the church upon a decree by Baldwin III of Jerusalem. In his descriptions of grand Crusader churches, William of Tyre does not mention it, however. Of the Great Mosque’s three aisles today, it is believed that portions of two of them had formed part of the Cathedral of John the Baptist.
In 1187, the Ayyubids under Saladin wrested control of Gaza from the Crusaders and destroyed the cathedral. The Mamluks reconstructed the mosque in the 13th century, but in 1260, the Mongols destroyed it. It was rebuilt thereafter, but in 1294, an earthquake caused its collapse. The Mamluk governor of the city, ‘Alam al-Din al-Jawli commissioned restoration of the Great Mosque sometime between 1298 and 1319. The Mamluks finally completely rebuilt the mosque in 1340. Muslim geographer Ibn Battuta, in 1355, writes of the mosque’s former existence as “a fine Friday mosque”, but also says that al-Jawli’s mosque was “well-built”.
In the 16th century was the mosque was restored after apparent damage in the previous century; this time by the Ottomans who had also built six other mosques in the city. The Ottomans had been in control of Palestine since 1517. The interior bears an inscription of the name of the Ottoman governor of Gaza, Musa Pasha, dating from 1663.
Great Mosque Gaza Facade after British bombardment in 1917
Western travelers in the late 19th century reported that the Great Mosque was the only structure in Gaza worthy of historical or architectural note. The Great Mosque was severely damaged by Allied forces while attacking the Ottoman positions in Gaza during World War I. The British claimed the there were Ottoman munitions stored in the mosque and its destruction was caused when the munitions were ignited by the bombardment. Under the supervision of former Gaza mayor Said al-Shawa, it was restored by the Supreme Muslim Council in 1926-27.
Exterior view:Great Mosque of Gaza before its 1926 renovation, Mosque addition on the right
In 1928, the Supreme Muslim Council held a mass demonstration involving both local Muslims and Christians at the Great Mosque in order to rally support for boycotting elections and participation in the Legislative Assembly of the government of the British Mandate of Palestine. To increase the number of people in the rally, they ordered all the mosques in one of Gaza’s quarters to temporarily close.
The Great Mosque has an area of 4,100 square metres (44,000 sq ft). Most of the general structure is constructed from local marine sandstone known as kurkar. The mosque forms a large sahn (“courtyard”) surrounded by rounded arches. The Mamluks, and later the Ottomans, had the south and southeastern sides of the building expanded. Over the door of the mosque is an inscription containing the name of Mamluk sultan Qalawun and there are also inscriptions containing the names of the sultans Lajin and Barquq.
When the building was transformed into a mosque from a cathedral, most of the previous Crusader construction was completely replaced, but the mosque’s facade with its arched entrance is a typical piece of Crusader ecclesiastical architecture, and columns within the mosque compound still retain their Italian Gothic style. Some of the columns have been identified as elements of an ancient synagogue, reused as construction material in the Crusader era and still forming part of the mosque. Internally, the wall surfaces are plastered and painted.
The central nave of the mosque, looking west, after British bombardment
Marble is used for the western door and the dome’s oculus. The floors are covered with glazed tiles. The columns are also marble and their capitals are built in Corinthian style. The central nave is groin-vaulted, each bay being separated from one another by pointed transverse arches with rectangular profiles. The nave arcades are carried on cruciform piers with an engaged column on each face, sitting on a raised plinth. The two aisles of the mosque are also groin-vaulted. Ibn Battuta noted that the Great Mosque had a white marble minbar (“pulpit”); it still exists today. There is a small mihrab in the mosque with an inscription dating from 1663, containing the name of Musa Pasha, a governor of Gaza during Ottoman rule.
The mosque is well-known for its minaret, which is square-shaped in its lower half and octagonal in its upper half, typical of Mamluk architectural style. The minaret is constructed of stone from the base to the upper, hanging balcony, including the four-tiered upper half. The pinnacle is mostly made of woodwork and tiles, and is frequently renewed. A simple cupola springs from the octagonal stone drum and is of light construction similar to most mosques in the Levant. The minaret stands on what was the end of the eastern bay of the Crusader church. Its three semicircular apses were transformed into the base of the minaret.