The Great Omari Mosque

How this ancient site speaks to Gaza's extensive history of religious interchange.

Omari Mosque in Gaza City by Ramez HabboubThe Barakat Trust

"My favorite place in Gaza is the Great Omari Mosque. I like to pray and read the Quran there. The tall minaret is very unique" - Samira Elbaz, 9 years old

Muneer Elbaz, Architect, Urban Planner and Lecturer at UCAS

Religious interchange

The Great Omari Mosque is the oldest mosque in Palestine. It was, however, not always a mosque. Like many ancient religious sites, it was built, destroyed, and rebuilt numerous times. In fact, it was not only built on top of previous religious sites, but with their same stones.

Gaza (1905-01-12) by David RobertsThe Barakat Trust

The Temple of Dagon

According to tradition, the Great Omari Mosque stands on the site of the Philistine temple honoring Dagon: an ancient pagan god of fertility and water. Some argue that this god is the origin of mermaid folklore.

The Mocking of Samson (17th century) by Jan SteenThe Barakat Trust

Samson, Delilah, and the Philistines

The Temple of Dagon is mentioned in the story of Samson, found in the Old Testament. As the story goes, Samson, a strong Israelite warrior, fell in love with a prostitute in Gaza City named Delilah. 

Having killed thousands of Philistines, Samson became their enemy; determined to bind and kill him in vengeance. Delilah, a double-agent for the Philistine army, was determined to discover how God gave Samson his power. She eventually discovered the source: his long hair.

After she cut his hair in his sleep, he lost the strength to defeat the Philistines. In his final struggle to survive, he killed thousands of Philistines. Local legend claims he is still buried beneath the Great Omari Mosque, in the foundations of the Temple of Dagon.

The philistines chanted a poem as they made gracious offerings to Dagon, saying:
"Samson was our enemy,
but our god Dagon
helped us capture him!"

Water damage to stone below minaret (2020) by Muneer ElbazThe Barakat Trust

Marneion, a pagan temple

In Byzantium, Dagon remained the patron god of Gaza, but was now called "Marnas," and his temple called Marneion. Both Dagon and Marnas were sky gods, potentially mimetic of the Greek god Zeus. Marnas' image was minted on Gazan coins and worshipped to prevent drought.

Marneion was burned in 402 CE by the orders of Christian Roman emperors in order to banish all remnants of paganism. Walking on the temple’s ruined walkway was forbidden. The destroyed rock of the temple is said to have been used to build Souk al-Qissariya.

Minaret doorway front (2020) by Muneer ElbazThe Barakat Trust

Yousef Aljamal, PhD candidate and Journalist

Cathedral of John the Baptist

On the old ruins of the Temple of Dagon, the Cathedral of John the Baptist was built in 406 AD by either Roman Empress Aelia Eudocia or the Emperor Marcian. John the Baptist is said to be a derivation of Dagon, both being associated with water and baptisms.

Doorway from Souk al-Qissariya into mosque (2020) by Muneer ElbazThe Barakat Trust

Repurposed as an Umayyad Mosque

In the Umayyad period, around 700 AD, the Cathedral was converted into a mosque. The Great Omari Mosque’s name comes from one of the first caliphs of Islam, Omar ibn al-Khattab, in the 600’s. 

Ayman Abu Shaban, Architectural Engineer at Municipality of Gaza

"The name Omari could come from the fact that the caliph Omar made a pact to preserve all Christian churches that were functioning and retain them as places of Christian worship. In Gaza, one of the things to bear in mind is that Muslims and Christians are brothers."

[Gaza, the Great Mosque from the east] (1917-1925) by American Colony (Jerusalem). Photo DepartmentThe Barakat Trust

Repurposed as a Crusader Church

On December 5th 1033, an earthquake caused the pinnacle of the mosque's minaret to collapse. After the minaret fell, during the Crusades of the 11th century, the Great Omari Mosque returned to its former status as a church.

Grande mosquée de Gaza, Great mosque of Gaza (1867-1899) by Maison Bonfils (Beirut, Lebanon)The Barakat Trust

Repurposed as a Mosque

It didn’t take more than another century before Ayyubid conqueror Salah al-Din turned the building back into a mosque. It remained a mosque during the Mamluk and Ottoman periods in Gaza.

Southern Palestine. Gaza, from the east (1900-1926) by American Colony (Jerusalem). Photo DepartmentThe Barakat Trust

The Mamluks and their Minaret

The Mamluk Empire ruled over Gaza over the course of almost three centuries – from 1259 to 1517. The Mamluks built this minaret, which is an example of their characteristic style: a square foundation and octagonal tower.

Southern Palestine, Hebron, Beersheba and Gaza area. Gaza. Judges 16:1 (1950-1977) by Matson Photo ServiceThe Barakat Trust

Dr. Suheir Ammar, Assistant Professor at the Islamic University of Gaza

"My strongest memory is when as the director of Iwan (Center for Architectural Heritage), I was able to climb up the minaret. Looking down at the city was wonderful.  Being in the midst of heritage buildings imparts a sense of the history of the city in which one lives."

Souk al-Qissariya Gate and Minaret (Unknown) by Palestinian Administration for Antiquities and Cultural HeritageThe Barakat Trust

Example of Adhan Recitation

Ottoman Expansion

The Ottomans also did constructions on the Great Omari Mosque. They expanded the structure to its current size, all of which is still in use. Calls to prayer (adhan) continue to be issued from the minaret.

Avedis Djeghalian & friends at the Omari Mosque (1967) by Avedis DjeghalianThe Barakat Trust

Avedis Djeghalian, Dentist and son of Gazan photographer Kegham

Avedis and his friends next to the Great Omari Mosque, 1967

Avedis reminisces about his childhood living near the Omari Mosque. In the early morning, he would hear the calls to prayer emanating from the massive complex. 

Southern Palestine. Gaza, from the west (1900-1926) by American Colony (Jerusalem). Photo DepartmentThe Barakat Trust

Perennial Foundations

Now, the Great Omari Mosque has remained a Muslim institution for almost 900 years. However, its foundations show that there has been religious worship here for far longer: at least two millennia. It changed religious affiliations at least six times.

Omar Al-Mukhtar Street (Unknown) by Muneer ElbazThe Barakat Trust

Life and Worship around the Great Omari Mosque

The surrounding area on Omar Al-Mukhtar street is a popular marketplace for sweets and spices during religious holidays. Still operating from center of the old city, the Great Omari Mosque continues to be a vital gathering place for the people of Gaza.

Great Omari Mosque Prayer (2010-12-06) by UnknownThe Barakat Trust

Rawan Yaghi, Journalist

As a child, Rawan remembers going to the Great Omari Mosque with her grandmother. A khutbah is a public preaching or sermon that usually occurs at midday prayers on Friday.

Great Omari Mosque Interior (Unknown) by UnknownThe Barakat Trust

Ayman Abu Shaban, Architectural Engineer at Municipality of Gaza

"The grandson of one of the imams of Gaza used to take me to [Souk] al-Qissariya and the [Great Omari] Mosque when I was young. There were many traditions related to the way in which people studying the Quran in the mosque. Some of the rites we followed have disappeared today."

Credits: Story

Compiled by Leena Ghannam. The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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