‘The bride of the sea,’ Jaffa picturesque and captivating

Jaffa was known in the late seventh century as the cultural capital of the Levant, where the first newspapers in the region found their voices in the multicultural city.
Sunday 03/03/2019
A general view of the old port in Jaffa. (Ruba Zeidan)
A general view of the old port in Jaffa. (Ruba Zeidan)

JAFFA - I didn’t know what to expect driving through the highway to Jaffa, leaving Jerusalem behind.

I was no stranger to the ancient city. The names of Jaffa’s neighbourhoods were part of childhood memories, as much as old Palestinian proverbs related to ports and to the water.

The trip was short, yet loaded with emotion, as I recalled Jaffa’s history.

Lying on the shores of the Mediterranean, Jaffa is believed to be the oldest port in the world. In addition to the strategic role it played in trade and commerce, Jaffa was also known in the late seventh century as the cultural capital of the Levant, where the first newspapers in the region found their voices in the multicultural city.

One of the early descriptions of Jaffa is found in the writings of Arab historian Al-Maqdisi, who wrote: “Yafah: a small town, on the sea, although the emporium of Palestine and the port of Ar-Ramlah. It is protected by a strong wall with iron gates and the sea-gates also are of iron. The harbour is excellent.”

As we approached the harbour, I could tell why the city was called “the bride of the sea.” The smell of salt and fresh fish along with the cries of seagulls greeted us as we parked by the old port and strolled along the promenade.

Inhaling deep, sucking in the gentle breeze that engulfed me as I looked at the horizon beyond the pier, I started up the hill. Jaffa took its name from the Greek ancient word “yabu,” meaning the “beautiful.” Everything about the old port was serene, picturesque and captivating.

I walked towards the fishermen boats, allured by the familiar Arabic songs echoing along.

From a distance, I saw a small sign written in tiny green letters saying “Masjed Al-Bahar” (“Mosque of the Sea”). I remembered the stories I heard of love and agony telling of sailor’s wives waving goodbyes, wishing their husbands luck and spending their nights praying at this shrine for the safe return of those who head to sea to make a living. The mosque is the oldest in Jaffa. Paintings depicting it date to 1675.

From afar, I could spot one more landmark of the port, Jaffa’s lighthouse looming in orange and white, still standing, not in operation since 1966.

I wanted to see more of the old city, more of what have possibly remained untouched and authentic. “Where do I start?” I asked a fisherman, who was ducking his boat. “Have you been to the Oranges Steps, “Daraj Al-Burtuqal?” he asked.

I followed his directions towards a stone arch and there it was. The famous steps, which narrow and widen right and left, took me through a journey of memory where I could almost picture orange farmers unloading their shipments from upper decks all the way down to the port. I could envision the hunched backs of carriers rushing to the export ships with their precious commodity. Jaffa is still today a major exporter of quality oranges, lemons and pomegranates.

The maze of alleys emitted heritage at every turn. The musharabiyyas of the old windows overlooking the inside of the stairs and the tiny shops made the journey enchanting.

I soon found myself in old Jaffa staring at one of the city’s icons, the clock tower. The famous square is the busiest part of the city. The clock tower was built in 1906 to mark the crowning of Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

I spent the evening wandering along the cobbled pathways, feasting on local Arab delicacies, sampling hummus at Haj Kaheel’s snack shop and falafel from Abu Hasan Karawan and rewarding my taste buds with a delicious grouper plate.

It was ironic seeing the flashy InterContinental David hotel rising above the only minaret of Hasan Beik mosque, 2km from the seashore. I had to stop by this mosque, not only for its cultural and historical value but also because of the sacrifices of the original residents of the city to keep it standing as the last and only authentic Arab landmark at the frontier of the “new” city infiltrating the land and erasing the identity of Palestinian Jaffa.

I wasn’t allowed inside as I was approached by volunteer guards, who questioned my intentions taking photos of the exterior of the mosque. To them, it was a matter of survival, as they recounted stories of vandalism.

I moved away with heavy steps and a heavy heart as I took a final look at the silent mosque. Its minaret, sadly, no longer calls for prayers.

The new city of Jaffa. (Ruba Zeidan)
A view of the main entrance to the old church in Jaffa.(Ruba Zeidan)
The old lighthouse overlooking Jaffa Port.(Ruba Zeidan)