Tel Aviv’s twin city Jaffa or Yafo is not just its oldest part dotted with historic relics; it is also its hippest quarter with cool cafes, boutiques and vibrant nightlife, discovers ANURAG MALLICK on a trip to Israel
Listening to English cricket commentary on TV, I always wondered about the origin of the phrase “He has bowled a Jaffa”. It was a trip to Israel that finally cleared the mystery! But what in the world does an unplayable delivery have to do with a port town in a country that’s not a cricket-playing nation? The answer, is oranges…
Like the historic city it comes from, Jaffa’s famed fruit is a culmination of cultures – developed by Palestinian farmers from a Chinese strain brought by the Portuguese! Locally known as Shamouti, it evolved in mid-19th century from the sweet orange, introduced from China to the Mediterranean by Vasco da Gama in 1498. Unlike ordinary oranges, the Jaffa orange is sweet, practically seedless, with a thick skin that made it perfect for export. As crates of the fruit were shipped to Europe, Jaffa became synonymous with oranges. But what’s the cricket connection?
After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, the British were stationed in Ottoman Syria to administer undivided Palestine. During the Mandate that lasted till 1948, the cricket-crazy British were based in Jaffa where they picked up the orange reference. Theory goes, if the line and length of a delivery was good, then even if the bowler had bowled a Jaffa (orange) it would have beaten the batsman. By the 1960s, Jaffa oranges became Israel’s emblem. If New York is the Big Apple, Old Jaffa is nicknamed Big Orange.
Jaffa (Yafo in Hebrew) is not just the oldest part of Tel Aviv; it is older than history itself. Supposedly named after Noah’s son Japheth who founded the settlement after the Great Flood, Jaffa is linked with the biblical stories of Jonah, Solomon and Saint Peter. Long before the Bible was written, a fishing village existed at this spot.
Straddling the crossroads of religion, culture, commerce and politics, it is the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity. In Greek mythology, Andromeda was chained to a rocky outcrop near Jaffa’s harbour as a sacrifice to appease the sea god Poseidon before being rescued by Perseus. It is called Andromeda Rocks in her memory.
Jaffa’s history is like a flipbook through the greatest empires of the world and legendary conquerors, from Ramses, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Herod and Saladin to Napoleon. Every civilization worth its sea salt colonized the region’s sole port – ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantine, Ottomans and the Arabs. Jaffa survived everything from the Crusades, two World Wars and British intervention!
Savouring spectacular coastal views from Hapisga Garden, we walked up Jaffa Hill, which has yielded archeological finds dating back to 3500 years. One of the monumental gates discovered here dates to 13th century BC when Jaffa was an Egyptian garrison under Ramses II. An older gate found underneath was destroyed during the conquest of Jaffa; an event retold at the Visitor Centre in Qedumim Square. The cast iron cannons were imported in early 18th century by the Ottomans to protect Jaffa from Bedouin raids by land and pirate attacks by sea.
Parts of the Old City have been renovated and the suburb is crammed with restored stone buildings, art galleries, souvenir shops, hip restaurants and sidewalk cafes. The Zodiac alleys are a maze of lanes leading to the harbour where the British-built Jaffa Lighthouse stands defunct. Overlooking the seafront, the minaret of Al-Bahr (Sea) Mosque, depicted in a 1675 painting by Dutch painter Lebrun, is Jaffa’s oldest existing mosque. According to folklore, the wives of local sailors and fishermen prayed here for their safe return.
Located on the collision course of history, Jaffa has seen monuments built by one pulled down by the other and rebuilt or repurposed by yet another. St. Peter’s Church, a Franciscan Roman-Catholic basilica and hospice built in 1654 on the remains of a Crusader fortress, commemorates St Peter, who brought the disciple Tabitha back from the dead. On his 1799 military campaign of the Middle East, Napoleon Bonaparte stayed here during the siege of Jaffa.
The Jaffa Museum of Antiquities is located in an 18th century Ottoman building constructed on the remains of another Crusader fortress. Beit Zunana, an old mansion named after an 18th century Jewish landlord, was revamped into a hotel and later converted into a Libyan Synagogue. Famed Israeli artist Ilana Goor restored a 270-year-old building into a unique museum brimming with artefacts and antique vessels; its sculpture garden on the terrace offers terrific sea views. The Market House Hotel’s glass-floored lobby reveals the fascinating archeological ruins of a Byzantine Chapel below.
Thanks to 400 years of Ottoman rule (1515-1917), several monuments are of Turkish origin. The majestic clock tower built in 1906 to honor Sultan Abdul Hamid II marks the city’s northern entrance. Mahmoudiya Mosque, the largest in Jaffa, was built by Abu Nabbut, Governor of Jaffa (1810-1820) and has a charming sabil (water fountain) for pilgrims. The Saraya (Turkish Governor’s Palace) built for Mohammed Agha in the 1890s was used as a post office and jail before becoming a soap factory. The New Saraya inaugurated in 1897 was bombed and only the facade and Romanesque columns survive.
Yet, for all the histories that Jaffa holds, it lies on the cutting edge of art and design. Walls are awash with street art while charming nooks have quirky boutiques and cafés. The best place to experience Jaffa’s bohemian flair is Shuk HaPishpeshim or Jaffa Flea Market. By evening, tables and chairs dot the pavements, transforming the whole area into a vibrant outdoor dining space. The stylish Puaa restaurant has furniture sourced from the flea market and every item is for sale!
Despite the clash of civilizations, one thing that unifies everybody is food. Locals throng Abu Hassan for creamy hummus and msabbaha (hummus with chickpeas). Legendary sweet shop Abouelafia dishes out bourekas (stuffed pastries) proudly sporting ‘Abouelafia’s Co-existence Association’ t-shirts ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies’.
Strolling down Jaffa’s cobbled pathways, I came across Ran Morin’s enigmatic sculpture ‘Oranger Suspendu’ where an orange tree grew out of an artificial stone suspended by steel wires. The Hovering Orange Tree is seen not just a metaphor for Israel’s prosperity, but the fate of its people, hanging between heaven and earth.
The national carrier El Al flies direct from Mumbai to Tel Aviv-Yafo in 8 hrs while Air India takes 7hr 15 min from Delhi. Turkish Airlines flies via Istanbul and Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa.
Bourekas and sweets at Abouelafia Bakery
Hummus at Abu Hassan/Ali Karawan
The Old Man and the Sea
Ofer Moghadam Tours
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Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 14 July 2018 in HT City Cafe, the supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper.