Fascinating Tel Aviv History 

Part II - Medieval to Modern Times

The drama of Tel Aviv history continues!

In Part I, we covered legends and the ancient history of Tel Aviv. You can read more in our page on the History of Tel Aviv - Part I .

In this page, we continue with:

If you are not an avid history fan (like me), you may prefer to skim through the headlines and catch the essence of the Tel Aviv story. 

Tel Aviv History - Medieval Times

During the early Middle Age, around the years 300 - 600,  Jaffa was a flourishing Byzantine port town and commercial center.

But as the Medieval Age progressed, Jaffa changed hands constantly.

  • First... Jaffa was conquered by the Arabs in 636.  Under Islamic rule, it served as a port for the Islamic capital of nearby Ramla and the number of Jaffa residents decreased sharply.
  • Then... the city was captured in 1100 by the European crusaders who revitalized Jaffa under the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem which lasted for nearly a century.
  • In 1187, Saladin representing the Muslims conquered Jaffa back from the Crusaders.
  • But in 1191, at the famous battle of Arsuf near Jaffa, the city surrendered again to the Crusaders - under King Richard the Lionhearted from England.

The Treaty of Jaffa was signed in 1192 between the Christians and the Muslims leading to a brief 3 year truce... before being conquered once more by Egyptian Muslims.

These repeated battles left Jaffa much the worse for the wear. The city eventually revived, although on a much smaller scale.

In 1321, the Arab geographer, Abu-l Fida describes: "a small but very pleasant town lying on the sea-shore. It has a celebrated harbor. The town of Yaffa is well fortified. Its markets are much frequented, and many merchants ply their trades here.”

Once again... in 1330 the city was completely destroyed by the Muslims who feared the coming of another crusade.

This time, Jaffa remained in ruins for 2 centuries.

Tel Aviv History - the Turkish Ottoman Rule

In 1515, all of Israel (then called Palestine) including Jaffa, was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, which marks the beginning of the long Turkish rule of Israel until WWI.

Gradually, the city was rebuilt.

In the 1700’s, Jaffa was a mixed settlement of local Muslims, local Christians, European Christians and some Jews. Later in the century, the Jaffa coastline was attacked repeatedly by pirates and many of its residents escaped once more to Ramla and Lod.

Even Napoleon Bonaparte is part of Tel Aviv history.

painting of napoleon siezing jaffa

In the infamous Siege of Jaffa of 1799, Napoleon too destroyed the fortified city and killed hundreds of its inhabitants.You can still see a few Napoleonic cannon in Jaffa today.

cannon left by Napoleon's troops in Jaffa Tel Aviv history

Napoleon’s main influence on Jaffa was a deadly one. His soldiers brought an epidemic to the city which spread quickly killing many locals.

In any event, Napoleon’s influence on Tel Aviv history was short-lived. Within months, the city went back to Ottoman rule.

Finally, normal life in Jaffa was reestablished in the early 1800’s. In the 1820’s, the governor Muhammad Abu-Nabbut began a massive restoration of the city and built the Grand Mosque of Jaffa, also known as the Mahmoudiya Mosque which still stands today.

Despite a brief interlude of Egyptian rule by the ambitious and ruthless Ibraham Pasha, the city grew and prospered.

Tel Aviv History in the late 1800's - 
Jaffa Grows Rapidly 

In the late 1800's, a group of American Christian colonists brought modern agricultural technique to the area.  The colonists didn't last long in Israel, but their influence remained. 

Besides the American colonial buildings which remain intact, their influence on the local citrus industry remains to this day. The Jaffa port became a center for exporting the well known "Jaffa Oranges" which became one of the most popular orange species worldwide.

The American colonists didn't remain, but the Templars who arrived from Germany in the 1860's did. They left their neighborhoods all over Israel, the most famous today being the Sarona neighborhood in the heart of Tel Aviv.

The Templars also brought modern industry and agriculture to the area. Jaffa began to thrive.  

Due to the growing wealth of the city, there was a large influx of Arabs from Egypt and other countries. Arabs created new neighborhoods in Ajami and Menashiya.

Jewish Influx

In 1820 Sephardic Jews began immigrating to Israel and settled in Jaffa. Later in the century as part of the new Zionist movement, Jews from other countries arrived as well.

New Jewish neighborhoods were established in and just outside Jaffa such as Neve Tzedek. For more on lovely Neve Tzedek, see our page on Tel Aviv Streets and Neighborhoods. 

Yemenite Jews settled in the late 1880’s in Camp Yehuda (today’s Hatikva neighborhood) and later in the ‘Vineyard of the Yemenites (Kerem Hateymanim). 

The first railway to Jerusalem was inaugurated in 1892.  This same old train station has been recently restored and is part of the picturesque Hatachana station complex in southern Tel Aviv. You can read more in our page on HaTachana - Tel Aviv's Old Train Station page.

Near the turn of the century, the city walls which were erected during in the beginning of the Ottoman empire had to be dismantled due to overcrowding.

Tel Aviv History - Modern Times

The 20th Century ushered in dramatic developments to Tel Aviv history.

Jewish Emigration and the founding of modern Tel Aviv

In the late 1800’s, Jews began immigrating to Palestine as part of the Zionist movement to rebuild a Jewish homeland and refuge from anti-Semitism.

The port of Jaffa was their main entry point. Most continued on to agricultural settlements and kibbutzim, but some stayed in Jaffa. At the turn of the century, Jaffa was extremely overcrowded and dirty. Moreover, a Turkish decree forced Jaffa Jews to move their living quarters once a year.

Fed up, ,66 Jewish families from Jaffa decided to leave the harsh conditions there in order to start a new neighborhood.

Their dream included playgrounds, flower beds, street lighting and running water. In 1909, they bought from the Bedouins a plot of land in the sand dunes near the sea,about 15 miles (25 kilometers) north of the city.

seashell lottery founding of modern tel aviv in 1909

Originally called “Ahuzat Bayit’ or “Mansion Manor’, the neighborhood’s name was changed to Tel Aviv, or (Ancient) Hill of Spring, the name of a utopian book by Herzl, one of the founders and leaders of the modern Zionist movement.

Click on Seashell Lottery to find out about the lottery that helped found modern Israel and read other interesting tales on how modern Tel Aviv was born.

Jewish immigrants continued to stream in to the country.

Modern Tel Aviv History -
The British Mandate

The end of WWI saw the defeat of the Turkish Ottomans who were allied with the Germans.

Palestine, including Jaffa, fell under the British Mandate. The British rule, coupled with the increased Jewish immigration caused continual Arab discontent. In the 1921 Riots, Arabs attacked and killed Jews in Jaffa and other cities.

Thousands of Jews fled Jaffa for Tel Aviv.

allenby street in the 1920s tel aviv british mandate

Here's an unbelievable photo of a camel caravan on Allenby Street in those times...

In 1936 the Great Arab revolt started in the Jaffa Port.

Arab rioters mainly were able to escape the British in the byzantine maze of Jaffa's streets. After issuing an evacuation warning, the English blew up homes and destroyed parts of the old city in Operation Anchor.

Still, the riots left their mark. In 1939, at the onset of WWII, the British decided to greatly limit the influx of Jews to Palestine. But the Jews set up ‘Aliyah Bet,’ a code name for the huge underground enterprise which allowed Jewish refugees escaping from Nazi Europe to enter Israel.

Jewish refugees poured in, greatly affecting Tel Aviv history. By 1945 after WWII, the city's population was 150,000, 200,000 by 1947.

My father, Abraham Rozenzveig was one of those refugees. His dramatic story is a common one.

aliyah bet ship mordey hagetaot with abraham rozenzveig may 1947

After losing his entire family in the holocaust as a child in Belarus, he sailed from Italy to Palestine on “the Ghetto Resistance” - Mordei HaGetaot, an illegal refugee boat organized by Aliyah Bet.

You can see him here in the photograph, a bare-chested 14 year old, in the middle of the bottom row, taken after they were captured by two British warships who sided up and rammed the boat in between them before reaching shore.

He remembers how they all stood up and sang the Hatikva - the Jewish anthem -  in defiance and pride.  After a 3 hour battle, they surrendered and were moved to prisoner boats and deported to British Prison Camp 55 in Cyprus.

Some months later, in honor of King George's birthday. 500 Jewish orphans were allowed into Israel including my father. They landed in the port of Haifa.

Modern Tel Aviv History - 
1948 Israel War of Independence and the Founding of the State of Israel

The end of WWII brought the end of the British Mandate.

In 1947, the United Nations voted in favor of a homeland for the Jews by partitioning Palestine into two states, one for Arabs and one for Jews. 

On the 14th of May, 1948, one day before the formal end of the British Mandate in May the State of Israel was declared by David Ben Gurion. Tel Aviv was declared the capital of Israel.

Violence erupted between local and neighboring Arab states and between Israel.  The Independence War was fought between Jews and the local Arabs who were supported militarily by all the neighboring Arab countries.

Jaffa surrendered to Jewish resistance forces on May 1948 and 90% of the population (all but 4,000 Arabs) escaped to neighboring Arab countries.  

A year later, Jewish history came first circle and Israel declared Jerusalem as its capital, as it was under the  Kingdoms of Israel and Judah in antiquity.

In 1950 Jaffa was unified with Tel Aviv to become one city: Tel Aviv – Yafo.

Modern Tel Aviv History - Today

In the 4,000 years of Tel Aviv history, the region was conquered hundreds of times by different nations.But some things did not change.

In most of Tel Aviv’s history, the area was a commercial center due to its convenient natural harbors.

Egyptian Pharoahs transported grain from Canaan to Egypt, Jewish Kings imported wood and goods from Jaffa to Jerusalem, Assyrians imported amphora from Lesbos, Philistines imported Phoenician pottery and Arabs and Jews exported Jaffa oranges 100 years ago.

Today, Tel Aviv’s ports are mainly recreational centers, but the city is truly a modern Mediterranean commercial hub.

Tel Aviv is not the political capital of Israel, but the financial and cultural capital for the arts, business and technology.

The greater Tel Aviv area including its suburbs, (called Gush Dan after the area of the tribe of Dan), numbers 3.3 million.

I love this relaxed, cosmopolitan city.

Whether you are:

  • or sipping a glass of red wine in a renovated 19th century building in enchanting Neve Tzedek 

Tel Aviv’s history is an integral part of this city’s fabric.

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