GAZA // Arriving in the Gaza Strip from the northern Erez checkpoint with Israel - with its snarls of barbed wire, ominous concrete tunnel and ubiquitous rubble - one may not know they are travelling on one of the most ancient and strategic highways in the world.
Today, a jumble of cars, taxis, bikes, donkey-carts, camels, and pedestrians all vie for space on Gaza's potholed Salah al Din Road - the territory's main north-south highway that for centuries was known as the "Way of the Philistines" and linked Egypt to present-day Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and beyond. Running the full 45km to the Gaza Strip's southernmost town of Rafah, but just a slivered remnant of the flourishing passageway it once was, Salah al Din is a window into the rich history of the embattled territory, as well as its more recent tales of conflict and despair.
"The whole focus of life in the historic city [Gaza] was in parallel with the highway that gave the city its rasion d'etre," said Gerald Butt, author of Life at the Crossroads: A History of Gaza. "But the highway today, because of the complexities of international borders, does not serve as a link between Egypt and greater Syria as it did for centuries." Driving south from Erez, Salah al Din is immediately lost in the tangled web of Gaza City's urban streets, burrowing through the overcrowded neighbourhoods where Hamas policemen direct traffic.
Widening under a massive sign wishing travellers a "Good Voyage" in English, the highway escapes the chaos of the city and traverses the Wadi Gaza riverbed, once Gaza City's major line of defence against marauding armies from the south. "It was the most important road in the region, and it is still important. It would reach all the way to Turkey," said Rabai al Faqawi, a 75-year-old refugee from Jaffa, now in northern Israel, as he roasted tea over a driftwood fire by the side of the road.
The armies of Egypt, Alexander the Great, and even Napoleon all tramped up Salah al Din on their way to sack Jerusalem and other imperial prizes in the Levant. The British, when they ruled the area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, built a railway along the highway to more easily transport weapons and supplies in their battles with the Ottomans during the First World War. Egypt administered Gaza from 1948 until 1967, when Israel seized the territory.
"I have seen the Egyptians, the Israelis, and now the Palestinians rule this road," said Mr al Faqawi, glancing across the street at a life-size, sun-bleached poster of Hamas' dead spiritual leader and founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. "Everything has changed." It is indeed the Palestinians themselves that are the new overlords of this 3,000-year-old highway, at one time a thriving corridor for the trade of silver, spices, wine and fish under Greek, Persian, Roman and later Byzantine rule.
But Hamas, the Islamist movement that seized control of Gaza from its Fatah rivals in 2007, now runs the road's dozen or so checkpoints. Under Israel's occupation of Gaza from 1967-2005, Salah al Din was closed to Palestinian traffic on an almost daily basis. "The Israelis would close the road every day," said Abu Osama, 28, a Hamas policeman manning a checkpoint stationed in an old Jewish synagogue in central Gaza. "We couldn't move from one end of Gaza to the other."
Now, toiling farmers, tinkering mechanics and an array of colourful roadside businesses span the length of Salah al Din, from central to southern Gaza. Camels weave aimlessly between its lanes, workers dig for gravel at its edges, and teetering, horn-blaring lorries run up and down the road to ferry smuggled goods and aid assistance to Gaza's 1.5 million people under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade. "When I was younger, all of this was orange groves, open farms," said Abu Yusuf, 53, a blacksmith from the southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis, where the road curves east to meet the city's bustling vegetable and carpentry markets.
"Now, it is people, buildings, businesses, cars," he said, sweeping his arm out towards the sides of the road. "Everything comes down this road." The highway's vibrant traffic of travellers and commerce cannot go far, however. Just 15km south of Abu Yusuf's workshop, Salah al Din is choked-off by the enclave's sealed border with Egypt at Rafah. Salah al Din once ran all the way to the Egyptian seaside town of Al-Arish, 50km from Rafah, where it was known as the "Way of Horus" in Ptolemaic Egypt, in reference to the ancient Egyptian god of the sky, and whose pilgrims and merchants were raided regularly by the Bedouin of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on their way to Gaza.
On this day, according to authorities, the border is open to Palestinian passengers both leaving and returning to Gaza. But the territory's more recent political landscape - where the Hamas government goes unrecognised by western powers - strangles the historically fluid border and leaves thousands stranded on both sides of the dusty crossing. "I came to Gaza through Egypt, so I should leave through Egypt, but I am stuck," Solia Idris, 34, a Gaza native with a Swiss passport, said at the border. "This is our life, but we are used to it; we are used to being closed off on all sides."