The city’s name first appeared in 3rd-century Talmudic literature and, although its origin remains obscure, it’s been suggested that ‘Haifa’ is related to the Hebrew words hof yafe, which mean ‘beautiful coast’.
A thousand years ago, Haifa was considered an important Arab town, but early in the 12th century it was destroyed in battles with the Crusaders. Nearby Akko superseded the town in importance, and at the time of the Ottoman conquest of Palestine, Haifa was an insignificant village.
By the early 19th century, Haifa’s Jewish community had begun to increase. With the growth of political Zionism the town expanded quite dramatically, although early in the 20th century the population was still only 10, 000. What today is the port area was then marshland, and the slopes of Mt Carmel were home only to grazing sheep.
In 1898 Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, visited Haifa and visualised what lay ahead for the fledgling city: ‘Huge liners rode at anchor…a serpentine road led up to Mt Carmel’, and ‘at the top of the mountain there were thousands of white homes and the mountain itself was crowned with imposing villas’. His predictions have proved amazingly accurate.
Haifa’s modern revival truly got under way with the construction of the Hejaz railway between Damascus and Medina in 1905, and the later development of lines to Akko and the south of the country. Land was reclaimed from the sea to create an area of offices and warehouses, and Haifa rapidly became the country’s shipping base, naval centre and oil terminal. Much of this development took place under the rule of the British Mandate – the British were the first to exploit Haifa’s naturally sheltered position as a harbour, bucking the ancient trend of favouring Caesarea and Akko.
As the country’s major new port, Haifa was the first sight of the ‘Promised Land’ for shiploads of arriving Jewish immigrants. Prior to the British withdrawal from Palestine, Haifa became a Jewish stronghold and it was the first major area to be secured by the newly declared State of Israel in 1948. The city earned a reputation for liberalism, which, to a certain extent, it still maintains. The mostly secular Jewish community enjoys a better than average relationship with the local Arab population, who are mainly Christian.
In recent years Haifa has shifted its economy from heavy industry to tech. This culminated in 2004 when two professors at Haifa’s Technion were awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry after describing the manner in which cells destroy unwanted proteins. IBM also maintains a strong presence here, with a research laboratory staffed by 600 people. When Katusha rockets started pummelling the city in the summer of 2006, the work carried on, with technicians uploading data from their laptops while hunkered down inside bomb shelters.