The Legends of Jaffa, Israel
I am looking at a long row of blackened rocks positioned along the coast. These rocks that raise their heads above water are called the ‘Andromeda Rocks’ after the Greek legend where Andromeda’s mother boasted that her daughter was more beautiful than the daughters of Poseidon, the Greek God of the Sea. In revenge Poseidon sent a sea monster to prey upon the country and the king decided to sacrifice Andromeda. She was chained to a rock by the sea but was rescued by Perseus, the God of the Sky and Thunder, on his winged horse. Perseus killed the monster, and later married his maiden in distress. Myths and legends abound in Jaffa.
Mentioned both in the Old and New Testament, Jaffa, Israel, one of the oldest towns in the world was called “Joppa” in the Bible. It is said to be founded by the son of Noah, during the reign of the Israelite King Solomon around 950BC. Legend has it that it was from Jaffa that the cedars of Lebanon were shipped to build King Solomon’s Temple, and it was also off the coast of Jaffa, that Jonah was swallowed by the whale. Perched on top of a hill with a natural harbour and fertile soil, ancient Jaffa was a prized possession – it was conquered many times by Byzantine, Arab and Crusader armies. The city was part of the Ottoman Empire for more than 400 years. In 1820 a Jewish guesthouse was established by a rabbi and Jaffa became a gateway for Jewish immigrants who arrived on its treacherous coastline by boat. In its heyday, the port was famous for its warehouses of Jaffa oranges, grown in what was then Palestine and exported all over the world.
Today Jaffa is incorporated into Tel Aviv by a common government, but the picturesque port city is worlds away from the modern metropolis. We approach Jaffa by foot along the beachfront promenade. The seafront has a new cycle path connecting it to Tel Aviv, and the area has become a popular nightspot. The warehouses that used to house Jaffa oranges have been converted into galleries and stylish restaurants. Called Yafo in Hebrew, the ‘Bride of the sea’ in Arabic, Jaffa looks like a page out of a fairytale, perched on a hill with its minarets and steeples piercing the skies, above the azure waters of the crystal Mediterranean. It has been an important port of entry for pilgrims, refugees and crusaders over centuries. Long ago it was the only entry to the holy city of Jerusalem and was often referred to as ‘the hand that feeds Jerusalem’. Tel Aviv was founded by a number of Jewish families as a garden suburb who wanted to move north into the sea dunes from the largely Arab port of Jaffa in 1909. “Just more than a century ago, Tel Aviv was nothing but sand dunes, while Jaffa has been a major port city with a history of over 4,000 years”, says Sharon Pelleg, our attractive Israeli guide.
By the 1930s, Jaffa was famous for its orange orchards, exporting millions of citrus crates to the rest of the world, which provided jobs for the people of the city. It also used to be the centre of Arab Palestine. The Arab-Israeli conflict in spring 1948 forced the majority of Jaffa’s Arab residents to flee, and even today this is a highly controversial topic with diverse narratives. It is said that the vast majority of the 100,000 Arabs in Jaffa were forced to leave to Gaza or Lebanon. Others fled on foot to the West Bank or Jordan. Within days, most of the remaining Arabs moved to a neighbourhood called Ajami and in the 1950s Old Jaffa became a crime infested desolate wilderness.
“This great seafaring town became a disreputable hangout for sailors, fisherman, and the jobless. Its crime rate rocketed,” says Sharon. It was in the mid ‘90s, that the government of Tel Aviv began investing in Jaffa’s redevelopment starting with the port area. They encouraged artists to move into the derelict buildings of the Old Town. Once considered a little “Jerusalem by the Sea”, modern Jaffa is now a hip assortment of art galleries, theatres and restaurants. The port teems with life and culture, from galleries, organic coffee cafés and bookstores, to some of the most happening nightclubs in the Middle East. Thanks to an influx of “young Israelis,” Jews and Arabs are living side by side, learning from each other.
The centre of old Jaffa is dominated by the clock tower, where free walking tours of the area depart. The Clock Square with its distinctive clock tower and stained glass windows is a local landmark and was built in 1906 in honour of the Ottoman Sultan. On Russian Street I see the remains of the great fountain or ‘Sabil’ that was used to quench the thirst of travellers and camel caravans. Many of the honey coloured stone buildings have been let out to artists and craftsmen, where they sell crafts and ceramics.
I walk through the gargantuan Jaffa Flea market with stalls selling Israeli antiques, cheap cotton clothes, Persian carpets, and evil eye hands called Hamsas. Large furniture stores sell French chairs and antique sofas alongside mother-of-pearl inlaid cabinets. The smell of cigarette smoke and incense segues in the air. I bargain with Jewish vendors selling Star of David pendants, and Israeli Arabs selling headscarves. We visit a shop filled with glass cases showcasing unique Roman glass jewellery – chips of centuries-old Roman glass that have been skillfully incorporated into silver pendants and earrings. “Imagine wearing something that may be 2,000 years old,” says Sharon with a smile.
History whispers from every corner of Jaffa’s alleys and its honey coloured stones. There is the Money Changers’ Alley – where they say that sailors from all over the world who arrived at Jaffa Port changed their money to pay for prostitutes. It was in Jaffa in 1799 that the infamous Siege of Jaffa happened when Napoleon destroyed the fortified city and killed hundreds of its inhabitants. Legend has it that Napoleon did not actually plan to conquer the city. He sent a solider with a white flag up to the city gates. The inhabitants of the city didn’t know what a white flag meant. So they cut off the man’s head and hoisted it on the city wall. And of course then he had to conquer the city. You can still see a few Napoleonic cannons in Jaffa today. His soldiers brought an epidemic to the city which spread quickly killing many locals. The Armenian convent that served as a hospital for Napoleon’s troops still stands.
My favourite is a walk down the 12 alleys of Old Jaffa that have ceramic signs of the zodiac and are named after them. Sandstone houses with blue shuttered windows are now galleries occupied by painters, sculptors, potters and jewellers. I enjoy the little details: shuttered windows, window boxes overflowing with bright flowers and old wooden doors covered with vines. I peer through doorways, catching sight of artists hard at work sculpting, etching and painting.
A wedding couple in their finery pose against an old building as part of their photo shoot – she in an exquisite corseted dress and the groom with the typical Jewish cap kippah on his head. We reach the end of a narrow alley of amber stone to see the incredible sculpture of a live orange tree suspended about two feet off the ground in a cobbled courtyard. ‘Orange Suspendu’ was created by the artist Ran Morin and inspired by that great Israeli icon the ‘Jaffa Orange’. The shamouti orange which this port was famous for was a new variety developed by Arab farmers after first emerging in mid-19th century Palestine. To me the sculpture seems to be a narrative about strength and resilience – of overcoming odds and continuing life. To some it represents the displaced Arabs.
We spend some time sipping fresh orange juice at a roadside stall in Kedumim Square to revive from the hot sun that beats down. This is where St. Peter’s Church with its red brick façade, perches on a high point overlooking the sea. Archaeological explorations have uncovered remnants of a crusader fort beneath the church, underneath which a Byzantine church is buried. It has deep biblical significance as the site where St. Peter raised Tabitha the widow, from the dead. Under the church with its vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows and marble-covered walls are 13th century rooms from an ancient citadel, said to be where Napoleon lived during his campaign. A short walk away is the House of Simon the Tanner, where, according to the Bible, St. Peter had the vision that spurred him to preach the Bible to the gentiles and the pagans.
Regeneration manifests itself in many forms in Jaffa. We see the controversial gated community project called Andromeda – a luxury housing complex for rich Jewish residents which the Arab residents feel promotes ethnic discrimination in Jaffa and alienates them. From the end of the 19th century until 1948, the Jaffa-Jerusalem train route stopped at Tel Aviv’s old railway station, known as HaTachana in Hebrew. One of Jaffa’s new attractions today is this Ottoman-era Railway Station dating from 1892 which opened after a half decade restoration. It’s a vibrant space with its defunct track and carriages spruced up, surrounded by cocktail bars, designers boutiques and restaurants. I love the vibe of Vicky Christina – a young, fun Tapas bar offering tapas with pitches of sangria with its outdoor area in the shade of a humongous ficus tree and divided into two distinct areas – Vicky and Christina.
Food is an omnipresent motif as one walks along the streets of Jaffa. It’s a pilgrimage of sorts to one of Jaffa’s iconic eateries – Ali Caravan otherwise known as Abu Hassan that is considered to serve the best hummus in Israel. We stand in a long queue for a table and feast on plates of pita bread served with three kinds of hummus topped with a bit of mashed fava bean. On the street called Yeffet (named after one of the sons of Noah) is iconic Abulafia, Jaffa’s first bakery established in 1880, where we gorge on sambusas (filled pastries) and bourekas (stuffed breads with sheep’s cheese), and taste sweets piled in symmetrical pyramids. The Israeli Arab owner of Abulafia has been in the neighbourhood as a kind of peacemaker and all his employees wear an orange T-shirt that proclaims ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies’. “His employees come from every religion and break bread together,” says Sharon.
One cannot leave Jaffa without enjoying the treasures of the Ilana Goor Museum (4 Mazal Dagim St.), a 250-year-old house that used to be a Jewish hostel for pilgrims and later a soap factory and now a museum but also serves as a residence for this internationally recognised artist. I love the panoramic views from the terrace packed with sculptures and plants in gargantuan pots. I enjoy Goor’s eclectic collection, which includes her own art and furniture, an assortment of African sculptures as well as works by other artists that she supports or admires. Outside in the square is a fountain with a sculpture of a whale by Ilana Goor. The sculpture was inspired by the bible story of Jonah and the whale.
Jaffa also offers one of the most unusual theatres and dinner experiences in Israel. Called the Nalaga’at Centre, housed in an old shipping hangar, it presents shows combining mime, sign language and music, performed by its troupe of visually-challenged and hearing-impaired performers. In the same waterfront complex is Black Out, a restaurant in which dinner is served in complete darkness by blind waiters and Cafe Kapish where waiters are hearing impaired. The pinnacle of our experiences in Jaffa is a Libyan dinner at Dr Shakshuka (4 Beit Eshel St.), which serves up a fiery North African tomato casserole with poached eggs on top called Shakshuka. Hundreds of old kerosene stoves and copper pans dangle from the ceiling and the kitchen buzzes with activity as six burners are devoted to producing this signature dish. Rotund Chef Bino Gabso shows us how to make the famous dish – we watch him expertly cracking each egg on top of the tomato and pepper stew. As I sit and muse, mellow with the wine and food, I think back about the chronicles of Jaffa – so many stories tucked into its stones, so much history in its alleys. I also recall the doorways that lead nowhere and the crane hovering over its roofs.
Before I leave Jaffa I see something which stirs hope in my heart: an Arab-Hebrew Theatre troupe in Jaffa that performs plays in Arabic or Hebrew, and holds joint productions in which they mix actors and languages. All the performances are held in the Al-Seraya House, which was originally built in the 18th century as a lodging house. From 1998 it’s been the venue for this attempt at peaceful co-existence. “Beyond bullets and bombs, there are countless examples of people at grass-root levels building such models that can be avenues for catharsis,” says a friendly local. And these are the beacons of hope in a country with a history as complex as Israel. •
Photography by Kalpana Sunder and Shutterstock.com
Qantas flies to Bangkok connecting with Royal Jordanian to Amman and Tel Aviv. qantas.com.au
Where to Stay
Hotel Crowne Plaza has great sea views and comfortable doubles. crowneplaza.com
What to Do
Visit Jaffa and its art galleries and boutiques as well as St Peter’s Church. Visit the Ilana Goor Museum. Eat a Hummus meal at AliKaravan.
What to Buy
Local sweets, rosaries and menorahs (Jewish candlesticks), Armenian pottery, Roman glass jewellery, Dead Sea products, date honey, pomegranate wine and dried fruits. Visit the flea market in Jaffa.
What to Eat/Drink
Local specialties like hummus, felafas, Sabich, shawarma, puff pastries called burekas, halwa and freshly baked local breads. Drink fresh orange and pomegranate juice and local wine and beer.