From Destruction to Archaeology: the significance of “Operation Anchor” for the Cultural Heritage of Jaffa.

By: Martin Peilstöcker 

During spring 1936 the nationalistic uprising of the Palestinian Arab population against Mandatory British rule and Jewish mass immigration became more and more violent. A strike was declared on Jaffa port, in those days still one of most important harbors of Palestine. Groups of Palestinians left the narrow alleys of the Old City, the “Kasbah,” carried out attacks on the representatives of the Mandatory government or on Jews and found shelter afterwards in the labyrinth of the long-grown city on the mound of biblical Yafo. The reaction of the British was both, violent and effective. Under the cover of announced measures to improve the infrastructure, three broad paths, each between 10 and 30 meters wide were opened in the Old City creating what looked like anchor-shaped trenches from above, giving the name to this operation. The trenches were created using large amounts of explosives to detonate and demolish more than 200 buildings (Gavish 1983).

Old City of Jaffa before and after Operation Anchor 1936

The announced infrastructure operations such as modern roads in the city were never carried out and Operation Anchor was the beginning of the end of more than 4000 years of history of Jaffa as an independent town. Since 1950 Jaffa is not more than a neighborhood of Tel Aviv, although its name is still preserved in the municipality’s name “Tel Aviv-Yafo.” Up until the mid-1950s, more buildings continued to collapse or were demolished since they were in danger of collapse and only sporadically the rubble and ruins were removed, as can be seen in pictures. The deterioration and decay of the Old City led to the decision to dismantle the remaining buildings and to construct new neighborhoods. However, it was the newly established Israeli Department of Antiquities and Museums (IDAM), in particular its general director Shmuel Yevin who succeeded to place most of the remains in Jaffa under protection and preservation (Kletter 2006:55). The buildings on the slope above the harbor and the southern parts of the Old City can be visited today giving an impression of what Jaffa must have looked like until 1936, despite the new Jewish population living in these houses now. On the other hand it has to be pointed out that the largest part of the Old City remained an open space turned into a touristic site with parks, squares, and even an amphitheater. The rubble of the destroyed buildings was piled up on the northern end of the mound and covered by earth. The highest spot, higher than the highest spot in Jaffa ever had been, is now an observation point with a modern sculpture and is used by every tourist guide to view Tel Aviv’s sky-line.

Not many other historic towns in Israel have been so intensively excavated as Jaffa. Already in 1948 the third excavation permit ever issued by the new Israeli authorities was granted to P.L.O. Guy to excavate in Jaffa. This was no coincidence since Guy was very well informed about the archaeology of Jaffa when he was the chief inspector for the Palestine Department of Antiquities during the British Mandate. His expedition was followed by others. The most extensive excavations were carried out by Jacob Kaplan, who became the municipal archaeologist of Tel Aviv. IDAM, later to become the Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University, and other institutions continued the exploration, until in 2008 when the Jaffa Cultural Heritage Project (Peilstöcker and Burke 2011) resumed excavations on the tel co-directed by the author and Aaron A. Burke (UCLA).  Little has been said and it has never been written, but all these excavations were possible only because of the violent destruction of Jaffa. It is an irony that modern archaeology tries to preserve cultural heritage, as even the name of the JCHP says but is possible to a certain extent only because important parts of the cultural heritage of Jaffa have been destroyed.

So, what is left for us to do? First, the already strict implementation of the Israeli Law of Antiquities in Jaffa by the inspectors should possibly be carried out even stricter. Lands in Jaffa are of high real estate value, but more housing projects, hotels or other buildings will ruin what is left of the traditional structures of a historical, eastern Mediterranean port-town. Also the modernization and renovation should be ruled by the intention to preserve heritage (Struhl 2011). Unfortunately no conservation survey or conservation master-plan exists in Jaffa and the clock is ticking. Second, the presentation of the city’s cultural heritage in both buildings and monuments and removable objects and archaeological finds needs to be reconsidered. Jaffa was one of the first towns in Israel with an archaeological museum (established in 1961), but unfortunately is also one of the first to close its doors. The newly opened visitor’s center in the heart of the Old City can give an overview of the history of Jaffa but does not allow an in-depth presentation. Results of research and excavations cannot be shown in temporary or special exhibitions.

The Jaffa Cultural Heritage Project will continue its best to provide a better understanding of what is left of so many cultures in Jaffa, for many years the gate to the Holy Land. It can make suggestions and can give advice from a large team of specialists working with the JCHP. The responsibility to protect and manage the cultural heritage of Jaffa remains, however, in the hands of others.

Martin Peilstöcker is co-director of the Jaffa Cultural Heritage Project, Director of the archaeological excavations of the Israel Antiquities Authority in Jaffa & faculty at Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz, Germany.

For further reading:

Gavish, Dov (1983) The Old City of Jaffa, 1936: A Colonial Urban Renewal Project. Eretz-Israel 17:66–73, 3*–4* (Hebrew with English summary)

Kletter, Raz (2006) Just Past? The Making of Israeli Archaeology. Equinox, London

Peilstöcker, Martin and Burke, Aaron A. (2011) The Jaffa Cultural Heritage Project 1. Monumenta Archaeologica 26, A. A.

Strul, Lilah (2011) Conservation Projects in Jaffa. In The History and Archaeology of Jaffa 1, edited by M. Peilstöcker and A. A. Burke, pp. 41–52. The Jaffa Cultural Heritage Project 1. Monumenta Archaeologica 26, A. A.


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