Today the city of Jaffa (otherwise known as Yafo, and lying at the southern end of Tel Aviv – see the map below) exudes the gritty vibrancy of a fringe culture where avant-garde is a byword, bohemian chic is the pervading flavor, and where contemporary theater and art have come home to roost.
Jaffa’s current urbane landscape however, masks an amazingly rich history as one of the oldest port cities in the world – with huge potential yet to be exploited.
For good or bad, the massive redevelopment that has turned Jaffa into a satellite of Tel Aviv’s hip art and entertainment scene will change the face of Jaffa: but Jaffa’s historical heritage will never disappear.
When taking a look at Jaffa’s amazing history, you could easily weave the tapestry of time to span the kingdoms of the Egyptian Pharoahs, the early biblical period, the bloody Crusades, the magnificence of the Ottoman Turks, the days when the British ruled most of the world, and right up to Israel’s independence. That’s a lot of history for one little fishing port city.
And whilst archaeologists can prove dates from excavated artifacts they can never verify the beguiling myths that surround the city.
Fables are retold of Jaffa/Yafo being named after Yefet, son of Noah who settled here after the Great Flood and the scriptures tell of how Jonah sailed from Jafa to Tarshish to escape God’s wrath.
Others will tell you Old Jaffa is the place where Andromeda was chained to the cliffs after her mother, Queen Cassiopeia, claimed her daughter was more beautiful than the daughters of Greek God Poseidon. Today you can see the chains on Andromeda’s rock at the entrance to Jaffa where they have remained since Perseus rescued the fair maiden from the jaws of The Cracken.
Jaffa has seen many rulers in its time. The city was the center for the government of Israel after it had been conquered by Pharoah III in the 15th century BCE. It was later populated by the Tribe of Dan until the days of King Solomon when Jaffa was a major port for the importation of Cedar from Lebanon that were used to build the Holy Temple.
Jaffa has also been the subject of conquest by Alexander the Great, Roman Legions and was the landing site for King Richard the Lionheart and his Crusaders, and then later Napoléon Bonaparte in his quest to capture the lands of the Ottoman Empire. And throughout these changing times, Jaffa remained the gateway to the Holy Land for pilgrims, refugees and immigrants.
By 1879 the city was outgrowing its boundaries, so the old wall was breached to begin new neighborhoods, including Neve Tzedek. There then followed a really turbulent time for both Jaffa and Tel Aviv.
At the outbreak of the First World War the ruling Turks were concerned about the city being a base of subversion and espionage with British sympathies and it became a stagnant place where no development or construction happened.
When the British finally arrived in the Holy Land in 1919 all the Jewish residents were banished from both Jaffa and Tel Aviv. It was only after the Turks left that the populace was able to return but during this time the Jews had moves underway to separate Tel Aviv as an independent city in its own right.
Tel Aviv finally freed itself as a neighborhood of Jaffa in 1921 after the Arab Riots, which were the culmination of the hostilities between the districts of Neve Tzedek and Manshia, which is today one of the commercial districts of Tel Aviv.
During the 1940s Jaffa was a seat of conflict held by the Revisionist National Military Organization until their surrender on May 13, 1948, the day before the State of Israel was formally recognized worldwide. All focus then switched to Tel Aviv. It was firmly established as the capital and became home to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament and government ministries.
Then, just one year later in 1949, the new Mayor of Tel Aviv, Israel Rokach, decided to reunite with Jaffa and in October 1949 the unification was granted government approval. Forty years after Jaffa’s Jews had left to establish Tel Aviv, the two cities became the new municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo.
And now, a new era for Jaffa begins: the old harbor and many parts of Old Jaffa are slowly being transformed, turning Jaffa into a real tourist attraction with beautifully restored buildings, galleries, theaters, shops, restaurants, cafes and promenades.
Beyond Old Jaffa and its tourist sites, much of the “real” Jaffa is poor and underdeveloped. And thanks to some gentrification projects in al-Ajami and Lev Yafo, and the ever increasing prices in central Tel Aviv, real estate prices in Jaffa are also starting to rocket. Not a great thing, as the recent social protests throughout Israel this past summer will testify…
This redevelopment and gentrification will surely have an impact on Jaffa and its residents, for good and bad; but only ol’ Mother Time really knows what’s in the next chapter in Jaffa’s long history…