Jaffa, an Historical Survey

Jaffa is one of the ancient port cities in Israel and the Mediterranean basin. It has a strong link to the historic events that took place in the Land of Israel in particular and the Eastern Mediterranean basin in general, ever since the dawn of settlement there. It is built on a high cliff that juts from the shoreline into the sea and the ports lies at its foot.

We learn of its history from historical sources as well as from excavations that took place in Jaffa and its environs.

The Bronze Age, the Period of Egyptian Rule:

The most ancient remnants that were discovered in Jaffa (the region of the hamam and inside it) are the remnants of a glacis that surrounded the hill during the 18th century B.C.E. (the Second Middle Bronze Age). The remnants from this period, the period of the Egyptian conquest, attest that Jaffa was a city under Egyptian control on the model of other cities in Canaan.

In the central excavation area (area A) that is currently located in the Ramses Gate Garden remnants of a community from the close of the 17th century and the first half of the 16th century B.C.E. were discovered.

From the Late Bronze Age (the latter half of the 16th century and the 15 century B.C.E.) the remnants of buildings that were built out of bricks on stone foundations were discovered.

From the Late Bronze Age (13-1400 BCE) three layers of settlement were discovered: In the lowest layer the remnants of structures and a granary built out of unhewn stones were discovered. Above it we find the remains of an entrance gate to a luxurious palace from the period of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II (1237-1304 B.C.E.). The artwork of the gate was built out of hard and chiseled sandstone in which hieroglyphics bearing the titles and portions of the name of Ramses II are engraved. The walls were built out of bricks and on top of them are remnants of the gate (the bronze axle of a wooden gate has been found) and the Egyptian fort that were destroyed in a vast conflagration (the end of the 13thCentury and beginning of the 12th Century B.C.E.)

A number of external written testimonies referring to Jaffa have survived from this era and they are:

The Harris papyrus that describes the conquest of Jaffa by stealth by the Army of the Pharaoh Thutmose III (1450-1504 B.C.E.) by providing a gift in the form of large jugs in which Egyptian soldiers were hidden to the governor Jaffa, which enabled the city’s conquest from within.

The city appears in a list of towns conquered by Thutmose III at the Temple of Karnak in Egypt.

Remnants of administrative letters engraved in cuneiform on mud tablets that were discovered in the Pharaonic Archives at Tel el-Amarna in Egypt where the granaries of the Pharaoh in Jaffa were mentioned. At Tel Afek (near Rosh Ha’Ayin) a similar letter where Jaffa is mentioned was discovered.

The Papyrus Anastasi describes an expedition by a courtier in Canaan and includes a description of Jaffa, its gardens and residents at the close of the 13th century B.C.E.

The Iron Age, the Philistine and Israeli periods:

From the Iron Age primarily meager remnants were discovered that include Philistine ceramics and remnants of a sacred place (“The Lion Temple”) – a hall whose dimensions are 4.4 x 5.8 m with two bases for wooden pillars that supported the ceiling. On the floor the skull of a lion and alongside its teeth half of a scarab was discovered.

The story in Greek mythology about Perseus who saves the lovely Andromeda the daughter of Cepheus King of Jaffa and his wife Queen Casaiopeia, who was tied to the rock in the sea opposite Jaffa, and then he marries her apparently belongs to this period.

In the Bible Jaffa appears for the first time in a description of the boundaries of the tribe of Dan

“And Meiarkon, and Rakkon, with the border before Iapho” (Joshua 19:46). Jaffa is again mentioned in the period of King Solomon, who built the first Temple in Jerusalem ” And we will cut wood out of Lebanon, as much as thou shalt need: and we will bring it to thee in floats by sea to Joppa; and thou shalt carry it up to Jerusalem.” (2 Chronicles, 2:16)

The Prophet Jonah flees to Tarshish via the port of Jaffa – “But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.” (Jonah. 1:3)

Jaffa appears in the list of cities conquered by King Senacherib of Assyria in 701 B.C.E. “On my way I laid siege to Beit Dagon, Jaffa, Bnei Brak, Azur the cities of Zedaka (the King of Ashkelon) who did not hasten to surrender to me – I conquered them and bore away their booty…”

In the period of the return to Zion and the construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the Cedars of Lebanon are brought via Jaffa – “And to them of Tyre, to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to the sea of Joppa, according to the grant that they had of Cyrus king of Persia.” (Ezra, 3:7)

At the close of the 5th Century BCE Jaffa passes to the control of the Sidonians as described in an inscription that appears on the burial coffin of Eshmunoazar King of Sidon “… The Lord of the Kings (the King of Persia) granted us Dor and Jaffa, the vast countries of grain in the fields of Sharon…”

In the Jaffa excavations from this period in the region of Jaffa’s hamam the remnants of a glacis that surrounded the city from the 8th century BCE as well as remains of buildings and findings from the Persian era – the 6th to 4th Centuries BCE—were discovered.

The Hellenistic and Hasmonean period:

Jaffa was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. It passed under the rule of some of his successors till in the year 301 B.C.E., it was conquered by Ptolemy I the ruler of Egypt.

In the Jaffa excavations (in Kdumim Square) a dedication inscription to Ptolemy IV (Philopator ) from the close of the 3rd Century BCE. At the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, the city was conquered by Antiochos III the ruler of Syria and the region. The Hasmoneans fought to conquer Jaffa, and transform it into the port city for Jerusalem and Judea. During the wars with the local residents the Jewish residents are forced to flee by boat to sea and there they crash upon the rocks of the port. In revenge Judah the Maccabee burns the city and its port. The city is conquered by Jonathan the Hasmonean and Simeon annexes it to Judea after expelling the foreigners who reside there.

The Roman Period:

After Judea is conquered by the Romans, Pompey annexes is to the region of Phoenicia, and only in the year 47 BCE did Julius Caesar restore it to Judea. During the second half of the 1st Century BCE Jaffa passes from hand-to-hand. Herod conquers it from Antigonos II, but it is turned over by Mark Antony to Cleopatra Queen of Egypt . In the year 30 BCE, Caesar Augustus restores it to Herod. During the Great Revolt it is destroyed by Cestius Gallus and the Jewish Navy drowns in a storm at sea and its survivors are slaughtered on the coast by the Romans. We find testimony to the slaughter of the city’s Jews in the excavations of the Jewish Home in Kdumim Square (Today the visitors’ center). Vespasian builds a citadel and stations a garrison there. He turns it into an autonomous city called Flavia Ioppe.

In the 1st Century of the Common Era an important place in the development of Christianity is reserved for Jaffa. St. Peter, one of the apostles of Jesus arrives in the city and managed to resuscitate Tabitha one of the city’s residents. He lives in the house of Simon the Tanner, and on the roof of his house he dreams one of his visions that he interprets as approval for admitting non-Jews to Christianity. This opened the way for the spread of Christianity.

The Jewish community of Jaffa rapidly recovers and testimony to this is furnished by a description of Judah the son of Tozomanus the agoranomos (commissioner of markets and weights) from the beginning of the 2nd century CE that was found in the excavations of KdumimSquare and later burial monuments that were discovered in the Jewish cemetery at Abu Kabir that include a variety of the names of professions and public officeholders in Jaffa amongst the Jews while noting their place of origin.

In the visitors’ center “Images of Jaffa” in the Kdumim Square remnants from this era


were discovered:

The remains of a Jewish home from the 1st Century BCE – 1st Century CE. This home was destroyed by fire during the Great Revolt but was rehabilitated and continued to serve a Jewish family at during the 1st century CE.

During Mishnaic times a number of sages whose origin was Jaffa are mentioned including Rabbi Acha, Rabbi Tanchum Daman Yafo, and Rabbi Yudan son of Tarfon.

The Byzantine Period:

Travelers who arrived in Jaffa during the Byzantine Era (The 4th to 7th Centuries CE) describe a flourishing port city that served as a departure port for the ports of the Mediterranean and as an important commercial center. During the 5th to 6th Centuries CE, Jaffa served as the seat of a Christian bishop.

The Arab Period:

With the conquest of Jaffa by the Arabs in 636, a deterioration in the city’s status and in the number of its inhabitants ensued in comparison with the rise in the importance of Ramle that was built by the Muslims. Jaffa is described by the Arab geographer Muqadasi during the 5th Century as a large village and as the port of Ramle.

The Crusader Period:

When the Crusades at the close of the 11th Century approached Jaffa it was destroyed by the Fatimid -authorities. The Crusaders conquered Jaffa and re-fortified. It becomes part of the principality of Ashkelon-Jaffa and served as the port of Jerusalem.

In 1187 it falls into the hands of Saladin but Richard the Lion-Hearted restored it to the territory of the Crusader Kingdom in 1191.

In the 13th Century John of Ibelin the ruler of Crusader Beirut completes the fortification of the lower city and the citadel with the help of King Louis XI of France and his knights.

The Mameluke Period:

Jaffa returns to Moslem control in 1268 when it is conquered by Baibars but continues to serve as the port of Ramle.

In the beginning of the 14th century (1321) the Arab geographer Abu Al-Fida describes the city as “A small pleasant city, well-fortified, many merchants frequent the markets and ships arriving in Israel cast anchor at its port and from there travelers depart for all countries.” However in 1330 it was totally destroyed by the authorities who feared another crusade expedition and a guard was posted on the city and the port that resided in the towers of the destroyed citadel. When ships with merchandise and pilgrims reached the port they were forced to tarry until officials arrived from Ramle or Gaza. Then they were permitted to unload their merchandise and continue on their way to Jerusalem after paying a tax.

The Ottoman Era:

The Ottoman conquest did not bring about a change in the city’s condition. Only in 1654 was the Latin Hostel built by the Franciscan order that were responsible for the affairs of Christians in the Holy Land (a few years previously, in 1642, an attempt was made to build a similar hostel at the opening to the “caves” that served to hold the pilgrims till the arrival of the officials from Ramle lack or Gaza, but this building was quickly destroyed by decree of the governor). The Armenian monastery and the Greek Orthodox monastery were quickly built alongside it to serve as hostels. The establishment of these buildings provided an impetus to the reestablishment of a permanent community in Jaffa.

The beginning of the permanent community in Jaffa and the friendly relations between the Ottoman Empire and France fostered growth in the flow of merchandise at the port. Hence we encounter in Jaffa during the 18th Century a diverse community of Muslims, Christians, Europeans and a few Jews. In 1746 a Jewish Khan was added and in the middle of the century Jaffa was already a walled city. During the 1770s it suffered from wars between the local rulers and in 1776 it was conquered by Abu Daher who massacred the inhabitants.

General Napoleon Bonaparte who arrived in Jaffa on March 3, 1799 found a fortified city with a large garrison. Napoleon managed to conquer the city on March 7, 1799, and from there he continued northwards to Acre. In Jaffa he left his soldiers who were sick with the plague in the hospital that was established in the Armenian monastery. He returned to Jaffa at the end of May 1799 upon his retreat from Acre and Jaffa reverted to the Ottoman Empire.

Following its conquest Jaffa underwent a process of construction and re-fortification by the local ruler Mohammed Abu Nabbut and with the assistance of the British army headed by General Sydney Smith. In 1820 a Jewish Khan was established by Rabbi Yeshayahu Adjiman of Constantinople that marks the beginning of the revival of the Jewish community in Jaffa.

In 1831 Jaffa is conquered as were other parts of the land of Israel by the army of Muhammad Ali. During his decade of rule over Jaffa neighborhoods of Egyptian immigrants were established surrounding the city. In 1840 Jaffa returned to Ottoman rule and the city and the port continued to develop and grow. Outside of Jaffa Christian suburbs were erected. This was started by American members of the Messiah’s Church (1866-68) who sold their homes upon their departure to the German Templars who continued to use the homes of the American colony and the homes that they built themselves.

During the 1870s the wall of the city of Jaffa was destroyed and Jaffa continued to develop in all directions. The port became a marketing center for oranges that were named after the city as Jaffa oranges. New Jewish neighborhoods were established such as Neve Zedek (1887), and Neve Shalom (1890). A railway to Jerusalem was constructed and inaugurated in 1892.

In 1900 a cornerstone was laid for a clock tower to mark 25 years to the ascent to the throne of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. In 1909 the Ahuzat Bayit neighborhood north of the city was established that subsequently becomes the city of Tel Aviv.

The British Mandate and the State of Israel:

Jaffa is conquered by the British on 16.11.1917; the British build a new customs house at the port and in the beginning of 1930s they expand the port southwards and build a new breakwater.

On 18.6.1936 the British in an effort to assume control over the Jaffa residents who had initiated riots against them, destroyed part of the old city (Operation Anchor).

With the establishment of the State of Israel, Jaffa surrenders to the forces of the Haggana and the IZL in May 1948 and is abandoned by the majority of its Arab residents.

In 1950 Jaffa is amalgamated with the city of Tel Aviv to form a single city: Tel Aviv-Jaffa

In 1960 the Old Jaffa Development Company is established by the Government of Israel and the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality in an attempt to build and rehabilitate the Tel-Jaffa region (that was also called the large area) a compound that constituted a breeding ground for crime.

The company set itself the objective of developing Old Jaffa as an art, tourism and entertainment center and making it one of the major tourist sites in Israel.

In 1961 the Jaffa Museum is opened to the public (today the Antiquities Museum of Tel Aviv-Jaffa) in the Old Saray building (also known as the Soap Factory of the Demiani Family).

In 1993 a visitors’ center was opened for the first time to the public in Kdumim Square, containing the remains of the ancient buildings. In 2011 the Images of Jaffa Cultural Center was reopened at the site, including an archaeological display representing most of Jaffa’s historic periods, an animated movie about the Andromeda story and a giant presentation describing the city’s saga)

(This summary was written with the assistance of Mr. Tzvi Shacham– the curator of the Antiquities Museum of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.


Selected Bibliography

Ayalon, Etan, and Tzvi Shacham (editors) “Yafo—Tides of Times” The First Annual Convention of Yafo’s Research, 2001. Eretz Israel Museum

Ayalon, Eitan and Shacham, Zvi (editors), “Jaffa in the Roman Prism”, The First Annual Convention of Yafo’s Research, 2001, the Antiquities Museum of Jaffa, Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv 2001 (Hebrew).

Kaplan, Jacob, “The Archaeology and History of Tel-Aviv-Jaffa” Biblical Archaeologist (3):66–95.

Kaplan, Jacob, “Two Groups of Pottery of the First Century A.D.” from Jaffa and Its Vicinity. Publications of the Museum of Antiquities of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Jaffa Museum of Antiquities, Tel Aviv (Hebrew)1964

Kark, Ruth, Jaffa: A City in Evolution (1799–1917). Translated by G. Brand, Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, Jerusalem, 1990.

Or (Ordentlich), Even, Shimshon Feder, and Tzvi Shacham, Jaffa Guide: A Visitor’s Guide to Old Jaffa. Translated by S. Feder. Antiquities Museum of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, 1988.

Or (Ordentlich), Even, et al. Archaeological Sites in Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Its Vicinity, Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

Regev, Yoav. Jaffa, A Century and a Year, 1820-1921, The Minstry of Education, 1984 (Hebrew).

Said, Hassan Ibrahim, Jaffa: Administration, Society in Economy During the Years 1799-1831 According to the City’s Sajal Makhama, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Bar Ilan University (Hebrew).

Sapir Baruch. The Development of Construction and City Zoning in Jaffa During the Muslim Period, Unpublished Master’s Thesis, The Technion, Haifa 1971 (Hebrew).

Tolkowsky, Samuel. The Gateway of Palestine: A History of Jaffa. George Routledge & Sons, London 1924.

Vilnay, Zeev. Tel Aviv-Jaffa Israel’s Largest City, Jerusalem, 1965(Hebrew).

Yinon, Jacob. Round the Clock Tower Touring Jaffa with Yad Ben Zvi, Jerusalem, 2001 (Hebrew).

Yizrael, Rami. Jaffa, A Collection of Sources for Participants in the “Jaffa in Its Various Period” Conference, Yad Ben Zvi, 1973 (Hebrew).

Zeevi, Rechavam, Gania Doron, and Tzvi Shacham (editors), Jaffa: Tides of Times Haaretz Museum, Tel Aviv, 1985 (Hebrew).