Maybe it’s a stretch to say the Middle East is all about reinvention, but where else could an erstwhile Turkish jail turn into one of the newest members of Leading Hotels of the World? Granted, do-overs of this magnitude don’t just happen overnight, but given the region’s history of tumult and transformation a historic Jaffa clink’s rebirth as posh Israeli perch seems almost inevitable.
The new Setai Tel Aviv occupies a prominent spot in very, very old Jaffa—a town that’s now part of Tel Aviv but was named for a son of Noah and that’s got roots stretching back more than 3,000 years. Once called the “Kishle,” a Turkish word for jailhouse, it was originally built in the late 19th century by the Ottoman Turks as a prison—itself on the site of what had been a Crusader-era fortress at the northeast corner of the old city walls. It’s just steps from the seaside promenade that links up Jaffa to the heart of Tel Aviv, with endless views of the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the modern city’s modern towers rising in the north. The capital came from Nakash Holdings, the private investment office of the Nakash family of Jordache jeans fame (who could forget those cheeky ads?)
Investor Joseph Nakash has something of a personal connection to the spot—Israeli business newspaper Globes reported that as a teenager in the neighborhood he got caught up in some horse purloining that left him holed up in the Kishle for a few days. Back then the place was rather more foreboding, which was as the Ottoman overlords had intended it. According to Globes it was “designed as a closed compound surrounded by a wall, containing three main buildings with a mixture of confinement and isolation cells, administration and service rooms, yards, and later additions.” After Israel’s independence the Israeli Police took over the Kishle but they decamped to more modern headquarters (elsewhere in Jaffa) in 2005. Souvenirs of the site’s fortress past remain: Turkish cannons pepper the promenade that leads up the historic Jaffa hillside behind the hotel grounds.
From Jailhouse to Instagram Candy
Some of the groundwork actually started years ago. But a luxury hotel sprouting up in a district of hidden stone archways and winding lanes, only footsteps from Jaffa’s iconic 16th-century Al-Bahr Mosque (the Sea Mosque) is today par for the course in the buzzy southern section of Tel Aviv. The Israel Antiquities Authority did the requisite inspections, in the course of which relics were unearthed dating to the days when the Crusaders held sway in these so frequently contested parts. Findings included remains of what were likely Ottoman soldiers slaughtered by Napoleon’s troops in 1799.
The hotel features numerous elements from the original structure, such as the stone arch at the hotel’s entrance bearing the calligraphic seal of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, 34th sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Exposed stonework abounds. “The 13th century structure that is the foundation of the new hotel is unlike any other, and we took meticulous care in preserving and infusing important historic elements into the transformation of the building,” states Bruno H. de Schuyter, the Setai Tel Aviv’s General Manager. The original Kishle, including wooden ceilings and ironwork, has been preserved, while wooden doors and windows were recreated to resemble the originals. What were once prison yards have been restored and now serve as the hotel’s front and rear courtyards accented by newly planted citrus trees.
As anyone who’s ever seen Midnight Express will attest, a Turkish prison is probably the last place you want to be regardless of century, but the metamorphosis here is absolute. There are two additional floors plus a new wing sensitively attuned to the past. The new look was fine-tuned by Ara Design, blending Middle Eastern and modern Mediterranean influences. Mashrabiyas (traditional projecting windows with carved wood latticework) project Arabian Night enchantment on the outside that’s answered by chandeliers and polished surfaces within. The reception area is framed by vaulted ceilings that telegraph an exotic sense of place; an underground level features a sauna and snazzy Turkish hammam. Chic modern furnishings and ornate carpets make nice trappings for a full bar surrounded by reclaimed timber from the original roof.
A View to the New
Jaffa has always been about the sea. Here, four levels of glass-paneled terraces let you drink in mesmerizing views of the city and the Med—which looks stunning from the Kardashian-caliber infinity pool on a properly sleek outdoor deck. As for guest rooms—there are 110, plus ten suites—oak furnishings and leather panels in the wardrobes are nice touches as are hardwood floors and decorative pendant lights. Arabic wall patterns cascade above the comfy beds. Spotless bathrooms are separated from the bedroom area by electronic LED glass partition. If you’re Donald Trump contemplating a visit to Tel Aviv before the American Embassy moves to Jerusalem in May, you might consider the cosmopolitan confinement of the Presidential Suite which packs a master bedroom, guest room, kitchen with a dining area and a breezy balcony into a cool thousand square feet.
Many travelers make the mistake of snapping a few pictures of Jaffa’s historic Ottoman-era Clock Tower (you can see it from the back of the hotel) and then bolting for the beach or elsewhere, but the unhurried pace of Jaffa is a welcome contrast to the more frenetic 24-hour rhythms of downtown Tel Aviv. The boisterous Jaffa flea market is a destination unto itself (except on Saturday, when it’s closed). While still Old World in flavor, however, a huge chunk of old Jaffa real estate is becoming gentrified—some would say at a pace that’s to the detriment of the ‘hood. “It’s exciting to see how all these new developments breathe new life into the old harbor town,” says Sergio Tjong-Alvares, an Israeli journalist who knows the area well. “Still, I do also view this construction with some trepidation for fear of it turning into just another soulless ritzy enclave.”
But ever-unflappable Jaffa has always been a hodgepodge and work in progress. If the arrival of the swanky Setai Tel Aviv rocks the boat in these storied quarters, it’s probably by design. I’m betting that lovers of history and luxury travel aren’t going to mind at all.
For more information you can visit the hotel’s website, here.
Writer: Anthony Grant. Editor: Che Kering-Hall