Jaffa - Off the promenade

The seaside city of Jaffa is filled with unexpected wonders.

Magnificent Jaffa (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM )
Magnificent Jaffa
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM )
Even the most up-to-date guidebooks will tell you that the once magnificent Jaffa seraya is an eyesore. It was bombed by the Lehi underground movement in early 1948, soon after it became a base for Arab terrorists. And although the rubble was eventually cleared away, what remained was just a hollow shell.
So imagine our surprise when we stood in Jaffa's Clock Square with tour guide Yona Wiseman and she pointed out an unfamiliar edifice on the site of the devastated building. As part of an ongoing effort to return Jaffa to an earlier beauty, the splendid seraya, which is the Turkish term for a government palace, had finally been restored.
A delightful circular outing begins at the police station across from Clock Square (Kikar Hasha'on), runs along a lovely promenade, leads to a stunning church, through a renovated artists' colony, and to a wonderful park featuring statutes and ancient ruins. If you decide to come in the late afternoon, when a sea breeze cools off the hot air of early fall, you won't be able to see much of the otherwise lively flea market or the underground visitors' center, as both close fairly early. But you will get to watch the sun set over the water.
Not surprisingly, Clock Square on Rehov Yefet is dominated by a tall, elegant timepiece. The Jaffa police station is situated across the street on one side, with the seraya on the other. All three landmarks are located outside Jaffa's Old City, and were erected only after the walls came tumbling down.
That happened in 1888, when living conditions inside the Old City were unbearable: there was no sanitation, overcrowding was severe and cholera ran rampant. It was time for the city to expand.
Jaffa governor Hassan Bek easily dismantled the walls, for they were in terrible shape after being bombarded during Napoleon's conquest in 1799 and shattered by an earthquake four decades later. Then the governor filled in the moat that had stood in front of the walls to create the Rehov Yefet of today.
He also hired the Jewish architect who had just completed the synagogue in the new settlement of Rishon Lezion to build a new seraya. The result was a splendid peach and white building whose administrative center vaguely resembled the Rishon synagogue, with Romanesque living quarters that boasted large columns and a wide, impressive stairway (only a third of that section has been restored).
The clock in the plaza is one of five elaborate creations constructed in 1906 to honor the Turkish sultan, Abdul Hamid II, who by that time had ruled the Ottoman Empire for 30 years. Although the clocks in Acre and Safed are still standing, the clock at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem was taken down by the British, who objected to having Ottoman embellishments at the entrance to the Old City. Note the clock's distinctive design, with two graceful bottom stories, an angular third story and an exquisite clock on top.
Follow a portion of the defunct City Wall by starting at the police station, originally only an arched doorway leading directly into a lockup known as the kishle. The wall stretched south along Rehov Yefet as far as Pasteur Lane, west to the sea, then followed the coastline north and swerved back up to Rehov Yefet and the police station of today.
Walk south a few meters to reach the Gate of the Rulers - once an opening in the back wall of the Mahmudiya Mosque where Hassan Bek prayed five times a day. Built in 1897, the architecture is Mameluke and includes layers of pink and white stones.
At Rehov Mifratz Shlomo turn right to reach an elaborate sabil, or fountain, practically oozing expensive marble. Fountains for washing hands, feet and face are found all over the Arab world at the entrance to cities and villages. Muslims believe that offering hospitality to people at their gates will pave their way to heaven. For this was, indeed, just outside the entrance to Jaffa.
Directly across the street and inside a rather dirty alley you will find one of the original city gates, which was designed to slow down the enemy. Immediately upon entering the gate you had to make a sharp turn, giving defenders in the towers above the chance to rain arrows down; alternatively, they could pour burning oil on the approaching enemies. On our tour, Yona pointed out remains of the gate and towers that guarded it. See if you can find them, then go right, and right again, to return to Mifratz Shlomo.
CROSS THE street to a plaza located next to the intricate wooden doors of the Mahmudiya Mosque. The mosque was named for Muhammad, a former slave who was appointed governor of Jaffa in 1804. Muhammad carried a massive club that he used generously on any slacker he came across. The club was called a nabut, and the cruel ruler who wielded it became known as Abu Nabut. Universally loathed, Abu Nabut ended his days by seeking asylum in Mecca.
Cobbled steps lead up to a promenade lined with real Turkish cannons, and a spectacular view of the Tel Aviv coastline. As you continue your walk, you will see a deserted building across the street. Get closer - can you hear the bats inside? This was the original seraya, located within the walled city. Eventually it became a soap factory: according to our guide, at one time soap exports from Jaffa were as famous as Jaffa oranges.
Back on the promenade, you will soon see the Sea or Sailors' Mosque and an array of rocks named for the princess Andromeda. In one version of a Greek legend, the king and queen of Jaffa bragged about their daughter so loudly that the sea nymphs became offended. They complained to the sea god Poseidon, who ordered a boycott of Jaffa.
In order to appease the sirens, the king and queen had Andromeda chained naked to the rocks. She was rescued by the hero Perseus, flying to her on winged sandals just as she was about to be attacked by the sea monster.
Next on your route is the brightly colored Church of St. Peter, built in the 19th century over ruins of a Crusader citadel. Before the church was constructed, Franciscan fathers erected a hostel on the site. Many believe that Napoleon lodged in the hostel during his Jaffa conquest.
On his way to the Holy Land, Napoleon liberated hundreds of thousands of Jews from European ghettos and granted them equal rights. Some Napoleon enthusiasts call him the real father of Zionism, as well, for in 1799 he made plans for a proclamation that would declare Israel to be the Jewish homeland. It was apparently meant for issue after a successful conquest of Acre - a battle which, unfortunately, he lost.
St. Peter is one of the very few churches in which worshipers sit facing west instead of east. That's because to the west lies the traditional house of Simon the Tanner, site of a famous New Testament vision.
Past the church is a large platform that covers a unique visitors' center. Inside there are some amazing excavations, including a Hasmonean (Maccabee) house left from the only period in ancient times when Jews ruled the city.
Continue along the cobblestones, and turn right at the sign for the Ilana Goor Museum. The building that stretches from the corner and past the gallery/museum was constructed in the 18th century by a rabbi from Libya. After landing in Jaffa prior to a Jerusalem pilgrimage, he looked for a place to stay overnight and soon learned that Jews were unwelcome lodgers. So he returned to Libya, gathered up donations for a Jewish hostel, and erected the first Jewish building in 'modern' Jaffa.
Now you can stroll through charmingly renovated lanes filled with galleries and shops. Follow Simta'ot Mazal Dagim, Mazal Taleh, and Mazal Gedi. At Simtat Mazal Arieh enter Frank Meisler's gallery, where you can open a sculpture of Picasso to find wine and women inside, view Freud on a couch and gasp over a spectacular golden piece in which two lions clasp a menora.
Eventually you enter a beautiful park, until several decades ago a haunt for criminals of all kinds. As you begin to ascend its slopes, you will discover excavations dating back to the Egyptian rule of Jaffa (14th century BCE).
Failing to conquer Jaffa by force, the Egyptians used a trick that preceded the Trojan horse by a couple of hundred years. They hid soldiers inside 200 immense baskets that overflowed with gifts for the prince of Jaffa and once they gained entrance to the city the soldiers emerged - and the rest is history.
Follow the ramp to the top of the park for a panoramic view. From here you can descend the park's eastern ramp and return to Clock Square, or cross Yefet and enter the flea market on Rehov Olei Zion where there might still be some action.
Suggestion: In the flea market, stroll as far as Rehov Rav Yohanan, to taste glatt-kosher humous, if you like. Or walk up to Pua's Restaurant, whose large collection of unmatched furniture came from the market. The menu is as eclectic as the casual setting: among the inexpensive (and delicious) dishes on the menu are chicken in orange vinaigrette with basil and pumpkin seeds, lentils with tehina, spinach and fried onions, curried rice with peanut butter and coconut milk, and caramelized bananas topped with passion fruit whipped cream. Open seven days a week.