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By Mariam Shahin with photographs by George Azar
For the first 40 years of the 20th century, Haifa was the most sophisticated city in Palestine. As the de facto capital of the north, it was home to the country’s main port, the most important rail system, and a 1,200-mile-long oil pipeline that connected Palestine to Iraq.
Its population was cosmopolitan and its urban landscape well designed. In addition to the Arabs of Haifa, there were smaller communities of Armenians, Greeks, Persians, Indians, Germans, and other Arabs, mainly from Lebanon. Nestled at the meeting point of the Carmel Mountains, the Bay of Haifa, and the coastal plain, the city was and is a beautiful geographical experience. Theodore Herzl thought so too, and after his visit to the city he encouraged Jews to settle there.
Archaeological finds indicate that the area around the existing city of Haifa has been inhabited since Palaeolithic times (500,000-40,000 BC). The remains of a 14th-century-BC port north-east of the city at Tel Abu Haram almost certainly indicates that at some stage it was a Canaanite city, probably of medium size. Where Haifa stands today there were two towns that are believed to date back to this period: one was called Porphyrion, or the town of Purple, referring to the dying industry from murex shells. It was located north of today’s cape. The other town was called Sycaminos in reference to the sycamore trees - it stood at the south of today’s cape. The site was only partially excavated but revealed significant remnants of the area’s Hellenistic and Byzantine history. Some eight mosaic floors were uncovered. One fabulous example of this ancient Byzantine art has been preserved and can be seen at the Haifa Museum of Art (Sunday to Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.).
There is a reference to Haifa in the Talmud, and there is evidence of a Jewish burial ground in its vicinity. Archaeological evidence shows, however, that during the times of Jewish rule, Greeks were predominant in the city.
After the Byzantine Era, the city again flourished under the reign of the Muslim Fatimids, who established a substantial ship-building industry by the bay. But Haifa’s economic boom did not last long. The Crusaders, based in Acre, killed and enslaved Haifa’s population in 1099, reducing the city to a village. Subsequently it was ceaselessly fought over with Salahedin and later with Baibars. For a while it was known as “little Malta.” After the last Crusade, the city lay in a coma for some 200 years only to be revived with the coming of the Ottomans.
When Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent reinstated trade with Europe at the beginning of the 16th century, the port of Haifa was rebuilt and it again became a city of consequence. Its harbour was fortified to protect it from pirates, and much of the city was repopulated.
The Palestinian-Arab leader Dhaher El Omar Zaidani (1751) took the city in his bid to rule the north of Palestine. He “re-arranged” its structure, establishing the core in the district that is known today as Old Haifa.
Napoleon briefly occupied the city during his siege of Acre, and the Egyptian ruler Ibrahim Pasha passed through. The German Emperor visited in 1898 on his famous state visit and was thought to have been instrumental in pushing for the establishment of the Haifa railway in 1904. After the Haifa-Damascus-Mecca Hijazi railway was built, the economic future of the city was sealed. By 1919 there was also rail service to Egypt, and it became the second most important port city in the Mediterranean, superseded only by Marseille. By 1929 the Kirkuk-Haifa pipeline was inaugurated, and Iraqi oil found its outlet to the Mediterranean and the rest of the world.
With the influx of workers and business people, immigrants, and intellectuals, labour unions and newspapers thrived in the city. Britain’s plans to create a Jewish homeland in parts of Palestine tore at the fabric of the city’s Arab population.
The city was made up of six quarters by 1948; four were Arab (in which Muslims and Christian Arabs as well as Armenians and Baha’i Persians lived), one was Jewish, and one was German. Haifa was allocated by the United Nations Partition Plan to be part of the Jewish state, naturally against the wishes of its Arab citizens.
In 1948 most of Haifa’s Arab residents fled the city and took refuge in Lebanon. Of the city’s 61,000 Arab residents only 3,500 remained, the rest were never allowed to return. Their homes were expropriated by the state of Israel and the property was labelled as belonging to “absentee landlords.” Jewish families were given the homes in which the Arabs of Haifa once lived. Most of today’s Arab residents come from destroyed villages in the Haifa area or villages in the Galilee. By 2003 Haifa had a population of 300,000, 10 percent of which are Arabs, approximately half Muslim and half Christian. Arab life is still predominant in many parts of the city, particularly Wadi Nisnas and the areas around the German Colony and the Baha’i Temple.
Excerpted from Palestine: A Guide by Mariam Shahin, photography by George Azar, Chastleton Travel, 2007.
This Week in Palestine