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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Place Called Gaza – Part Three

To recap from the story last time, Gaza had been abandoned once again when infighting consumed the descendents of Salah-uddin Ayubi, which was then followed by floods, plagues and all manner of natural disasters severely affecting the region. It was left virtually untended by the Mamluk dynasty ( the Egyptian dynasty) , particularly after the natural disasters that it suffered.

The Ottomans, or “Uthmani” empire, however had a different vision for the muslims. They were not content to reside within self-serving fiefdoms, and instead undertook massive campaigns to reunite the Islamic governments under one authority throughout all the muslim regions. They originated from the unification of various Ghazi ( or provinces ) from the breakup of Byzantium, led by Osman the First. They had many military successes before their arrival in the levant, having successfully repelled the mongol hordes from the east as well as conquering Anatolia ( what can now be considered west turkey). These battles were particularly important for muslims, as until the Ottomans were victorious against the Safavids, a Shia dynasty who were involved in inciting various struggles for power within the Ottoman state. They had planned to support violent uprisings led by treacherous relatives of Selim I, and were trying to implode the successful Ottoman empire. This plotting was in particular driven by Shah Ismail, whom some of his followers described as a reincarnation of Ali(ra)!

Selim I considered Shah Ismail a heretic who threatened the very foundations of the deen. Whilst they fought, the Shah ordered his armies to destroy all crops and anything useful to the “enemy” when Selim advanced, whilst at the same time berating him for fighting his muslim “brothers”. The Shah was defeated in the battle of Chaldiran. After this battle, he was able to turn his attentions towards the Mamluk dynasty.

He first tackled the Mamluks in battles near Aleppo, successfully defeating the Egyptian mamluks and forcing them into retreat in Egypt. When taking Damascus and Syria, Selim I lambasted the Alims and Scholars for being so close to the rulers and thereby allowing the mamluk excesses to be prevalent. Selim was able to move quickly through Palestine from this, with the area virtually deserted, particular Gaza. They first entered Gaza and the rest of Palestine in the same year as Syria, 1516.

Gaza to the Ottomans though underpopulated became a key strategic location, it being an excellent link for military expeditions between Egypt and Syria. Confident they had conquered the area, they moved on to other pastures whilst leaving a small reserve force in Gaza itself. The Mamluks however managed to send reinforcements, and participated in a slaughter of the entire garrison leaving no prisoners, killing all the sick and wounded. When the Ottomans returned, they spared no mercy upon the people of Gaza, feeling they had supported the mamluk slaughter. Many civilians were killed.


It is important to understand at this point that Selim I, though I may have given a different impression up to this point, was certainly not infallible by any means. He was known by some subjects and historians as “Selim the Grim”. He took power by killing and imprisoning many of his relatives whom he considered rivals to the throne. According to Shia sources, he was responsible for killing over 40,000 people suspected of heresy within the Ottoman State, and imprisoned thousands more. It should be understood however that even if these numbers are correct, Shah Ismail was reciprocating the treatment with other agitators within his own kingdom.

After this incident of the retaking of Gaza city, there was a key battle in Khan Younis, now famous as a town with an adjacent huge refugee camp within the Gaza Strip. The Ottomans were victorious and able to march upon the Mamluk dynasty, to where they entered triumphantly in Egypt and the Hijaz. The last of the Mamluks, Al-Mutawakkil III, was ordered to surrender the title of Caliph to Selim, together with the sword and cloak of the prophet(saw). These are to this day held in a museum in Turkey.
Even though Gaza was not given a separate wilayah, it was acknowledged as being of extreme military importance. Selim I when passing through the town and returning from Egypt ordered that it be reconstructed. This task fell on the Governor of Damascus.

With Gaza, Palestine, Egypt and Syria under the control of the Ottomans and the European front expanding rapidly, one would think that peace would return to Palestine. This was not to be the case. Gaza was under the control of the Syrian governor, as the “province of Damascus”. In order to abate any rebellions, ex-mamluks were appointed to powerful positions by Selim. These included Janabirde Al-Ghazali, who was made Governor of Damascus.

Selim I died in 1520, but not before he had significantly expanded the empire that he had become the leader of. The Ottomans were announced as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, and had introduced many key milestones in modern warfare, not least the use of Gunpowder, as well as returning Islam to its rightful prominent place above the sects of the Alawi, Ismalis, Rafidah, and others. Sulayman I ascended to the position of Caliph.

Unfortunately, within days of Selims death, the mamluk governor of Damascus attempted to revolt against Selims son, Sulayman. This revolt encompassed Gaza, as well as pockets in Syria and the rest of Palestine. The newfound muslim unity was demonstrated though when a loyal battalion from Egypt, together with resistance against the revolt by bedioun tribes, arrived to quell the disturbance, with the Mamluk quest for power foiled.

Sulayman from this point onwards would move the Ottoman empire to that of a centrally planned government and economy, in order to regulate the restoration and development of cities, as well as to negate the risk of breakaway provinces. Through this approach, Gaza would emerge as one of the great centers of trade, as we will see in Part four, during the reign of “sulayman the magnificent”.

Umar Abdullah, 2nd February 2009

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