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The City of Jaffa (Introduction)

Jaffa is an ancient city that has existed for thousands of years. During these years it has been occupied by different powers, demolished, and rebuilt many times. It has known years of poverty and a dwindling population as well as years of tremendous growth and prosperity.   Built on a hill overlooking the sea, it was surrounded by a wall like many other ancient cities. Jaffa is mentioned in the Bible several times, and also appears in historical and archeological sources. Its famous port promoted commerce and trade and served those making Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael in the 19th and 20th centuries.  

Part One: Ancient times to 1500

Jaffa is one of the oldest cities in the world. Traditions say that it was founded before the famous biblical flood by Japheth, the son of Noah. It was built on a high kurkar (sandstone) ridge, steeply sloped on its western, seaward  side and gently sloping to the east.  Flanked by lower ridges north and south, it is almost the only protrusion in the landscape between Mount Carmel in the north and Egypt in the south. The city’s small shallow bay forms a natural harbor, and the surrounding soil is fertile.

Jaffa was first inhabited in the fourth millennium BC, at first by non-Semitic cultures and later by Semites from the Arabian Peninsula. The coastal area was then occupied by the Sidonians from the north and the Canaanites from Israel. At the beginning of the third millennium BC, Egypt conquered the Land of Israel. Given that archeological remains from the Egyptian period have been found in the Old City of Jaffa,  the port of Jaffa may have served as a naval base.  Egyptian rule lasted for about fifteen hundred years and is referenced in various sources such as the Amarna letters and Papyrus Anastasi. At the end of this period, the  the tribes of Israel arrived. According to the Book of Joshua, these tribes migrated to Egypt  and then returned to conquer the Land of Israel. The city of Jaffa was part of the Land allotted to the tribe of Dan. Following this period, in the 14th and 13th centuries BC, the Philistines came from Europe through Greece and Crete towards Asia Minor and the Land of Israel,  conquering Jaffa and the coastal areas.

The Land of Israel, including Jaffa,  was conquered by the Assyrians in 803 BC and then in 608 BC by the Persians.  In 322 BC, Jaffa was conquered by Alexander the Great, King of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon.  Following the Jewish revolt in 168 BC, Jaffa fell into Hasmonean hands. Later it was ruled by the Romans, then the Byzantines, and then the  Arabs who conquered Israel in 636 AD. In 1099 AD the Land of Israel was conquered by the Crusaders and Jaffa became an important port city.  In 1268 AD Jaffa was conquered by the Mamluk Sultan Baibars, and the city was destroyed. After a short time, the residents returned to the city and built a fortress and the city walls.  In 1321 Jaffa is described as a small, pleasant and fortified town by travelers. We can learn from the description of Rabbi Yitzchak Hilu who visited the town in 1134, that Jewish population of the city was very small: “Jaffa is very beautiful. It is an important place for trade and merchandise;  there is a large and rich population…. The Jews of this city have a wonderful synagogue with many very old and impressive Torah scrolls. Next to the synagogue there is a school and library. However, very few people know the Torah in Jaffa…’’

For fear of further invasion by the Crusaders, the coastal cities were destroyed by the Mamluks. In 1336, the city embankment was destroyed, and pilgrims were not allowed in. Despite the destruction of the port, the city was described by travelers in 1340 as an “incredibly ancient and beautiful city.” Further attempts by the Crusaders to return to the Land of Israel lead to a decision to demolish the city completely. In 1347 AD the city is described as “dust ruins.” Only two half-destroyed buildings remained housing a few soldiers. This situation continued for many more years. The only place where one could stay was the Church of St. Peter, as the fortress was also destroyed.  Travelers who passed through Jaffa in the second and third decades of the 15th century describe a deserted city.

Jaffa, therefore, has been conquered, destroyed and rebuilt many times. Jews always lived there, in small or large numbers. In recent centuries there was almost no Jewish presence in Jaffa at all, but that changed in the mid-nineteenth century,  when Jews began to return to Israel in general and Jaffa in particular.

 

 

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