Jaffa, the mysterious and ancient city lying just south of Tel Aviv, is a place that I have visited on many an occasion. I have wondered through the old town, tasted various different types of hummus, haggled in the flea market and imbibed the art exhibitions.
Today was a chance to learn about the history of the city, and it really was a fascinating day. Jaffa has its beauty spots: a lovely view down the coast; a grand neo-baroque church; quaint old streets. Still, as sights in Israel go, there is nothing that particularly makes it stand out.
However, there is a great atmosphere in the city, something a little bit edgy, and together with this are a fantastic array of tales going back 3500 years. Our guide was a good story-teller and he painted the picture of the city well as we explored its ancient paths.
We began the day at the famous clock tower, built at the beginning of the 19th century. Exploring the square, we learned about the history of the buildings – the old gaol, the former governor’s house, the areas formerly owned by the Greek Orthodox church.
Continuing up the hill which formed the main part of the original city dating back to the Bronze Age, we enjoyed a lovely viewpoint over the coastline, including Andromeda’s rock. Our guide regaled us with the legend about this underwater ridge, so perilous for sailors attempting to reach the city – there are only two breaks in the rock through which it is safe to enter – they have found many ruins of boats from throughout the ages on the Jaffa sea bed.
Moving through the old town and its urban legends, we arrived at St Peter’s Church. According to Catholic tradition, it is built on the site of the home of Simon the Tanner, where Peter stayed while visiting Jaffa. During his visit, he had a grand vision, which ultimately led to the spreading of Christianity into a major global religion after it became possible to encourage non-Jews to adopt the faith. The church, whose construction was funded by the Spanish Royal Family at the end of the 19th century, is a beautiful building, imposing itself on the coastline.
Wondering through the streets and hearing yet more tales of Jaffa’s past, we arrived at the appropriately named Jaffa Tales Visitors Centre. The centre does a good job of relating some of the better known stories associated with the city and displays some interesting artefacts.
Before breaking for lunch, we visited the excavations of ancient Jaffa, dating back 3500 years to the Bronze Age. Another great tale was that of Thutmose III, Pharaoh of Egypt, who found an ingenious way to conquer Jaffa during his campaign in the 15th century BCE.
Following a quite fantastic lunch in Guetta, one of my favourite restaurants and masters of Libyan cuisine, we visited the port area, hearing about the history of the sea trade in the area and the recent refurbishment. We also got a good recommendation for ice-cream, although frustratingly no time to verify it. That alone definitely warrants a return visit!
Turning back to the old town, we followed the steps of Napoleon as he broke into the city during his campaign of 1799. Here was time for another tale, although this one had a rather grisly ending.
We concluded the day at a surprising site – the Protestant cemetery of Jaffa. There were quite a few tombs of note, but most unexpected was that of Dr Thomas Hodgkin (he of Hodgkin’s disease fame). He came to the area on a trip with Moses Montefiore, and unfortunately contracted dysentery and was unable to leave.
His tale, together with many others, led to a very fun day. You will have noticed that I have avoided going into too much detail on the stories, but I will be happy to take you around Jaffa in due course and relate them in person!