Beguiling Old Jaffa
ByLYDIA AISENBERG
01 March 2010 18:51
If these walls could talk, you would hear stories of Perseus rescuing Andromeda, to Jonah doing battle with the whale, to Egyptian warriors who were hidden in huge clay jars and smuggled into the city Ali Baba-style.


If these walls could talk, you would hear stories of Perseus rescuing Andromeda, to Jonah doing
 battle with the whale, to Egyptian warriors who were hidden in huge clay jars and smuggled into the city Ali Baba-style.

One is told that the harbor in Jaffa is the oldest working port in the world, although these days most, of the boats bobbing on the waters are small fiberglass manufactured floating status symbols belonging to the rich but not necessarily famous. The number of battered wooden fishing boats moored in the harbor, decks piled high with netting after their owners toiled in the Mediterranean during the unearthly hours of night and morn, have seriously depleted in latter years.

The few that are still around tend to be moored alongside pleasure boats for day-trippers, or tied up close to the popular waterfront fish restaurants.

There are, however, still enough rugged fishermen around to put the stamp of authenticity on the beguiling port and nearby narrow alleyways leading down to the harbor and jetties. One of the most fought-over ports in this part of the world during the times of Pharaoh Thutmoses to those of Napoleon Bonaparte, Jaffa has been home port to hustling and bustling fisherman for over 4,000 years.

A few weather beaten fishermen sit hunched up over a pile of tangled netting in the corner of a large, dank warehouse, just back from the waterfront. Some of these old and not-so-old men-of-the-sea are Jewish, some Arab. Together they battle the elements of Mother Nature out at sea, and then sit around skillfully repairing tears in the seemingly unending nets spread out at their feet, talking about this or that situation they faced during their latest hard night.le relais jaffa

The proffered coffee is strong, but the conversation becomes sparse as the exhausted men begin to close up shop for the day. In answer to my question as to whether they had a good catch, the expletives were sufficient to understand that it had definitely not been one to boast about.

Old Jaffa somehow still exudes a magnetism that successfully snares both Israelis and overseas tourists alike the fish and oriental restaurants, arty shops full of expensive trinkets and Judaica, and the studios of world-famous Israeli artisans such as Frank Meisler and Ilana Gur.

Figuring prominently in history and legend, there is something for everybody in Old Jaffa - from the locals telling of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the sea monster to boasting that Jonah trod these very shores before setting out to do battle with the infamous whale. Then, of course, we mustn't forget the infiltration of hundreds of Egyptian warriors who were hidden in huge clay jars and carried Ali Baba-style into the ancient town - and that's only a few chapters of a thick historical volume on the past of the place known as Joppa in Biblical times, which some say was named after Yephet, the son of Noah.

The climb up the stone stairs through the twisting narrow alleyways from the port area to Kedumim Square takes one past renovated buildings that are now private homes and studios. Many inhabitants' names are inscribed on decorative wooden and metal signs, some a giveaway as to which area of art the resident is involved with.

The homes seem stacked one on top of another in this steep and somewhat sleepy hillside neighborhood interspersed by church-owned buildings, crosses sculpted into the stonework of high walls blocking them from view. Heavy metal and dark wooden doors, wrought iron railings around small balconies, and decorative windows have one's eyes darting - it's difficult to take in all on offer as the sun blindingly bounces off the pale stone buildings.

After a few minutes' climb, one comes out at Kedumim Square, a large paved plaza with a small number of restaurants, souvenir shops, a night club and in contrast a huge church that dominates the lower portion of the plaza.

In order to learn more about the history of Jaffa, one has to go underground - literally - in the center of the square. Steps lead down to the visitors' center where Jaffa (Yafo) is presented in an innovative and attractive museum containing maps, photographs, lithographs and texts that walk visitors through from 300 BC, where would-be and successful invaders trod.

On a hill overlooking the artists' quarter, main square and port, a small, attractive park offers both greenery and major archeological finds on open view. The park is also an elevated platform from which to view the colorful domes and minarets of local mosques, the Mediterranean and the outstanding coastline from Jaffa to Tel Aviv and beyond. The high-rise hotels and office blocks don't look so bad from this angle, and with the slightest turn of the head, one optically jumps over the red-roofed Neveh Tzedek neighborhood, across the city, and in the not-so-far distance, West Bank mountain ranges loom.

A group of Russian-Christian tourists and another from Nigeria are vying to get into position for one of the most popular of places for photographs - whether it be overseas visitors or wedding couples in full gear posing against the breathtaking background.

A wooden bridge strung across a narrow road passing through the park is known as the 'wishing bridge.' A sign tells us that an ancient legend holds that if one stands on the bridge holding one's zodiac sign and makes a wish while gazing out to sea, the wish will come true. Whether this is a tale of an old Jaffa fisherman's wife or not is anybody's guess, but as a photographic vantage point, one cannot go wrong.

Jaffa's most famous landmark, its clock tower, is situated in the renamed Carmel Selzer Plaza at the entrance to Rehov Yephet, the central thoroughfare winding its way between some rather dilapidated buildings. Flea market merchants offer possible bargains among some easily defined junk in side streets, while in the main road shoes seem to be the most common commodity on sale. And there's never a quiet moment over the counter of the famous Abulafia bakery near the clock tower, with its many-caloried delights.

Built in 1906 to honor the rule of Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the clock tower was in a state of ill repair until renovations in recent years restored it to past glory. A photograph of the tower as it was in days of yore is embedded in a stone bollard in the middle of the mini-plaza, attesting to the professional restoration undertaken in the new millennium.

With some of the surrounding buildings having already undergone renovation and others in the preparation stages, the revival of this part of town - like the clock tower - is not before time. 

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