One of the most important port cities in ancient history, strategically located at major crossroads in the center of the land of Israel. 2 Chronicles 2:16: “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”. Map.
Yafo (Yaffo, Joppa) is one of the oldest port cities in the land of Israel and the Mediterranean. Due to its natural advantages, a hill above a bay, and its strategic location on the crossroads of Israel, the city was a center of historical events over thousands of years.
The natural harbor of Yafo, located near a defendable hill, was in use in the Middle Bronze age, some 4,000 years ago. The Canaanite seaport city became an important stronghold with the valuable access to the Mediterranean sea.
Yafo is strategically located in the center of Israel, near the north-south Via Maris (“Way of the Sea”) – the ancient coastal road that connected the regions north of Israel (Mesopotamia, Asia minor and Syria) to the south (Egypt).
The cities and roads during the Canaanite, Israelite and Hellenistic/Roman periods are indicated on the Biblical Map below, with Yafo (Joppa) in the center along the coast. When the Egyptians invaded to Canaan in the 15th century BC, one of their prime targets was Yafo, a walled city with a maritime link to their main cities and access to the heart of the land.
Its location south of a natural defense line (the course of the Yarkon river) made it a perfect front station to defend Egypt from the threats of the rising forces of Asia Minor and Mesopotamia.
The city is one of the cities that were conquered by Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III , just before the famous battle near Megiddo (1468 BC), which resulted in the Egyptian conquest of Canaan for 350 years. It is listed in his palace among the cities he conquered.
The mighty city was captured only by trickery, as detailed in the accounts of the Egyptian commander. It is also mentioned in the El-Amarna letters, a 14th century BC Egyptian archive of clay tablets, which include letters written by Egyptian governors in Canaan.
Yafo was, according to these correspondences, an Egyptian administrative center and military base. A fortress, dated to Thutmose III, was excavated in Tel Yafo. Egyptian scarabs – seals or small good luck charms (nicknamed “Harpushit” since they look like beetles) were found in the excavations of Yafo bearing the names of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiy(reign 1391–1353 or 1388–1351 BC). These findings indicate the high role of Yafo within the Egyptian administration.
After the conquest of Israel by Joshua, Yafo was a border city in the region of the tribe of Dan (Joshua 19 39, 46): “This is the inheritance of the tribe of the children of Naphtali according to their families, the cities and their villages…. And Mejarkon, and Rakkon, with the border before Japho”.
At that time the Israelites have not yet settled in the city. Later, the tribe of Dan used the port of Yafo for marine trade, as hinted in judge Deborah’s complaint that Dan did not come to assist the campaign against the Canaanites (Judges 5 19): “and why did Dan remain in ships?”. The Israelites took control of the city only at later times, probably during Solomon’s period.
The port of Yafo (Joppa) was used by King Solomon for importing wood in order to build the first temple in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 2 1,8,16): “And Solomon determined to build an house for the name of the LORD, and an house for his kingdom… And Solomon sent to Huram the king of Tyre, saying,… Send me also cedar trees, fir trees, and algum trees, out of Lebanon… 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”.
Cedar wood logs were cut in the Lebanon and transported by boats to Yafo. Then they were hauled to Jerusalem (70km to the east) to build the temple. Pompey conquered the land in 63BC, and removed Joppa and the coastal cities from the area of the Jewish state as part of his territorial reforms (63BC to 55BC).
Herod the Great conquered Yafo in 39BC, reclaiming the port city to the Kingdom, thus providing access to the sea. Cleopatra and Mark Anthony annexed Yafo in 32BC, but Julius Caesar defeated the pair (30BC), and the Roman emperor granted Herod the city (30BC). For Herod the port of Yafo was an important source of income, which enabled him to expand the Jewish kingdom, and helped to finance the construction of a modern port city of Caesarea (25-13BC), which was a strong competitor for the port of Yafo.
Yafo continued to be part of the Jewish Kingdom under the Roman control. Yafo returned to play an important role as a port city during the Crusaders period, giving them a maritime access to Jerusalem, and a logistic link to Europe.
The Holy Land Christian pilgrimage increased the importance of the port. In Oct 13, 1102 a severe storm caused 23 large ships to crash against the rocks, and 1,000 people died in this tragic event. The city was captured for a short time by the forces of Saladin (1187) but Richard the Lionheart regained the city four years later.
The Crusaders enforced the walls of the city, but the city finally fell to the Mameluke Muslim armies – headed by the Baybars – in 1268. The Mamlukes destroyed all the coastal cities, in order to prevent future Crusade attempts.
Baybars expelled the Christians and razed the city. Yafo became a small town, although it continued to service the pilgrims to the Holy Land. In the late 17th century the Franciscans built a hostel near the sea in order to service the Christian pilgrims, and later turned it to St. Peter’s church.
At that time the Ottomans added a tower in order to protect the port against the pirates who terrorized the city. In 1689, for example, three pirate ships fired hundreds of rounds on the city.
Napoleon headed the French army in their advance from Egypt towards the heart of the Ottoman kingdom, and captured Yafo after a siege and fierce bombardments. After the French retreat – in the same year – the city was rebuilt and became an important fortified port city in the Ottoman empire.
The area was examined in the Palestine Exploration Foundation (PEF) survey (1866-1877) by Wilson, Conder and Kitchener. They reported (in Vol 2, Sheet XIII, pp254-258) as follows:”The town rises in terraces from the water ; it is surrounded on all sides by the wall and ditch, which are decaying rapidly.
The port is very bad ; the ordinary entrance is through a narrow reef, but in stormy weather the boats go out by a passage on the north side. The bazaars are among the best in Palestine. The principal buildings in the town are the Latin Hospice, the Serai in the centre of the town, the mosque towards the north.
The quarantine is outside the walls on the south, and the Greek monastery on the east, on which side a new gate was made in 1869. The wall is here pulled down… There is a lighthouse near the custom-house of the town, and near this a little mosque, said to mark the site of the Crusading Church of St. Peter.
The principal bazaar is in the north-east corner of the town, just outside the original land gate. The walls date from the end of the eighteenth century, at which period the town was re-built, having been almost entirely destroyed in the fifteenth century. They were commenced by the English, and continued by the Turks after the storming by Kleber in 1799″.
Most of the area to the east of the city was agriculture – mainly growing oranges which were exported from the port. On the south and north are vast areas of sand. By the end of the 19th century the city expanded rapidly, and was the main gateway to the rediscovered land.
It eventually outgrew its available land and sources of income. The lack of real-estate space forced the Jewish settlers to establish in 1909 a new city – Tel-Aviv – in the sandy areas north of the city. Gradually, the Jewish population moved to the new neighborhoods in Tel-Aviv.
During WW1 the British forces fought the Ottoman forces, and at the end of 1917 approached Yafo from the south. Prior to the assault, all of its residents were evacuated in order to better defend the port against a possible British naval invasion.
The British surprised with a land attack, and Yafo was captured on 16 November, 1917. After then, the port supported the British military logistic supply until the end of the war. The British expanded the port in 1934 by constructing a new quay. After the bloody revolt of the Arab population (1936), Yafo became a center of the terrorist activities.
As a result, the British razed most of the houses in the old city to clear up the maze of narrow alleys in order to handle the armed gangs.
The port of Yafo was shutdown by the Arab workers. As a response to this blockade, a new port was opened in the Jewish city of Tel-Aviv in 1938, which was the beginning of the end for the port of Yafo. Following the establishment of Israel (1948), the port was finally closed after several years.
Only few fishermen continued to sail from the port. Excavations in the past 20 years have revealed the port of Yafo is a naturally shallow water harbor that was used to load and unload barges. The larger ships with the goods were anchored at a distance from the coastline.
In recent years the port area is undergoing renovations, becoming a viable tourist destination. The old city of Yafo (“the pretty city”) and its historic port is turning to be one of the most exciting and picturesque places in the area. It offers historic and religious sites, a renovated port, artist galleries and nightlife, and an easy access to Tel-Aviv.