On your travels in Tel Aviv, you may be lured into signing up for a ‘free’ walking tour of Old Jaffa along with 40 others only to realise at the end, a generous tip is mandatory or you run the risk of looking like a penny-pincher! Or, if your pockets are deep and well-lined, you may decide to go for a ‘private’ tour and pay through your nose for a couple of hours being shepherded from point A to B. If these are your cup of teas, do go for any of the two.
But the truth is—you don’t need either.
Old Jaffa is best explored on one’s own, at one’s own pace, getting lost and finding new delightful secrets instead.
The other half of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, Israel’s pleasure-seeking city on the Mediterranean Sea, Yaffo or Jaffa is everything Tel Aviv is not. Historic and steeped in ancient stories. Which makes for an interesting union between the two, signed and sealed in 1949. Read on and let me explain.
Jaffa is not just old. It is VERY old, but carries its mantle of being one of the oldest port cities in the world rather lightly. If you wondering how far back in time it goes, let it suffice to say it is named after and was founded by Biblical Japheth, son of Noah, who built the ark. Flash forward to 950 BC, it rose to prominence under Israelite King Solomon’s rule and finds mention in the Hebrew Bible as the port where cedar trees from Lebanon arrived for building the first Temple.
Over the years it was conquered by the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders and Ayyubids, Mamluks, Ottomans, and British. Everyone wanted to own the port’s strategic location straddling Asia and Europe.
Through the millennia and multiple rulers, this little town somehow managed to retain its importance as the first port of call for Christian and Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem. From here, they would take a carriage through the Jerusalem Gate on to the Holy City. For 400 years, under Ottoman rule, it thrived as the gateway for exporting Jaffa Oranges to the whole wide world, a legacy still associated with it.
That is, until 1948, when the Arab-Jew War gutted the city and forced the Arabs to flee. It took 50 years to revive it from this trauma. But it did revive and rose through the ashes like a phoenix, this time around as a democratic, secular, artists’ colony with a mixed population of Jews and Arabs, living and working side by side.
I knew I wanted to explore Old Jaffa on my own, but wasn’t sure how. And then I found this fantastic self-guided walk by Israeli guide Shira Elazary on the net. Here, in this post is my version of the self-guided walk. Based on Shira’s, and garnished with my own little discoveries. I hope one day you can use it when in the old city, and discover your own treasures to further add to it. ❤
Starting Point: Clock Tower, with the ruins of the New Seraya, David Razi’el Street
Where else to start one’s self-guided walk of Old Jaffa, but where all the paid and private and free tours start: its most famous landmark, the Clock Tower. Built in 1900 by Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hameed II to mark his reign’s 25th anniversary, it stands where the city’s main gate once stood. Called the Jerusalem Gate, the road from here led straight to the Holy City, Jerusalem. The Sultan loved his towers and built scores of them throughout the Ottoman Empire, decorating them with flags and banners.
To the left are the ruins of the New Seraya or Administrative Centre  used by the Ottomans, and scene of much bloodbath in the Arab-Jew War of 1948. Local Arab paramilitary organisations had set up base inside it during the build-up of the war. Their intent was clear—to blow up Jewish Tel Aviv. Before that could happen, the Jewish paramilitary blew it up instead with a truck bomb, killing and injuring scores of Arabs. While the southern wing was restored to house the Turkish Cultural Centre, the northern wing has been left with just its skeletal façade, a reminder of the legacy of war.
Walk past the Clock Tower, and turn right into Tayelet Mifraz Shlomo Street.
Stop 1: Mahmudia Mosque, Tayelet Mifraz Shlomo Street
Having turned right, the first structure you will come across is the above elegant marble-fronted Mahmudia Mosque, Israel’s third largest mosque, and Jaffa’s most important one. It was renovated in the early 19th Century by Ottoman governor Mohammed Agha, popularly known as Abu Nabbut meaning Father of the Mace because he was always carrying one around. He named the mosque after his late son Mahmud.
There is an interesting story attached to it: One dark night, Nabbut got stuck outside his own city gates. He was exhausted and his throat was parched but the guards would not let him in as they could not see him clearly in the dark. Once inside, the next morning, he immediately commissioned the fountain be built so no one would go thirsty again like he had to. He also rewarded his guards for their conscientiousness but promptly put them to death as well for he had overhead them bad-mouthing him that night.
Keep walking straight until you reach the Old Seraya in a few minutes.
Stop 2: Old Seraya and cast-iron cannons, Tayelet Mifraz Shlomo Street
Up until the building of the New Seraya, the Old Seraya to your left served as the Ottoman governor’s residence. An early-19th Century edifice built over a Crusader fortress, it has had a chequered past. It started off as an inn, then became governor Abu Nabbut’s grand palace cum municipal post office and jail, after which it became a soap factory owned by the Demianis, a local Christian family, was deserted in 1948, and in its current avatar is an archaeological museum closed to the public.
On your right, facing the sea, are a string of cast-iron cannons found during excavations at Jaffa Port. The Ottoman government imported them in the early-18th Century to protect Jaffa from Bedouin raids by land and pirates by sea. They stood on the city walls which encircled the city, until the walls collapsed in the late-19th Century. Next to the cannons is Old Jaffa’s viewpoint. Stop here and wallow in the view.
Stop 3: Old Jaffa’s most Insta famous viewpoint, Tayelet Mifraz Shlomo Street
Sigh. Pretty-as-a-picture: The 111-year-old Jewish city of Tel Aviv and its 15-kilometre-long pristine beaches is all things modern. If you wondering about the gay pride frame design and tags, Tel Aviv is the gay capital of the Middle East. It is also an IT hub, vegan capital of the world, secular, hedonistic, and has an all-night party scene. A complete contrast, yet complement, to historic, cobble-stoned, Arab Jaffa. Together, the two cities form Tel Aviv-Yaffo, a union officiated in 1949.
Take the foot path immediately after the Old Seraya, and climb up the manicured greens of Old Jaffa Hill called HaPisga Garden.
Stop 4: Gate of Faith, HaPisga Garden
At the top of Old Jaffa Hill stands Jewish sculptor Daniel Kafri’s seminal Gate of Faith approached through the Tiroche Amphitheatre. The gate shape of the Galilee stone sculpture is symbolic of Jaffa’s historic role as the main port of entry into the region over the millennia. Three Biblical stories are carved onto it, all dealing with Yahweh’s promise of the land to the Jewish people. These stories are: the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham, Jacob’s dream ladder, and on the top part, the conquest of Jericho.
The surrounding park used to have stone houses and winding alleyways, like the rest of Old Jaffa, till the 1930s. These were blown up by the British to enable better military control over the rebelling Arabs during the Great Arab Revolt [1936 – 39].
Factoid: All the trees and shrubs now planted on the hill are salt and wind-resistant.
Stop 5: Zodiac Wishing Bridge, HaPisga Garden
A new bridge. An old tradition.
Stand by your zodiac sign on the wooden Zodiac Bridge, face the Mediterranean Sea, and make a wish! No guesses here, Yes, I am a Libran. 😊
Having made your wish, walk over to the other side of the hill, towards the Ramses II Gate archaeological site.
Stop 6: Ramses II Gate, Sha’ar Ra’amses Garden Archaeological Site
No, these are not the originals. The 3,300-year-old original gate is inside Jaffa Museum. But this is where it stood for over three millennia. Known as the Ramses II Gate, it bears hieroglyphics in praise of the Pharaoh Ramses II [1304 (b) – 1214 (d) BC].
An Egyptian legend narrates Pharaoh Thutmose III’s conquest of Old Jaffa in the 15th Century BC under the guise of a gift. As a sign of surrender, the Egyptians had brought ‘gift baskets’ to the ancient city which naive Jaffa accepted. Inside the baskets, however, were a bunch of Egyptian soldiers. Once night crept in, the soldiers sprang out, opened the city gates, and let the Egyptian army in to attack the unarmed, half-asleep city. Moral of the story? Check gift packages, especially life-sized ones. 😀
Step out of Old Jaffa Hill, turn right on the main street and enter Old Jaffa’s alleyways.
Stop 7: Entrance to Old Jaffa’s alleyways
Whilst the top portion of Old Jaffa Hill was blown up by the British during the Great Arab Revolt in the 1930s, in order to curb the revolts, the lower levels managed to retain their original buildings and old alleyways. Here, calcareous sandstone houses line narrow, cobbled, tumbling lanes. The area was abandoned after the 1948 war. Fifty years later it got a new lease of life when it was rehabilitated as an artists’ colony. Which explains the multitude of galleries and art studios in its midst. In between, you will find Israeli Arab and Christian homes who have held on to their heritage through the numerous upheavals, and charming churches tucked into corners.
Go straight inside, and turn left at the T-point to see the suspended orange tree.
Stop 8: Floating Orange Tree, HaTsorfim Street
Say the word Jaffa, and most likely the first thing to come to mind to most people would be Jaffa Oranges. Once the mainstay of Jaffa’s economy, the Jaffa Oranges are now cultivated all over Israel and Palestine, except in Jaffa where it was first grown. Sculptor Ran Morin’s suspended Jaffa Orange tree, hanging mid-air in a quiet cul-de-sac is a poetic ode to its role in the city’s growth and exports, and a reminder of humankind’s disconnectedness with nature.
Return to the entrance of Old Jaffa’s alleyways and turn left, walking on till the end to the Ilana Goor Museum. Or you could choose to explore the quaint lanes a little more.
Stop 9: Uri Gellar’s Bent Spoon and Ilana Goor Museum
As you wander through Old Jaffa’s alleyways you will come across a number of quirky sculptures. Most striking of the lot being British-Israeli magician Uri Gellar’s Bent Spoon. Among Uri’s many powers, spoon-bending is his most iconic. It is a feat he has performed hundreds of thousands of times. As a child, in Tel Aviv, Uri discovered he had this paranormal ability by accident—while having soup. This giant sculpture is Uri’s own special gift to Tel Aviv-Yaffo.
If you are into art museums packed with all things outlandish, then be prepared to be smitten by the Ilana Goor Museum, home of Israeli artist, designer, and sculptor Ilana Goor. Housed in a three-storey 18th Century inn used by Jewish pilgrims when they reached Jaffa by sea, it has on display Goor’s own work, and private collection of 400-odd pieces from her travels in Israel and around the world over 50 years. On Fridays, at 12 noon, free guided tours are offered to visitors.
Make your way towards Jaffa Port. You may have to ask around or use Google maps to locate the House of Simon the Tanner which is hidden deep inside a narrow alley.
Stop 10: House of Simon the Tanner and Jaffa Light, Shim’on Ha’bursekai Street
Various Christian traditions recount the story of Simon the Tanner who lived in this very same house and hosted Peter the Apostle. It was here that Peter saw his famous vision in which he was commanded to eat animals regarded as unclean in Jewish tradition. Peter interpreted this as a sign to forego Jewish commandments and to preach Christianity to Jews and Pagans alike—a historic turning point for Christianity wherein it evolved from an esoteric sect in Judaism to a worldwide religion.
Look above the house and you’ll catch a glimpse of a red and white lighthouse called Jaffa Light. Used between 1865 and 1966, it was built by French engineers. Three generations of a Christian Armenian family, the Zakarian family, have been its lighthouse keepers till it was shut down. Closed to the public, the lighthouse and Simon the Tanner’s house both still belong to the family, who continue to live on the premises.
After an optional stop at the restaurant-packed Jaffa Port, head back to the Clock Tower. All roads will pass by the next stop: St. Peter’s Church.
On your way you will pass a square called Kikar Kedumim or Square of the Ancient Ones. Underneath it is Old Jaffa’s main excavation site along with a Visitors Centre. One of the things found here was a wishing well which has been replaced with a Zodiac Fountain at the exact same spot.
Stop 11: Saint Peter’s Church
Unlike most churches, the Spanish-styled Baroque St. Peter’s Church faces west. An architectural detail symbolic of the paradigm shift in Christ’s followers after Peter’s stay at Simon the Tanner’s house in Old Jaffa. No more was the focus of the new faith merely on converting local Jews. It was now looking westwards and towards Gentiles [non-Jews] as well. The site marks the spot where Peter brought the dead Tabitha back to life. Over the centuries, the Vatican-run, rose-pink church and attached monastery became the first port of call for pilgrims to Jerusalem. Mass is to-date held regularly and is attended by local Christian Arabs and expats.
Factoid: Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have stayed in the attached monastery when he conquered Old Jaffa in 1799.
Continue on the road parallel to the sea, back to the Clock Tower. To your left are Andromeda’s Rocks, straight out of Classical Greek mythology. Another story! Having pissed off Poseidon in a boastful fit, Cepheus was forced to tie his daughter Andromeda to the rocks and offer her as a sacrifice to the sea monster Cetus. This was where she was tied. The hero Perseus saved her in the nick of time, and together they went on to sire the Persian race.
Stop 12: Snack time at Abouelafia Bakery, Yefet Street
Whether hunger pangs have struck you or not by now, walk straight past the Clock Tower, into Yefet Street. No trip to Old Jaffa is complete without coffee and a sambuska at the Abouelafia Bakery [to your left] owned by the Arab-Israeli Abouelafia family since 1879. Pure yumminess.
Ending Point: Clock Tower
I recommend Old Jaffa be visited twice. First, as an early morning walk when it is bathed in cool, fresh sea-air and local Israelis go about their yoga practice in its empty lawns. And second time around, at night, when it is all lit up and festive like above. When the whole town comes alive with cafes and galleries and fairy lights.
- Getting to Old Jaffa: You can take a cab or just walk down the promenade to its southern-most end.
- To know what’s on at Old Jaffa, visit its Visitors Centre website here.
- This post is inspired by the self-guided walk designed by Shira Elazary, a born and raised Israeli guide. To read about her walk, click here.
- Staying there: I stayed in a private room at Abraham Hostel Tel Aviv.
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[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my solo and independent travel to Israel for 15 days in November 2019. To read more posts in my Israel series, click here.]