Haifa, Israel: You Go to Jerusalem to Pray, Tel Aviv to Play, and Haifa to Do It All

Haifa is the number one port city in Israel overlooking the Haifa Bay along the Mediterranean coast. The city also spans over the entirety of Mount Carmel giving the whole area a very unreal almost fantasy-like appearance with the mountain meeting the beautiful coastline. The city plays host to a number of groups including Jews, Christians, Arabs, Druze, and those of the Baha’i faith which has created a diverse cultural scene in addition to a major center of faith for just about every Eastern born religion under the sun. 

The History of Haifa

In terms of Judaic history, Haifa is first mentioned by name in the Talmud sometime between the 1st and 4th centuries CE. The city is referenced in relation to the murex snail which was farmed in the town near Haifa. This snail was used to produce the purple and blue dyes used for coloring tallit, Jewish prayer shawls typically worn by men. 

The area has been inhabited before this citation with the earliest archaeological remains dating to the Late Bronze Age up until the Hellenistic period. At this time, the settlement was known as Tel Abu Hawam, and held the function of a port city just like today. The city is mentioned in various sources throughout Israel’s history of conquest, except for when Muslim rule dominated the land. When the Crusaders arrived, the landscape of Haifa played a large role in building defensible fortifications to gain advantage when enemies attacked.

By 1742, the Jewish community which had dwindled over the last few centuries slowly started to build itself back up again. These were mainly Jews returning from the diaspora in North African nations like Morocco and Tunisia. Just a century after this, the Baha’i faith made its way from Persia to the north of Israel by way of a man called Baha’u’llah. He had been exiled by the Shah of Iran and later imprisoned. When he was released, Baha’u’llah came to Israel and made Haifa the center of the Baha’i religion.   

Baha’u’llah

Another century later, during the War of Independence in 1948, the city itself was a highly coveted territory for both Israelis and Arabs but eventually fell to the Haganah. Before the war, the city had over 50,000 Arab inhabitants, and by the end of the conflict their numbers had fallen into the lower thousands. The Arabs that stayed consented to live under Israeli rule. Despite this drop in population, Arabic culture is still a large part of the city’s fabric of daily life, none more so than food culture. 

The Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, Israel

The Baha’i Gardens of Haifa

Out of all the religious groups that contributed to Haifa’s history and architecture, there is one monument that stands above the rest. Literally. The Baha’i Gardens situated on Mount Carmel travel up the entire face of the mountain. The steep white staircase stops are various terraces as you climb each one decorated with the most breathtaking vegetation. You will never see a wilting flower in these gardens, which are attended day and night. At the very top is the golden dome and Shrine of the Bab. This is the final resting place of the Prophet Herald, a central figure of the Baha’i faith. Once you reach the top you can see the entire scope of the city; it is a once in a lifetime view.

view of haifa from the top of the bahai gardens
View of Haifa from the top of the Baha’i Gardens

Other Must-See Sites in Haifa

In stark contrast to the steep heights of the Baha’i Gardens, Elijah’s Cave is also located on Mount Carmel. This site is sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Druze. It is a natural grotto where Elijah was said to have rested during his time in the wilderness. The precise location of the cave was unknown for centuries and is still contested till this day. However, this particular site associated with the prophet still welcomes thousands of pilgrims every year.

Aside from the city’s rich religious history, one of the things that entices people about Israel’s northern region is its abundantly green landscape. One of the best places to visit in order to take in the foliage and landscape of the north is the En Afek Nature Reserve. It is named for the ancient town of Tel Afek, in the hinterland of the reserve, mentioned in both the book of Joshua and Judges. The reserve itself contains extensive swamp land waterways and every freshwater plant and tree native to the northern region. This is also one of the best places to catch a glimpse or two of the local and very colorful water birds of Haifa. 

marshland with plants and a pond in haifa, israel
En Afek Nature Reserve in Haifa, Israel

Outside of these attractions don’t neglect the various cultural happenings that take place year round in the city. Some of these include the Karmiel Dance Festival in July, and the Haifa Food Fair that runs from November to December. However one of the best festivals has got to be the Haifa Wine Festival in September. Some of the most delicious grape varieties are grown in the north yielding world renowned wines. 

wine being poured into a wine glass at the Haifa Wine Festival
The Haifa Wine Festival

It is no surprise, that with all this history and culture, Haifa has produced some of the most notable Jewish Israeli figures in the world of arts and academia. One of the most famous names is the great Israeli architect Moshe Safdie. He was born during the era of British Mandate Palestine and educated at McGill University in Montreal. Moshe then returned to his native Israel and designed some of the most prominent and breathtaking architectural pursuits in the world. His resume includes Yad Vashem, the world Holocaust museum and research centre, and Ben Gurion International Airport. Another well known name is Hillel Slovak. Born to Holocaust survivors, Hillel made his way to Los Angeles and became the original guitarist for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. The band and its members would go on to be multi-time Grammy award winners and all around American cultural icons.   

It is a common phrase in the Jewish world that you go to Jerusalem to pray and Tel Aviv to play, but Haifa to stay. It has the character of relaxed beach life combined with the hustle and bustle of a big city. Haifa is the best of all Israel has to offer and then some. 

 

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