Haifa: History & Overview
Haifa is Israel’s third largest city and the main port and the commercial and administrative center of the north of the country. The city extends over the northwest side of Mt. Carmel and the coastal strip at its northern slope, and over the southern end of the Zebulun Valley and the northern edge of the Carmel Coast. Its total area is about 23 sq. mi. (60 sq. km.).
The earliest settlement in Haifa’s vicinity was located at Tell Abu Hawam, a small port town founded at the beginning of the 14th century B.C.E. (Late Bronze Age) and was in existence until the Hellenistic period. The city was not a part of the area regarded as sanctified by the exiles returning from Babylon. Haifa is possibly mentioned in the Persian period in the list of cities attributed to the geographer Scylax, between the bay and the Promontory of Zeus, i.e., the Carmel. In the Hellenistic period the city moved to a new site, south of Bat Gallim (the old port had apparently become blocked by sand). Tombs from the Roman period, including Jewish burial caves, have been found in the vicinity. The major city in the region was Shikmonah, which Eusebius even identifies with Haifa (Onomastikon, ed. by E. Klostermann (1904), 108:31).
Haifa is mentioned in Jewish sources as the home of R. Avdimos (Avdimi, Dimi) and other scholars (Tosef., Yev. 6:8). It was a fishing village whose inhabitants, like the people of Beth-Shean and Tivon, could not distinguish between the pronunciation of the gutturals ḥet and ayin (TJ, Ber. 2:4). According to the Talmud, the murex (shellfish yielding purple dye used for the tallit) was caught along the coast from Haifa to the Ladder of Tyre (Shab. 26a). Politically Haifa throughout this period belonged to the district of Acre. Its Jewish inhabitants were on hostile terms with the Samaritans in neighboring Castra, a fortress built by the Romans. A kinah speaks of the destruction of the Jewish community and other communities when the Byzantines reconquered the country from the Persians in 628. Haifa is not mentioned in the sources dealing with the first 400 years of Muslim rule in Eretz Israel. It appears again only in the mid-11th century: in 1046, the Persian traveler Nasir-i Khusrau relates that large sailing ships were built there. He also mentions date palms that he found there and the sand used by goldsmiths. In 1084, the gaon Elijah ben Solomon ha-Kohen went from Tyre to Haifa to proclaim the New Year on the soil of Eretz Israel and to renew the ordination of rabbis and the gaonate there.
On the eve of the First Crusade Haifa is described as an important and well-fortified city. The Crusaders pushing southward initially spared the city but later laid siege and conquered it with the help of the Venetian navy (summer 1100). All Haifa’s Jewish defenders (who comprised the majority of the city’s population) and its Egyptian garrison were slaughtered, bringing to an end another brief but flourishing chapter in Haifa’s history. During the Crusader era Jews apparently did not resettle in Haifa. The city remained a small fortress and an insignificant port under the shadow of its mighty neighbors, Acre and Caesarea; during this period it was the capital of a seigniory held by a Crusader family, Garcia Alvarez. The fortress of Haifa was destroyed in 1187 when Saladin dealt a crushing blow to Crusader rule. It was returned under the peace treaty of 1192 to the Franks during the Third Crusade (1192–1265). In the mid-13th century, the city’s fortifications were rebuilt by Louis IX, king of France, but in 1265 Haifa again fell, this time to the Mamluk Sultan Baybars who drove the remaining Crusaders from the country. During Baybars’ systematic destruction of the coastal cities of Eretz Israel and Syria (to prevent their reoccupation by the Franks), Haifa was also razed (1291) and did not revive throughout the period of Mamluk rule. The Carmelite Order was founded on Mt. Carmel in 1156, but the monastery was destroyed by the Muslims in 1291. From the time of its conquest by the Muslims until the 15th century, Haifa was either uninhabited or an unfortified small village. At various times there were a few Jews living there, and both Jews and Christians made pilgrimages to Elijah’s cave on Mt. Carmel.
Haifa was apparently deserted at the time of the Ottoman conquest (1516). The first indication of its resettlement is contained in a description by the German traveler Raowulf who visited Eretz Israel in 1575. Haifa is subsequently mentioned in accounts of travelers as a half-ruined, impoverished village with few inhabitants. The expansion of commercial trade between Europe and Eretz Israel from the beginning of the 17th century improved Haifa’s position. More and more boats began anchoring at the safer Haifa port in preference to the plugged-up bay at Acre. Haifa’s revival as a flourishing port city is also to be credited to the emirs of the Turabay family, who ruled part of Eretz Israel at that time, and also Haifa. These local rulers also gave permission to the Carmelite monks to re-establish themselves in 1631, but only four years later the Muslims turned their church into a mosque. Later the monastery was rebuilt; in 1775 it was ransacked and, in 1821, it was destroyed by Abdullah, pasha of Acre. It was reestablished in 1828 and exists to this day.
At the beginning of the 18th century, a new local ruler Zahir al-Umar gained control of northern Eretz Israel and set up his capital in Acre. In 1742, Haifa again became a village or a small town at the foot of Mt. Carmel near the present-day Bat Gallim quarter. It had a small Jewish community and a synagogue. In the middle of the century, Zahir annexed Haifa as well. Unfortified and spread over a vast and vulnerable plain, Haifa was almost captured in 1761 by the Turks. To prevent its falling into his enemies’ hands, Zahir ordered his soldiers to raze the city to the ground and scatter boulders in the anchorage; thus, the ancient city of Haifa was demolished. Zahir provided his growing capital with a safe alternative port of call 1 mi. (2 km.) southeast of ancient Haifa, on a strip of coast at the foot of the Carmel at an easily defensible point. Unlike the ancient city of Haifa, the new port was situated on the crossroad from Acre to Jaffa. Zahir walled in the area and built another fortress on the slope above (known as the Burj, located on the site of Castrum Samaritanorum). The new city of Haifa grew up within these walls – retaining its old name.
Haifa gradually recovered and increased from an estimated 250 settlers in old Haifa at the beginning of the 18th century to 4,000 a century later. R. Nahman of Bratslav spent Rosh Ha-Shanah of 5559 (1798) with the small Jewish community of Haifa. The composition of the population changed, mainly due to the growing influence of the Carmelite monks, so that in 1840 about 40% of the city’s inhabitants were Christian Arabs living alongside the Muslim majority. Despite severe difficulties and opposition from the local inhabitants and the authorities, the Carmelite monks, with the aid of France, managed to hold on to the dark crypts above “Elijah’s Cave” and also erected nearby the Stella Maris monastery. Its cornerstone was laid in 1827, and construction was carried out without incident under the Egyptian rule in force in Eretz Israel at that time (1831–40), which was well-disposed to Christians in general and especially to those under French protection.
The Egyptian conquest of Eretz Israel lent much impetus to Haifa’s development, especially to the disadvantage of its rival Acre. The steamboats, which made their appearance at this time in eastern Mediterranean ports and contributed to the economic rebirth of Eretz Israel, used Haifa rather than Acre as their port of call. The consular representatives, therefore, began leaving Acre (which was also dominated by Muslim extremism) to settle in Haifa, with its large Christian population and better climate; the latter took over more and more of Acre’s export trade, which had consisted mainly of grain, cotton, and sesame seeds.
In 1858, the walled city of Haifa was already overcrowded, and the first houses began to be built outside the ancient city on the mountain slope. Ten years later, the first German Templars arrived in the country from Wuerttemberg and built a colony, which became a model residential suburb just west of Haifa. The members of this sect made important contributions to Haifa’s development – they introduced the stagecoach, paved roads, and set up a regular coach service to Acre and Nazareth. The Templars also established Haifa’s first industrial enterprises and applied modern methods in agriculture, crafts, and commerce. Toward the end of the century, the Germans enlarged their settlement and built the first residential quarter on the top of the Carmel (near the present-day Merkaz ha-Carmel). In 1905, Haifa’s position and importance was further strengthened when it was connected with the Hejaz railroad, which was then being laid between Damascus and the Arabian Peninsula; most of the exports from the fertile lands of the Hauran now passed through Haifa.
Revival of Jewish Settlement
Haifa’s Jewish community expanded gradually. Very few Jews had apparently settled there when the ancient city was rebuilt at the beginning of Turkish rule. In 1742 it contained a small Jewish community, composed mainly of immigrants from Morocco and Algeria. In 1839, there were 124 Jews in Haifa; in 1864, 384; in 1871, 760; and in 1901, 1,041. Up to this time, North African Jews still comprised most of the community, including some Sephardi Jews from Turkey and a few Ashkenazim. (In 1917, the number of Jews rose to 1,400, of whom a third were of North African origin, a third Sephardi, and a third Ashkenazi.) In the last quarter of the century, the Jews comprised about one-eighth of the total population. They lived in the arat al-Yahad (“Jewish quarter”) inside the poor Muslim district in the eastern part of the lower city. Most barely subsisted by petty trade and peddling in Haifa or nearby villages. The importance of the Jewish community in the city increased with the arrival of members of the First and Second Aliyah from Eastern Europe, mostly from Russia. From the 1880s onward, and especially in the early 20th century, extensive Jewish commercial and industrial activity sprang up. During his visit to Eretz Israel in 1898–99, Theodor Herzl recognized Haifa’s numerous potentialities as the future chief port and an important inland road junction. In his Altneuland (1902), the description of Haifa occupies a central place in his vision of rebuilding Israel. The laying of the cornerstone of the Technion in 1912 marked the high point of the intensified Jewish activities and was a signal for further development projects.
On the eve of World War I, Haifa, with more than 20,000 inhabitants and a constantly expanding export-import trade, was the key city of northern Eretz Israel. A progressive European minority added to its cosmopolitan character, and an extensive network of schools, most of them Catholic, provided a high standard of education. New residential quarters were added in the east and west and on the southern slopes of the Carmel and eventually embraced the ancient site of the city.
British Mandate Period
British forces captured Haifa in fierce battles on September 23, 1918, after four centuries of Ottoman rule. During the British Mandate, Haifa rapidly grew into a large modern city where the Jewish population played an increasingly predominant role. In 1919 the Haifa-Lydda railroad was added to the narrow gauge Haifa-ema-Dara line. In the 1920s and 1930s, the road network which linked up the various parts of Haifa was greatly improved and extended.
The 1922 census recorded a population of 25,000 in Haifa, of whom more than 9,000 were Muslims, slightly fewer Christian Arabs, and more than 6,000 Jews. According to the 1931 census, it contained 50,403 residents, including about 20,000 Muslims, 15,923 Jews, and about 14,000 Christians. By 1944 the number of inhabitants had grown to 128,000, of whom 66,000 were Jewish, 35,940 Muslim, 26,570 Christian, and 3,000 Bahais. At the end of the Mandate (1948), the Jews comprised nearly two-thirds of the population (about 100,000 out of 150,000).
On October 31, 1933, the new port of Haifa, the first modern port in Palestine, was opened. The Mandatory government chose this site because of its natural harbor and proximity to important shipping lanes, rail transport to the rest of Palestine and Egypt, and Egypt, and to the Hejaz railway to Jordan and Syria. Haifa was also the administrative center of the north. The completion of the large harbor in 1934 produced a great burst of prosperity, and Haifa became the main and practically only port of international repute in Eretz Israel, taking precedence over Jaffa.
Haifa’s economy was further strengthened by the completion in 1939 of the oil pipeline from Iraq to its Mediterranean terminus at Haifa and the large oil refineries near the city. At this time, the port facilities encouraged many new industries, some of them the largest in the country (textiles, glass, bricks, petroleum products, cement, metal, ceramics, etc.), in Haifa and the vicinity, especially in the Zebulun Valley. The tension between the city’s Arab and Jewish residents in the Mandate period, however, impeded Haifa’s development. The riots of 1936–39 adversely affected the city’s economy, and business dwindled between the conflicting sides, as well as trade with Syria and Lebanon. The Arab population, mainly concentrated in the lower city, obstructed the Jews on their way to the adjoining industrial areas and the port and services adjacent to it (marine shipping companies, banks, transport, insurance, etc.), as more and more Jews from the 1920s onward settled in the Hadar ha-Carmel section (the continuation of the Herzliyyah district founded before World War I). Hadar ha-Carmel developed rapidly around the Technion, which was inaugurated in 1925. The Mandate authorities granted some municipal autonomy to the new Jewish quarter. The Jewish settlement in this period also climbed higher up the slope around Merkaz ha-Carmel, in the Auzzat Herbert Samuel quarter, and Neveh Sha’anan. When the land in the Zebulun Valley on the coast of the bay was purchased in 1928, the Zionist movement made its first venture into comprehensive urban planning, for which it engaged the British city planner Patrick Abercrombie. The area stretching from the southeast corner of the bay up to Acre was divided into functional regions – an industrial zone in the south near the port; a residential area in the center in which from 1930 onward the Kerayot were built (Kiryat Hayyim, Kiryat Bialik, Kiryat Motzkin, Kiryat Yam); and an agricultural belt in the north.
Toward the end of the British Mandate, both the Jews and the Arabs attempted to gain control over the city. The hostilities which broke out at the end of 1947 reached a peak on April 21–22, 1948, when the British suddenly decided to evacuate the city. In a lightning military action, the Haganah captured the Arab quarters and took over the city. Only about 3,000 of Haifa’s 50,000 Arab residents chose to remain in the city; the rest, in response to the Arab High Command’s orders, refused to accept Jewish rule and abandoned their homes.
In the State of Israel
Late in 1948, Haifa’s population numbered 97,544, of whom 96% were Jews. At the end of 1950 there were 140,000 inhabitants; at the end of 1952, 150,600; at the end of 1955, 158,700; in 1961, 183,021; and at the end of 1967, 209,900. In the mid-1990s, the population was approximately 246,500, including 35,000 new immigrants. As of 2020, the population of was Haifa 285,542, making it the third largest city in Israel after Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Of Haifa’s non-Jewish population, 10% are Arabs, 60% of them Christian and 30% Muslim.
The built-up area of Haifa continued to expand along the shore area and on the slopes and ridges of the Carmel. The lower city (whose former nucleus had been largely left in ruins in 1948) was rebuilt as the “City” – Haifa’s main business section. The population density on Hadar ha-Carmel (also a center for retail trade, services, and entertainment) increased until residents started moving to the upper Carmel. Housing projects on a large scale were erected, including extensive suburbs such as Kiryat Eliezer on the coast and southern Romemah on a ridge of the Carmel. Later, other neighborhoods sprung up on the upper Carmel, including Aḥuza, Carmelia, Vardia, and Denia (private homes on the southern slopes of the Carmel).
In the 1950s and 1960s, a number of changes were made in the functional arrangement of the city with Haifa and Acre being conceived as the axes of a comprehensive regional scheme. In the Haifa Bay area, the industrial zone extended north along the coastal dune strip up to Acre and included “Steel City.” Residential quarters were built east of this zone. On Mt. Carmel, the crest and narrow spurs branching off to the west and east were reserved for buildings and parks and orchards fill the gorges. Downtown Haifa extended westward, spilling over southward into the Carmel Coast area. After the establishment of the State of Israel, the port was greatly expanded and modernized and became the home port of Israel’s fast-growing navy. The piers were tripled in number, the water level deepened, and many port facilities were added, such as the Dagon storage silos with a 75,000-ton capacity. In 1954, an auxiliary port was built at the Kishon River outlet, its pier was lengthened in 1964 to 2,099 ft. (640 m.). A shipyard for building and repairing ships, a floating dock, and a jetty for Israel’s fishing fleet were also built in the Kishon area (1959). Haifa continued to be almost the exclusive embarkation and debarkation sea point in Israel
Haifa’s industry continued expanding in this period, especially in the bay area. Two factories in Israel for the production and assembly of cars were set up there, as well as large chemical and petrochemical industries, an industrial and craft center, a plant for producing organic fertilizers from waste, a plant for purifying sewage water, and numerous other industrial enterprises. Also located in Haifa are the national offices of the Israel Railways (including their large workshops), the Israel Electric Company, Solel Boneh (Israel’s largest contracting company), Zim (the largest shipping company), and others. Employment in the port area, which provided work for a tenth of the city’s population, and in Haifa’s varied industries, drew a very large labor force to the city, which is the best organized in the country. From the 1980s, the southern outskirts of the city began to be developed as an economic center for hi-tech companies, including branches of some of the world’s largest corporations, such as Intel, Microsoft, and Elbit (an Israeli firm manufacturing weapons systems). Nearby there is a transportation center, including both a railroad station and main bus terminal. From 1951 until his death in 1969, the mayor of Haifa was Abba Khoushi, formerly the secretary of the Haifa labor council. He did much to develop and beautify the city.
The Bahai sect, with its world center in Haifa, built a gold-domed sanctuary and cultivated one of the finest and largest gardens in the country. In 1987 the Bahais begin to enlarge the gardens, adding 18 hanging gardens running for a kilometer along the slopes of the mountain and thus linking the upper part of the mountain with the lower part. In addition, the Bahais built other buildings, among them a library and administrative building. Another unique feature of the city is the Carmelit, Israel’s only subway, which was set up in 1959.
The educational system has received particular attention. Haifa University College was founded in 1963 by the municipality under the academic supervision of the Hebrew University. It was granted independent status and in 1970 it offered courses in the humanities and social sciences and had a department for training high school teachers. Enrollment in 1969/70 totaled 3,600 and the academic staff numbered 340. In 1967, the college was transferred to the university campus (designed by the architect Oscar Niemeyer) on the summit of the Carmel. In the early years of the 21st century, Haifa University had approximately 13,000 students. The university is under continuous expansion, adding new departments each year. The Technion has another 13,000 students, studying engineering and the life sciences. Various cultural and social centers, public buildings, and museums have been built to house among other things the National Science Museum, the Railroad Museum, the Naval Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Japanese Art Pavilion, the Haifa Municipal Theater, and the Haifa Symphony Orchestra. In addition, Haifa has a zoo and nature, and prehistoric museum. One of the best-known community centers is the James de Rothschild Center. In 1963, a Jewish-Arab youth center, Bet Gefen, was opened through the efforts of Abba Khoushi, to help integrate the minority youth. The city of Haifa hosts three yearly festivals: an international film festival during the Sukkot holiday, a children’s theater festival on Passover, and the Holiday of Holidays in December corresponding to the three religious holidays of the season: the Jewish Chanukah, the Muslim Ramadan, and the Christian Christmas.
Haifa has not been immune to terrorist attacks. Four suicide bombings in 2001–2003 claimed dozens of lives and injured nearly 200 people.
In 2021, Bay Port was inaugurated. The new port operated by China’s Shanghai International Port Group will allow larger ships to dock in Israel. In July 2022, Israel agreed to sell the port to Adani Ports of India for about $1.2 billion.
R. Hecht, Sippurah shel Ḥeifah (1968); Z. Vilnay, in: Sefer ha-Shanah shel Ereẓ Yisrael, 1 (1923), 125–9; idem, Ḥeifah be-Avar u-va-Hoveh (1936); J. Schattner, in: IEJ, 4 (1954), 26ff.; Hamilton, in: QDAP, 4 (1935), 1ff.; J. Braslavski (Braslavi), in: BJPES, 12 (1945/6), 166–7; idem, Le-Ḥeker Arẓenu (1954), index; E.G. Rey, Les colonies franques de Syrie… (1883), 431; Prawer, Ẓalbanim, index; V. Guérin, Description géographique… Samarie, 2 (1875), 252 ff.; Mann, Egypt, index; EIS, S.V.; L. Oliphant, Haifa, or Life in Modern Palestine (1887); A. Carmel, Toledot Ḥeifah bi-Ymei ha-Turkim (1969); S. Klein, Toledot ha-Yishuv ha-Yehudi be-Ereẓ Yisrael (1935), index; Ḥeifah ba-Asor le-Yisrael (1959).
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Israel State Archives.
Ari Rabinovitch and Jonathan Saul,
Israel sells Haifa Port to India's Adani Ports, Israel's Gadot for $1.2 bln, Reuters, (July 14, 2022).