The Good Life in the Holy Land

The oldest port city in the world, Jaffa is a frenetic mix of the ancient and the contemporary.

Written by Neeta Lal | Updated: February 12, 2017 12:06:36 am

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Jaffa, a 4,000-year-old port city perched on clifftops along the Mediterranean coast in western Israel, seems like nature on steroids. Everywhere you look, there’s a photo op. Water in 50 shades of blue, medieval mazes that drape themselves around terracotta-roofed houses, cobblestoned streets polished smooth by pedestrians, road signs marked in zodiac symbols and the non-stop symphony of a blustery sea.

No less enchanting are the city’s Biblical associations — with Jonah, Solomon, Saint Peter — and the legends of Andromeda and Perseus. As we soak in the city’s sights, sounds and smells, the guide, Tami Halperine, fills us in on Jaffa’s intriguing past.

“The port of Jaffa is mentioned in the story of Jonah, a famous Israeli prophet who was commanded to carry the words of the Lord in the Iranian city of Nineveh, but refused. Instead, he tried to escape to Tarshish near Israel’s border,” Tami says, as we click pictures with paparazzi-esque fervour. “A great storm tosses Jonah and his mariners into the sea where he’s swallowed up by a whale. The seer remains in the fish’s belly for three days and only when he agrees to do as commanded by the Lord, is he vomited out upon dry land in Jaffa!”

Jaffa’s multi-culturalism continues to inspire to this day Jaffa’s multi-culturalism continues to inspire to this day

Jaffa has paid a heavy price for its beauty, being invaded by everyone, from the pharaohs to Napoleon. “The city has a long history of gory battles and heartaches, yet it has always remained an important gateway to the Holy Land, where pilgrims, invaders and immigrants have landed,” says Tami as we negotiate the old port area, peppered with buildings made from white Jaffa stones.

Jaffa’s unique demography — Muslims, Christians and Jews — make up a fascinating patchwork quilt of people and languages, giving it a distinctly varied cultural appeal. However, the city’s ethos wasn’t always so inclusive. In the late 19th century, when Jews from around the world descended upon the city, it created a severe strain on the city’s resources, sparking tensions between different groups.

Over the years, however, Jaffa’s multiculturalism has begun to inspire rather than incite. Today, its mixed population lives harmoniously; Bohemian and Levantine cultures thrive amidst robust European and British influences. The city has also acquired a glamorous new avatar thanks to a revamp of its port and old warehouses. No more a pit stop for scruffy sailors or broke artists, the city bustles with chic galleries, cafés, bookstores and nightclubs.

Dry fruits and spices on display in the market Dry fruits and spices on display in the market

I saunter into Jaffa’s old town and discover an enchanting world of underground churches and mosques. Passageways conquered by Napoleon, archaeological ruins and boutiques marked by colourful mosaic entrances add to the area’s allure. Smack dab in the middle of the town in Yefet Street; at the northern entrance of Jaffa, looms the Clock Tower, one of the seven built in honour of Sultan Abdul Hamid II during the Ottoman period in 1903. A peak inside reveals the charming kishle and saraya, the quaint Ottoman police station and government house.

In Kedima Square, we ooh and aah over a glittering fountain with stone sculptures featuring all the zodiac signs. The tiny alleyways here tumble down towards the port, with each alley named after one zodiac sign. The buildings flanking the cobbled lanes house art galleries, studios and residences.

Negotiating sun-dappled streets, we next visit the Ilana Goor Museum — another city landmark — dedicated to the multifaceted Israeli artist. It is located in an 18th century building that served as the first Jewish outpost for pilgrims en route to Jerusalem, and, overlooks the breathtaking Tel Aviv shoreline and the Old Jaffa City. The museum is an Alibaba’s cave of treasures showcasing works of over 500 Israeli artists and several big names of the global art world. Each of Ilana Goor’s own creations — furniture, sculptures, mosaics, paintings — tells a story, underscoring the artist’s philosophy that “it’s only if one touches, feels and uses art that one can understand what it really is”.

Exquisitely crafted ceramics of Jaffa Exquisitely crafted ceramics of Jaffa

Shuk, or Jaffa’s flea market, is a maelstrom of sights and sounds, haggling and hustling. It has existed for over a hundred years in the same alleyways and covered streets. Vendors display goods from every beam and surface, nook and cranny. We step across carpets unfurled over the sidewalk from carpet stores, taking in the eclectic mix on sale — cheap clothing, accessories, jewellery, furniture, antiques, second-hand goods, even kitchen sinks!

A la their Indian counterparts, the shopkeepers aren’t shy of reaching out to prospective clients. “Come, come my friend, you from India?” an avuncular shopkeeper invited me to his kiosk. I go over to inspect his wares — chunky necklaces, earrings, fridge magnets, embroidered table and cushion covers, and other knick-knacks with Tami’s words echoing in my mind: “With a bit of patience and a keen eye, you can pick up real treasures at the shuk.”

A world away from the heat and hubbub of the flea market are Jaffa’s upscale boutiques and art galleries, guaranteed to give your credit cards a vigorous workout. Decades ago, Israeli artists were awarded studios and residences in the alleyways of Jaffa’s old city.

Today, a newer generation has moved in to join some of the old-timers in the domed dwellings. A cornucopia of handcrafted ceramics, pottery, jewellery and high-end design wares awaits visitors here. We cluster around the “Oranger Suspendu” — the famous hanging orange tree sculpture by environmental artist Ran Morin — for selfies!

Israel is a feast for the taste buds and Jaffa is no exception. Apart from street fare — creamy hummus, shawarma, shakshuka, kebabs and crispy falafel — there’s fish so fresh it seems to have jumped straight from the Mediterranean onto your plate. There are Arabic eateries, Tunisian bistros, Romanian meat restaurants and European cafés. I try delicacies that make my taste buds sing: masabaha ma’a ful, a dish where tahini, hummus and fava beans coalesce to create an incredibly rich mouthfeel; hot zaatar pita, potato and egg-stuffed sambusac; the fleshy Mejdul dates and knafeh, a syrup-soaked cheese pastry crafted from dough, goat’s cheese and rosewater.

As my day trip ended, I ambled across to the port following a network of cobbled lanes. Bustling with boats, cafés and restaurants, the port radiates enough kinetic energy to power a ship. Fishermen push their colourful boats out to sea while sailboats chug along the coastline. Tourists bask in the holy trinity of the sun, sand and surf, while the adventurous queue up to book kayaking lessons at shops along the port. A large hangar stands converted into a shopping complex brimming with people. A cultural centre run by the visually and hearing impaired also houses the ‘Blackout’ restaurant, where blind waiters serve you in pitch darkness.

Eschewing the mundane, I opt for the majestic. With a DSLR in hand, I climb to a vantage point on a mildly steep gradient and wait for the sun to plunge into the ocean. After what seems like an eternity, the celestial show begins. The sky starts changing hues, slowly at first, and then faster than runway models at a fashion show, till the orb is finally gobbled up by the water! But not before a million hues — honey, russet, orange, sorrel, ochre, amber, dun — had burst upon the horizon in that one moment, creating a heady cosmic cocktail for me to savour!

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor and senior journalist.

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