Beyond Masada / The Tel Aviv Port: Once a Sinking Ship, Now a Cultural Hotspot

Shops, restaurants and nightclubs are just some of the many activities available at the Old Port.

Jacob Solomon
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Jacob Solomon

There can’t be many places where yachting folk sporting on the open Mediterranean may ease their small boats through two harbor entry-pillars and be instantly well-framed with collages of historic photographs on one side, and people enjoying themselves up to the hilt on the other.

The Old Port of Tel Aviv grants just that. It is right inside the heart of the city with a well-earned reputation as the national business and party capital, and its proliferations of round-the-clock places to relax and have fun.

Here, well-heeled high-tech business people from the southern edge of the Tel Aviv-Herzliya Pituah Tikva corridor (Silicon Wadi) rub shoulders with fun-seeking locals and curious tourists, enjoying some of the best dishes Tel Aviv can provide on the harbor’s edge before moving on to one of the many nearby nightclubs that purvey endless entertainment until dawn of the next day.

Unless Saturday night throngs are your thing, come on a weekday for one of the superb business lunches that the port specializes in (though strictly kosher food is currently limited to the sole dairy restaurant on the water’s edge). If you’re there between 7 A.M. and 3 P.M. on Fridays, you can put together a picnic lunch from the weekly farmers’ market inside the port, with its aromatic range of locally produced cheeses and organic fruits and vegetables. Take it along to the westward stone pier, which you may well be sharing with a fisherman or two, or perhaps a white-gowned bride enduring an early round of photographs. The stone structure can be slippery. Better whisper that to the bride, if you catch her.

The Old Port of Tel Aviv is not actually that old. Its years of service do not rival Jaffa’s or even Haifa’s. It was constructed for one main purpose only: Jewish-populated Tel Aviv and its surroundings required a Jewish-controlled port of its own within then British Mandate-controlled Palestine. The local Arab riots of 1936 and the ensuing strikes of Arab workers in the nearby ancient port of Jaffa meant that the fast-growing Hebrew-speaking Tel Aviv community needed reliable passenger and commercial access to the outside world, via the Mediterranean. The city was already doing a steady trade in raw materials and manufactured goods. It did not wish to depend on expensive air-freight costs and pot-hole-riddled roads.

During your visit to the port, look for the recently restored crane dominating the seaward side of the port. The simple but gaunt hammerhead structure designed for cargoes weighing over 25 tons was put together locally, but used the power of a European-imported motor.

Despite the well-intentional goal, the port had just a short life as a practical and active harbor: Little traffic during World War II, and a brief spate of passenger and goods activity in the early years of statehood did not prevent it from going into steady decline toward its official closure in 1965. It did not have the deep-water capacities of the new port in Ashdod to the south, which was vital to handle the growing ship size and modern container-based nature of Israel’s international cargo traffic.

You may discover the tales about the port’s passenger and cargo traffic at your own pace. Walk by the permanent photo-art exhibition on the western edge of the harbor, in the shadow of the recently-constructed wooden walkway. One item caught my eye: Etched into the harbor masonry was a poignant female-form representation, boldly entitled ‘Hannah-le.' Maybe it was a relative’s artistic cry of hope for ‘Hannah-le’ having survived the Holocaust, and living to disembark in the safety of the Tel Aviv Port.

After the 1965 closure, the port's warehouse area gave way to builders’ supplies, particularly in plumbing and tiling. Prostitution and drug-dealing flourished by night and it became a strictly off-limits area for decades.

Its fortunes were restored and enhanced thanks to visionary architect Orna Angel, who was named general manager of the Marine Trust Company, a governmental and municipal organization in charge of the site.

The decay and dung of extensive dereliction were cleaned out, and a modern infrastructure (complete with Internet connection) were put in place by 2002. Initially, token rents and a geographically prime location attracted upmarket restaurants, sports shops and fashion houses. They formed the nucleus of a commercial community that transformed the warehouses into the prime downtown real estate that it is today. The nearby nightclubs, so I am told, are premier places for would-be Romeos, though rumor has it that patrons need Romeo-like persistence to get past the bouncers.

To enjoy more of the port atmosphere and perhaps work off the worst of a heavy meal, stroll northwards along the sea front. In less than half a kilometer, it reaches the point where the River Yarkon empties out into the Mediterranean. Cross the footbridge to the Reading Power Station. Opened in 1937, it used the cool waters of the Yarkon to keep the turbines at the optimal power-producing temperature. With luck, the turbine room might be open, featuring one of its irregular temporary art exhibitions.

For more information, visit the Tel Aviv Port's website

A view of the Mediterranean from the Tel Aviv Port.Credit: Jacob Solomon
Restaurants and shops line the new commercial center at the renovated Tel Aviv Port.
The coastline of Tel Aviv and Jaffa can be seen from the docks of the old port.
The mysterious ode to 'Hannah-le' on the walls of the port.
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Restaurants and shops line the new commercial center at the renovated Tel Aviv Port.Credit: Jacon Solomon
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The coastline of Tel Aviv and Jaffa can be seen from the docks of the old port.Credit: Jacob Solomon
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The mysterious ode to 'Hannah-le' on the walls of the port.Credit: Jacob Solomon