Jaffa Tales: An ancient port awakes from its slumbers to become a must-visit city
Israel travels

Jaffa Tales: An ancient port awakes from its slumbers to become a must-visit city

Highlights include historical sites, picturesque markets, unusual art galleries, archeological finds, a newly renovated beach promenade, the Wishing Bridge, and unique eateries

Jaffa (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am/File)
Jaffa (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am/File)

Long, long ago, the King and Queen of Jaffa bragged about their daughter Andromeda so loudly that the sea nymphs became highly offended. They complained to the sea god Poseidon, who ordered a boycott of Jaffa.

In order to appease the sirens, the King and Queen had Andromeda chained naked to the rocks. She was rescued by the hero Perseus, who flew to her on winged sandals just as she was about to be attacked by the Sea Monster.

To enjoy an animated version of this famous ancient legend, and other Jaffa tales as well, stop in at the city’s spanking-new Visitors’ Center. You can make it part of a fabulous day trip that includes historical sites, picturesque markets and lanes, unusual art galleries, archeological finds, a newly renovated beach promenade, the Wishing Bridge, and unique eateries.

A good place to start any tour of Jaffa is with the Tourist Information Center, next to the Jaffa Clock Tower. Inaugurated a year ago, it is located inside one of the first buildings to be constructed by the Turks after they dismantled the walls of Jaffa at the end of the 19th century. Like others built in cities throughout the Ottoman Empire, it was known as the seraya, and served both as the Governor’s residence and his administrative offices.

The building was designed by Baruch Peppermeister, a Jewish architect who had just completed the synagogue in the new settlement of Rishon LeZion. Not surprisingly, the result was a splendid peach and white building whose administrative center vaguely resembled the Rishon synagogue, with Romanesque living quarters that boasted large columns and a wide, impressive stairway.

Jaffa old and new (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Jaffa old and new (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The British used the seraya as an administration building from 1917 on. Then in 1947 it became both municipal and army headquarters for the Arabs of the city, a base from which Arab preyed on Jews in neighborhoods nearby. Finally, on January 9, 1948 and knowing that they had only 80 seconds in which to escape, two young boys from one of the Jewish underground movements parked a van full of citrus fruit (and explosives) next to the seraya, and got away before it blew up.

By the beginning of the 21st century the seraya was in horrible shape. Fortunately, the magnificent edifice was partially restored in 2005 and transformed into a Turkish Cultural Center that provided information on travel in Turkey. With a severe deterioration in our relations with Turkey, the building is now closed to outsiders. As a result, the only way to view part of the building’s interior is to visit the Tourist Information Center — for it is housed in one wing of the former seraya.

The clock in the plaza is one of five elaborate creations constructed in 1906 to honor the Turkish sultan, Abdul Hamid II, who by that time had ruled the Ottoman Empire for 30 years. Originally the clock had four faces — with two showing European time, from midnight to midnight, and two for Turkish time (sunset to sundown). Although the clocks in Acre and Safed (and perhaps Nablus) are still standing (I wouldn’t know), the clock at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem was taken down by the British: they objected to having Ottoman embellishments at the entrance to the Old City.

Nearby, the Jaffa flea market is a bargain-hunter’s delight, filled with antique furniture, jewelry, clothes, other people’s “junk” and tons of souvenirs. These days, it is also the venue for all kinds of boutiques, trendy shops and quirky eateries.

Jaffa Port (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Jaffa Port (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A heady fragrance wafts through the air from the Hungarian Bakery, filled with delicacies we looked for — but did not find — in Budapest. Greek music coming from Yasu Saloniki can’t help but draw visitors nostalgic for Greece into its decorative interior. And then there is Puah, a restaurant whose large collection of unmatched furniture came right from the market..

Another of Jaffa’s major highlights is Gan HaPiska, a park on the peak of a hill. Not surprisingly, this ancient city holds is full of excavations: those in the park include the remains of an Egyptian citadel with a reconstructed gate, dating back to the 15th century BCE when Egypt ruled Jaffa.

Failing to conquer Jaffa by force, the Egyptians had used a trick that preceded the Trojan horse by a couple of hundred years. They hid soldiers inside 200 immense baskets that overflowed with gifts for the Prince of Jaffa. Once they gained entrance to the city, the soldiers emerged — and the rest is history.

Also standing on the hill, near the lovely Statue of Faith with its biblical sculptures, is the Wishing Bridge. We are told that your dreams will come true if you walk onto the bridge, touch your astrological sign, and make a wish…

Every tourist to Jaffa wanders through its Artists’ Colony, whose picturesque lanes are named for astrological signs. Frank Meisler’s amazing gallery features a sculpture of Picasso that you can open up to reveal the wine and women inside. On Mazal Dagim (Pisces) Street, a sign hangs outside one of the shops that reads “Archeology Center licensed to sell Ancient History.”

An historic building constructed in 1740 by a rabbi from Libya is located at the western end of the Artists’ Colony, right near the port. After landing in Jaffa prior to a Jerusalem pilgrimage, he looked for a place to stay overnight and soon learned that Jews were unwelcome lodgers. So he returned to Libya, gathered up donations for a Jewish hostel, and erected the first Jewish building in “modern” Jaffa.

Jaffa's first Jewish building (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Jaffa’s first Jewish building (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Jaffa’s wonderful, brand-new Visitors’ Center is located in a charming plaza nearby. Here Jaffa’s history comes alive with a fantastic State of the Art production and a close-up view of a 2,000 year old villa that was discovered right underneath the Center.

Next door, the brightly colored brick Church of St. Peter was constructed in the 19th century over ruins of a Crusader citadel and a pilgrims’ hostel. Napoleon and some of his soldiers are believed to have lodged in the hostel during the general’s conquest of Jaffa.

On his way to the Holy Land, Napoleon liberated hundreds of thousands of Jews from European ghettos and granted them equal rights. Some Napoleon enthusiasts call him the real father of Zionism, as well, for in 1799 he made plans for a proclamation that would declare Israel to be the Jewish homeland. It was apparently meant for issue after a successful conquest of Acre – a battle which, unfortunately, he lost.

Of course, no visit to Jaffa is complete without a visit to the port, a stroll on the newly restored promenade, and a large gulp of fresh sea air. You can get some culture here, as well, in a clean and airy newly renovated old warehouse designed to feature galleries and exhibits.

Across from the warehouse, Café Kapish is a coffee shop that combines tasty light meals with a unique twist: since all of the waiters are deaf, you can only communicate with a smile, sign language that the waiters are eager to help you learn, a slate, and a Magic Marker.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a private tour guide.


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