The Old City of Jaffa, located on the southern edge of Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast, was known in ancient times as the gateway to the Land of Israel. With its 3,000 years of history, Old Jaffa is the world’s most ancient port. It is said that the city, called Yafo in Hebrew and Joppa in the New Testament, derives its name from either Japheth, one of Noah’s three sons, or from the Hebrew word “yaffa” meaning beautiful.
At the Visitors Center, located on the main square, visitors can obtain brochures, maps and general tourist information. The recently reopened Center has numerous artifacts from the Hellenistic and Roman eras on display, and screens two informative movies on the history of the city.
Jaffa is famous as the place from which Jonah sailed as he tried to flee the Lord’s calling to go preach repentance to the inhabitants of Niniveh (Jonah 1:3). As the story tells us, Jonah’s ship was caught in a storm, and he was thrown overboard. He was swallowed by a giant fish and remainedin its belly for three days.
Jaffa is where St. Peter raised Tabitha from the dead (Acts 9:36-43). He then stayed at the home of Simon the Tanner, just a short walk from the Visitors Center. It was on the rooftop of this house that Peter was praying one day when he had a vision of a sheet coming down from heaven, full of unclean animals, and he heard a voice commanding him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat” (Act 10:13). The command to eat unclean animals was a sign for Peter to baptize Cornelius, a Roman centurion and Gentile considered unclean by pious Jews. This meant that Gentiles, for the first time, could receive the Holy Spirit and join the Church.
The most distinctive building in Old Jaffa is St. Peter’s Church, which towers over the main square and is visible all the way up the beach of Tel Aviv. The church belongs today to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Fr. Peter, the Franciscan friar on duty, tells us that it was originally built as a guest house to welcome pilgrims sailing from around the world to Jerusalem. The principal painting in front of the church depicts St. Peter’s vision on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house. Other panels show the major episodes in Peter’s life: the miraculous catch of fishes, the giving of the keys, the Transfiguration of Christ and the washing of the feet at the Last Supper. The pulpit, carved in the shape of a tree, is also unique. St. Peter’s Church continues to welcome pilgrims today, offering Mass in several languages for both local Christian communities and visitors from around the world.