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Middle East Kevin Dispatch

Three Thousand Years of Ships, Wars, and Prosperity
January 8, 2000

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Jaffa, truly a beautiful town
Tel Aviv, the second largest city in Israel, is a center of modern style that hugs the Mediterranean coast. But as I walk south along the beach for a half hour or so, I find myself in the heart of what used to be THE BIG CITY for over 3,000 years! This city's name is Jaffa (now called Yaffo in Hebrew), which means beauty.

Jaffa is the oldest port in the world and was first used by the Canaanites for several centuries. During the building of the First Temple, King Solomon had cedar trees from Lebanon brought in by boats docking at Jaffa. Since that time, Jaffa has been used by sea-faring people who crossed the Mediterranean to reach their final destination: Jerusalem. According to the Book of Jonah in the Old Testament of the Bible, it was from this city that Jonah set out to sea hoping to get out of performing a great task God had in store for him. As he boarded a boat in Jaffa bound for Tarshish, Spain, a great storm tossed him overboard and he was swallowed up by a big fish. The fish saved his life and spat him back out onto dry land where, given a second chance, he was persuaded to do the Lord's bidding after all.

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 It's the "Tower"! We must be in Jaffa
Jaffa's history doesn't end with ancient biblical times. The centuries of Jaffa's history seem to pass under my feet as I walk through its narrow streets. In the center of Jaffa stands a tall clock tower made of stone. It is the very first thing that most people see as they drive into town on the main road connecting Tel Aviv to Jaffa. This tower, which rises well above the buildings in its immediate vicinity, was constructed just after the turn of the 20th century by the Ottoman Turks for the Sultan Abdal el-Hamid II. Before that, in the heart of Jaffa's Old City, the Christians constructed St. Peter's Monastery whose beautiful orange walls are closely guarded by palm trees. Although the port was destroyed during the Crusader Wars against the Muslims, it began to be an arrival point for pilgrims of different faiths on their way to Jerusalem. Going back further still, to the beginning of Islamic rule in the 8th Century, Jaffa was an important link to the provincial Arab capital of Ramle. Mosques built during that time, as well as those built since, now stand out in attractive contrast to some of the more modern buildings of today.

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St. Peter's Monastery
Jaffa's more recent history places it in the center of yet another wave of immigration; that of the first pioneers of Zionism. The boatloads of Jewish newcomers arrived in the 1880s during the first Aliya (which means "ascent" up to the heights of Jerusalem), and found their way to Palestine by way of Jaffa's port. The immigrants, most of whom were Russian, succeeded in integrating themselves by cooperating with the local Arab population, most of whom were under Ottoman Turkish rule. Between about 1904 and 1914, the second Aliya brought thousands of more Jews into Palestine. Political Zionists such as David Ben-Gurion (who became Israel's first Prime Minister) were among the European Jews who landed on the shores of Palestine, and thus transforming Zionism from a political theory into a practical movement. The Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine) began to grow, and relations between Jews and Arabs became increasingly strained, largely because Arab labor was easily replaced by new Jewish workers in the name of Zionist principles. (These included Jewish land, Jewish labor, and later on, Jewish defense.) The Zionist leadership quickly began to purchase land (often from landowners living outside of Palestine) to make room for more new immigrants. Palestinians were shocked to find that land their families had lived on for generations was suddenly owned by Jews. Resentment to the newcomers continued to grow. By the 1920s, the British, who controlled Jaffa and Palestine from 1917 to 1948, were already struggling to contain the many anti-Jewish riots that continuously erupted in Jaffa.

In anticipation of statehood, Zionist forces (made up of the Irgun and the Hagana, both of which you'll soon learn more about) attacked Jaffa in an attempt to capture the city for the new state. Thousands of Palestinians were forced to evacuate, and many of them were never able to return after the successful conquest. Since 1950 Jaffa has been unified with Tel Aviv, and in the '60s The Old Jaffa Development Co. improved many of the facilities in order to clean up the town and attract tourism.

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Ahhhh. The relaxing atmosphere of Jaffa
Today the city is full of life. As I walk between the artist quarter and the tranquil gardens, there are no automobiles to circumnavigate. Fishing boats still dock at the harbor, and the fresh catch keeps the tradition of seafood alive in Jaffa. While looking out over the port, I feel the presence and cultural history of the Old City behind me. But just as the wind can shift at any moment, I can also gaze out at the Mediterranean Sea and the modern skyline of Tel Aviv. Jaffa is like its many relaxing cafes, host to newcomers from all directions, and a meeting place for the past and future.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Monica - Is It Monica, or Is Itů Moses: Under the Spell of the Holy City
Team - Lawrence of Arabia: a World Trekker at Heart!
Abeja - The Masada's Last Stand
Monica - Code Red - Do You Read Me?

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