Tel Aviv: The City That Rose from the Sand

Touring Israel

So the Old Port City of Jaffa was the beginning of the city of Tel Aviv-Yafo. In fact, Jaffa is considered one of the oldest port cities in the world; It is mentioned in the Bible and other ancient sources, and for generations served as a maritime gateway to the Land of Israel. Apart from Jaffa, throughout history, there have been a considerable number of settlements in the territory of Tel Aviv. Individual settlement began outside the walls of Jaffa, followed by the establishment of new neighborhoods; such as the Neve Tzedek; Mahane Yehuda; Neve Shalom; Yaffa Nof and Kerem Hatyemanim neighborhoods north of Jaffa.

Furthermore, this amazing city is located on the Israeli Mediterranean coastline and is the economic and technological center of the country. Tel Aviv is the country’s second-most populous city after Jerusalem. Also, Tel Aviv has the third- or fourth-largest economy and the largest economy per capita in the Middle East. Moreover, the city has the 31st highest cost of living in the world. The city receives over 2.5 million international visitors annually. A “party capital” in the Middle East, it has a lively nightlife and 24-hour culture. 

More About Tel Aviv

So the city was founded in 1909 by the Jewish Yishuv as a modern housing estate on the outskirts of the ancient port city of Jaffa. In fact, It was at first called ‘Ahuzat Bayit’ (lit. “House Estate” or “Homestead”); the name of the association that established the neighborhood. Then its name was changed the following year to ‘Tel Aviv’. After the biblical name – Tel Abib was adopted by Nahum Sokolow as the title for his Hebrew translation of Theodor Herzl’s 1902 novel Altneuland (“Old New Land”). Other Jewish suburbs of Jaffa established before Tel Aviv eventually became part of Tel Aviv; the oldest among them being Neve Tzedek (est. 1886). 

Immigration by mostly Jewish refugees meant that the growth of Tel Aviv soon outpaced that of Jaffa; which had a majority Arab population at the time. Tel Aviv and Jaffa were later merged into a single municipality in 1950, two years after the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which was proclaimed in the city. Tel Aviv’s White City; designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003; comprises the world’s largest concentration of International Style buildings, including Bauhaus and other related modernist architectural styles.

Etymology and Origins 

Tel Aviv is the Hebrew title of Theodor Herzl’s Altneuland (“Old New Land”); translated from German by Nahum Sokolow. Sokolow had adopted the name of a Mesopotamian site near the city of Babylon mentioned in Ezekiel:

“Then I came to them of the captivity at Tel Aviv, that lived by the river Chebar, and to where they lived; and I sat there overwhelmed among them seven days.”

Book of Ezekiel

So the name was chosen in 1910 from several suggestions; including “Herzliya”. It was found fitting as it embraced the idea of a renaissance in the ancient Jewish homeland. Aviv is Hebrew for “spring”, symbolizing renewal; and tel is an artificial mound created over centuries through the accumulation of successive layers of civilization built one over the other and symbolizing the ancient.

Although founded in 1909 as a small settlement on the sand dunes north of Jaffa; Tel Aviv was envisaged as a future city from the start. In fact, its founders hoped that in contrast to what they perceived as the squalid and unsanitary conditions of neighboring Arab towns. In other words, Tel Aviv was to be a clean and modern city; inspired by the European cities of Warsaw and Odessa. So that is why the marketing pamphlets advocating for its establishment stated:

In this city we will build the streets so they have roads and sidewalks and electric lights. Every house will have water from wells that will flow through pipes as in every modern European city, and also sewerage pipes will be installed for the health of the city and its residents.

— Akiva Arieh Weiss, 1906

Jaffa: The Heraldor of Tel Aviv 

So the walled city of Jaffa was the only inhabited part of what is now Tel Aviv in early modern times. In fact, Jaffa was an important port city in the region for millennia. Moreover, archaeological evidence shows signs of human settlement there starting in roughly 7,500 BCE. The city was established around 1,800 BCE at the latest. Its natural harbor has been used since the Bronze Age. 

So by the time, Tel Aviv was founded as a separate city during Ottoman rule of the region; Jaffa had been ruled by the Canaanites; Egyptians; Philistines; Israelites; Assyrians; Babylonians; Persians; Phoenicians; Ptolemies; Seleucids; Hasmoneans; Romans; Byzantines, the early Islamic caliphates; Crusaders; Ayyubids, and Mamluks before coming under the Ottoman rule in 1515. It had been fought over numerous times. The city is mentioned in ancient Egyptian documents, as well as the Hebrew Bible.

New Immigrants Establish New Neighborhood

During the First Aliyah in the 1880s, when Jewish immigrants began arriving in the region in significant numbers. Also, new neighborhoods were founded outside Jaffa on the current territory of Tel Aviv. In fact, the first was Neve Tzedek, founded in 1887 by Mizrahi Jews due to overcrowding in Jaffa and built on lands owned by Aharon Chelouche. Other neighborhoods were Neve Shalom (1890); Yafa Nof (1896); Achva (1899); Ohel Moshe (1904); Kerem HaTeimanim (1906); and others. Once Tel Aviv received city status in the 1920s, those neighborhoods joined the newly formed municipality, now becoming separated from Jaffa. 

1904–1917: Foundation in the Late Ottoman Period

The Second Aliyah led to further expansion. So in 1906, a group of Jews, among them residents of Jaffa; followed the initiative of Akiva Aryeh Weiss and banded together to form the Ahuzat Bayit (lit. “homestead”) society. In fact, one of the society’s goals was to form a “Hebrew urban center in a healthy environment, planned according to the rules of aesthetics and modern hygiene.”

Moreover, urban planning for the new city was influenced by the Garden city movement. The first 60 plots were purchased in Kerem Djebali near Jaffa by Jacobus Kann; a Dutch citizen, who registered them in his name to circumvent the Turkish prohibition on Jewish land acquisition. Meir Dizengoff, later Tel Aviv’s first mayor; also joined the Ahuzat Bayit society. His vision for Tel Aviv involved peaceful co-existence with Arabs.

Tel Aviv – The City That Rose From the Sand Dunes 

On 11 April 1909, 66 Jewish families gathered on a desolate sand dune to parcel out the land by lottery using seashells. This gathering is considered the official date of the establishment of Tel Aviv. In fact, the lottery was organized by Akiva Aryeh Weiss; president of the building society. Weiss collected 120 seashells on the beach; half of them white and half of them grey. The members’ names were written on the white shells and the plot numbers on the grey shells.

A boy drew names from one box of shells and a girl drew plot numbers from the second box. A photographer, Abraham Soskin, documented the event. The first water well was later dug at this site; located on what is today Rothschild Boulevard, across from Dizengoff House. Within a year, Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, Yehuda Halevi, Lilienblum, and Rothschild streets were built; a water system was installed; 66 houses (including some on six subdivided plots) were completed. At the end of Herzl Street; a plot was allocated for a new building for the Herzliya Hebrew High School, founded in Jaffa in 1906.

The cornerstone for the building was laid on 28 July 1909. The town was originally named Ahuzat Bayit. On 21 May 1910, the name Tel Aviv was adopted. The flag and city arms of Tel Aviv contain under the red Star of David 2 words from the biblical book of Jeremiah: “I (God) will build You up again and you will be rebuilt.” (Jer 31:4) Tel Aviv was planned as an independent Hebrew city with wide streets and boulevards; running water for each house, and street lights.

Bauhaus Architecture in Tel Aviv 

Bauhaus architecture was introduced in the 1920s and 1930s by German Jewish architects who settled in Palestine after the rise of the Nazis. Tel Aviv’s White City, around the city center; contains more than 5,000 Modernist-style buildings inspired by the Bauhaus school and Le Corbusier.

Construction of these buildings later declared protected landmarks and, collectively; a UNESCO World Heritage Site continued until the 1950s in the area around Rothschild Boulevard. Some 3,000 buildings were created in this style between 1931 and 1939 alone. In the 1960s, this architectural style gave way to office towers and a chain of waterfront hotels and commercial skyscrapers.

Some of the city’s Modernist buildings were neglected to the point of ruin. Before legislation to preserve this landmark architecture; many of the old buildings were demolished. Efforts are underway to refurbish Bauhaus buildings and restore them to their original condition.

Things To Do in Tel Aviv 

Tel Aviv is a major center of culture and entertainment. The Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center is home to the Israeli Opera, where Plácido Domingo was house tenor between 1962 and 1965, and the Cameri Theatre. With 2,482 seats, the Heichal HaTarbut is the city’s largest theatre and home to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Habima Theatre, Israel’s national theatre, was closed down for renovations in early 2008 and reopened in November 2011 after major remodeling. Also, Tel Aviv is home to the Batsheva Dance Company, a world-famous contemporary dance troupe. The Israeli Ballet is also based in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv’s center for modern and classical dance is the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theatre in Neve Tzedek.

The city often hosts international musicians at venues such as Yarkon Park; Expo Tel Aviv. The Tel Aviv Cinematheque screens art movies; premieres short and full-length Israeli films; and hosts a variety of film festivals.

Furthermore, The Beaches of Tel Aviv and the city’s promenade play a major role in the city’s cultural and touristic scene, often ranked as some of the best beaches in the world. 


Hi! My name is Arik Haglili, an Israeli native who decided to dedicate his life to share my knowledge about the Holy Land to those that are interested to know more about this amazing piece of land. My career as a private tour guide started at the International School For the Studying of the Holocaust and the rest is history.

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