A Brief History of Tel Aviv

If Jerusalem is the spiritual center of Israel, Tel Aviv is its secular sibling—simultaneously Israel’s financial, high-tech, media, and cultural capital. The second largest city in Israel after Jerusalem, with a population exceeding 400,000, it lies directly on the Mediterranean coast. Its western boundary is a long line of beaches, which are as much a part of the urban fabric of the city as are its skyscrapers, parks, and motorways.

Tel Aviv boasts the third largest urban economy the Middle East, after Kuwait City and Abu Dhabi, and houses Israel’s only stock exchange. Home to many tech start-ups, it also hosts such major cultural institutions such as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the country’s major newspapers, and the Habima Theater, Israel’s national theater.

The site of Tel Aviv was first colonized during the Bronze Age over 3,500 years ago. Since then a variety of visitors—the so-called “Sea Peoples” of antiquity, Jews, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, and Ottoman Turks—have all laid claim to this sandy domain. What drew them was not Tel Aviv, however, but the nearby port of Jaffa or Yafo—an ancient city with a rich and fascinating history of it own. From the 7th until the 20th century it was primarily an Arab town. In 1950 it was incorporated within the Tel Aviv city limits to create the urban conglomerate of Tel Aviv-Yafo. Jaffa’s Old City is now a major Tel Aviv tourist attraction.

Tel Aviv proper was founded in 1909 on what was then sand dunes by the local Jewish community, who used seashells inscribed with the names of settlers and the parcel numbers to assign property by lot. During the 1920s and 1930s the fledgling city gradually became the political, social, and cultural center of the entire Zionist Yishuv or “settlement” in Palestine. When Israeli independence was declared in 1948, the city had already grown to 200,000 inhabitants and was proclaimed Israel’s capital. Muslim and Christian Arabs now make up 4 percent of the city’s population, which is 92 percent Jewish.

One little-known aspect of Tel Aviv’s architectural history is its debt to the German Bauhaus movement. The so-called “White City” neighborhood, now a UNESCO Heritage site, contains thousands of buildings designed by Jewish architects such as Arieh Sharon, who had fled Hitler’s Germany after the closing of the Berlin Bauhaus in 1933. The buildings’ white exteriors give the neighborhood its name. Though typical Bauhaus features such as multiple windows had to be modified to suit the Israeli climate, the overall Bauhaus esthetic of simple, functional buildings with little ornament was maintained to good effect.

Tel Aviv is also an educational and academic hub, home to Tel Aviv University, the Academic College, two teacher training colleges, and more. Every educational denomination in Israel is represented in the city, which caters to the vast and varied student population of nearly 50,000 students who make up one eighth of the local population. Their presence helps contribute to the city’s energy. It is not only a young city in terms of its past, but also in terms of its present population, since fully one third of the residents are between the ages of 18 and 35.

Currency

The official currency in Israel is the New Israeli Shekel or NIS. ATM machines will dispense shekels in abundance, so there is no need to come equipped with a great deal of cash. Especially in major cities like Tel Aviv, credit cards are also readily accepted.

Language

The two official languages of Israel are Hebrew and Arabic. Arabic is primarily spoken where Arab communities are living, and English is widely used as an unofficial “third language.” So while it is probably a plus for foreign visitors to learn a few words or phrases of Hebrew (or Arabic), getting by with English is relatively easy.

Security

One of the most frequently asked questions by foreign visitors to Israel concerns security. Simply put, is it safe to visit? The short answer is “yes.” While there have been terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv over the past decade, Israeli security is tight and domestic crime (e.g. robberies) is low. As in any major city, caution is advised when walking at night. But despite the headlines that terrorism commands, Tel Aviv is a place where you can feel relatively secure. Over a million tourists visit Israel each year and encounter few incidents. By comparison, the crime rates in Paris and Brussels—both of which have suffered tragic terror attacks within the past two years—are higher.