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Jaffa to Jerusalem by train

- by Alexander Jones - 

This month, for the first time since 1892, the inauguration of a new, direct rail connection from Jaffa to Jerusalem was celebrated. Admittedly today Jaffa is known as Tel Aviv-Yafo, and the new train line doesn't go as close to the historic centres of either city as the original did, but it is now possible to make the journey in just 32 minutes. Despite the project's infamous delays, this is nevertheless a remarkable achievement.

Jaffa and Jerusalem have always been inexorably linked. Jaffa was the port, Jerusalem the pilgrimage destination for at least three major world religions. Until Jaffa's walls were demolished, you would leave the city via the Jerusalem Gate. In English, the main road today in Jaffa is called Jerusalem Boulevard. Similarly, the main road approaching Jerusalem from the west is the Jaffa Road, and people enter the holy city through the Jaffa Gate.

Caravanserai alongside Highway Route One
As the crow flies, this journey is just over 65 km. For thousands of years, this took most people at least three days on foot, or with the help of horses, donkeys or camels. After 1867 the road was made passable with a carriage, but even with a state of the art vehicle the journey would still take two days. Most travellers would spend the night at the Ottoman-era caravansarai which is still visible on the southern side of the modern highway at 'The Gates of the Valley' (Bab al-Wad in Arabic or Shaar HaGay in Hebrew).

In 1892, the inauguration of the Middle East's first railway changed everything. Built under the Ottoman Empire, by a Jewish Jerusalemite named Joseph Navon, who enlisted a French company called the Société du Chemin de Fer Ottoman de Jaffa à Jérusalem et Prolongements, it reduced the journey time to as little as 3 and a half hours. Admittedly this was rarely possible (most reports of early trips suggest it was usually more like a 6 hour trip) as although the journey across the coastal plain is simple enough, the winding switchbacks to get through the steep hills into Jerusalem pose a serious challenge. Initially built using a metre gauge, it was eventually rebuilt as standard gauge during the British Mandate.

Postcard of the old Jaffa railway station
The project shows the importance of the link between Jerusalem and Jaffa - the port of entry for  North African and European Christians and Jews alike, who in this era began coming to the Holy Land in much larger numbers. Many well known names were involved in the project. Moshe Montefiore made the initial feasibility assessment in the 1850s. Aharon Chelouche paid for a bridge in his neighbourhood of Neve Tsedek. Baron Rothschild paid for the construction of several villages along its length. Many of the engineering works were built by the Eiffel Company (of Parisian tower fame).

UNESCO World Heritage listed terraces of Battir, and the train
The line was seriously damaged in the fighting of the War of 1948, and passenger trains never used the Jaffa Station after this, instead running only as far as several Tel Aviv stations. At the end of the war the railway was fully controlled by the new State of Israel, but Jordanian territory came within a metre of the rails near the village of Battir. Incredibly, the train kept chugging up the hill throughout this time with almost no interruptions, and although this beautiful village is now under the control of the Palestinian Authority, the same holds true and no physical barrier separates the village from the railway. More problematic than war for the railway were new roads. The first few decades after Israeli independence saw a huge focus on building modern highways and railways suffered both from neglect and falling usage.  Passenger trains stopped running entirely on the Jaffa-Jerusalem line in 1998, with the idea either to modernise or build a completely new rail route linking the two cities.

In 2001 construction began on a novel, northern route and 2005 the old line reopened, with a greatly reduced schedule and with a change of locomotives required at Bet Shemesh. In 2008 the former Jaffa station was renovated as an entertainment and leisure facility, with the old central Jerusalem Khan Station following suit in 2013. The old line remains a beautiful, winding passage through the hills which takes over two hours and leaves you in a distant suburb of Jerusalem. Useless for all but the enthusiastic train lover, it retains all its old fashioned charm.

The impressive new viaduct on the approach to Jerusalem
The new line first ran un-electrified to Ben Gurion Airport, from 2004, but the rest of the project - which involved building several massive bridges and boring three long tunnels - proved much more difficult. Costs ballooned to an estimated 7 billion shekels and the launch date was repeatedly delayed. The line also involves several short sections over the Green Line, meaning building on land the UN considers to be Occupied Territory. Deutsche Bahn pulled out of the project in 2011 for this reason and many remain opposed to this day. It has also been claimed that the project is the most expensive railway ever, when you calculate the cost per kilometre. In 2019 it initially opened with a diesel locomotive to the airport, a 12 minute wait, a change, and then an electrified section to Jerusalem. But finally in January 2020, the full trip is now possible directly, for just 22 shekels.

The story continues, however, as the section of Jaffa railway which was closed is now being used to build the Tel Aviv metro. Progress on this section is reportedly going well, and is scheduled to open in 2022.

Green Olive offers private tours exploring the rail routes of Israel-Palestine. Please contact us for more information. We will also be launching a 10-day Rail Tour later in 2020 and will post more details when we have them.


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From Jaffa to Jerusalem - A Palestinian Story

- by Aref Dajani - 

Aref Dajani
I grew up in the United States with a name that is difficult to pronounce with no English cognate. Anyone with a name that Is difficult to pronounce gets made fun of (at best) because of their name. Many change their name. I never wanted to, because I learned at a young age that my name is a lifeline to my identity. I was taught that I had a great-grandfather named Aref, a grandmother named Arefiyya, and an uncle named Aref. I was the fourth generation of Arefs!
Though Orientalists and Hollywood have their stereotypical ideas of what a Muslim, an Arab, or a Palestinian looks like, we come in every shape, size, hair color, and skin complexion. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood within walking distance of a Conservative shul (Yiddish for synagogue). I met my first survivor of the Shoah (Hebrew for Holocaust) at the age of five. He was the father of my best friend Mark and had blue numbers tattooed on his wrist. 

I heard his story from the Shoah and I heard my father’s story from the Nakba. I learned at a very young age how important it is to listen, learn, and accept the truth of others. I also learned not to trust stories that people have of The Other. I heard what many Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians said about Jews. They were wrong because I heard the stories of Jews first-hand. I heard what many Jews and pro-Israelis said about Palestinians. They were wrong because I heard the stories of Palestinians first-hand.

There is no substitute to first-person narrative, period. That is why Green Olive Tours is such an amazing organization.

Fast forward decades. The Internet becomes a thing and I learned to egosurf. I Googled on myself, though I used Altavista back then. Put in “Aref Dajani” or “Dajani, Aref” in the search bar and you get exactly two people in the world: me and a former mayor of Jerusalem

Dajani Hospital, Jaffa - 1933
I knew that I was son of Nader, son of Shafiq, son of Aref. Was the former mayor my great-grandfather? The Dajani family has two branches – Jaffa and Jerusalem -- and I come from the Jaffa branch. There is a gulf between Jaffa and Jerusalem historically and culturally, yet my dad went to an Anglican high school in Nabi Dawud (the City of David) on Mount Zion. He was a member of the Dajani soccer club in Nabi Dawud. And a Jerusalemite Dajani established the Dajani Hospital in Jaffa.
Courtesy of a cousin who developed an online pan-Dajani family tree, I learned that my great-grandfather had the same name as and lived contemporaneously with, but was not, the former mayor of Jerusalem. All good; I am the son of orange growers. I am a Jaffa Dajani.

Reading online and speaking with relatives on both sides of the family, I learned much about the former mayor of Jerusalem. It is often asserted that Palestinians did not establish their own national identity until long after Jews established their own national identity. That is patently false. Both Jews and Palestinians established their national identities within the same artificial borders set forth by a certain Sykes and a certain Picot. Folks conveniently forget that Herzl advocated for Jews to settle in Uganda.

Mayor Aref Basha al-Dajani
The land called Historic Palestine or Eretz Yisrael was twice promised in WWI by the British: as a nation state for the Arabs and as a nation state for the Jews. Both fought against the Ottomans for independence. The Balfour Declaration promised a homeland for the Jews and nothing for the Palestinians. As a result, Mayor Dajani worked with the leading houses of British-defined Palestine to undo Sykes-Picot and unite the Levant. We had a serious problem with European Jews who acted colonial in every way, setting up their own institutions and purchasing our land. We had zero problem with our Arab Jewish neighbors. At the same time, we were not nameless, faceless Arabs, interchangeable with Mauritanians, Somalis, or Omanis. Our kinship was with what Sykes-Picot called Syria, Lebanon, and Transjordan: the Levant.
From its very beginning, Palestinian Arab nationalists sought to build a state where all are equal. That was reflected in the Muslim-Christian Association and the Palestine Arab Congresses. In my advocacy for a secular democratic bi-national state, I seek equality for not the three but the six Abrahamic faiths that reside between the River and the Sea: Bahá’ís, Samaritans, Druze, Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Mayor Dajani brought together Muslims and Christians to unite the Greater Levant. That tradition continues three generations later. Post-peace, I advocate for a confederation that breaks down the hardened borders of the Levant to the benefit of all.

Aref Dajani is the author of the peace initiative “Four Days to Heal Khalil”


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