Perched on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea in the old city of Jaffa’s main square, The Setai Tel Aviv was many things before it became a hotel. Initially constructed by the Crusaders as a fortress in the 12th century, protective walls were built to guard the city, which was the main entry point to Jerusalem and considered one of the most important port cities in the world. The building was part of a complex that was conquered and then inhabited by some of the most dominant empires in history, including the Romans, the Byzantines, Napoleon, the Ottomans, and the British. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was used as a kishle (jailhouse in Turkish), which sat behind the historic clock tower—still there today—that was erected in 1906 by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the 34th sultan of the Turkish Empire. Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the complex was used as a British command post during the British mandate and Israel’s War of Independence, and then it was a police station until 2005. Purchased by the Nakash family in 2005, the property underwent an extensive excavation and restoration process to transform the building into the Setai Tel Aviv.
During the excavation, a series of extensive archaeological digs throughout the property were completed, unearthing Roman, Christian, and Turkish objects all buried in a jumble.
The original buildings and their stone corridors that wrap around inner courtyards have been meticulously restored over the span of 25 years. Spearheaded by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Preservation Society, Feigin Architects, and preservation architect, Eyal Ziv, the preservation effort involved demolishing several newer buildings, restoring the original structure, adding three floors, and digging out the basement level, with the team discovering new walls and rooms along the way. The large arch at the hotel’s entrance (which was also the original entrance to the kishle) bears the seal of Abdul Hamid II, who came to power more than 100 years ago. The original kishle, including wooden ceilings and ironwork, has been preserved, while wooden doors and windows have been recreated to emulate the original. Currently, some of the prison cells can be seen behind the bar, and will soon be turned into an underground wine bar. Former prison yards were meticulously restored and now serve as the hotel’s stunning front and rear courtyards. A fourth floor pool and luxe suites and rooms feature a unique view of the Mediterranean Sea and the city of Tel Aviv beyond—a view that, until now, has never been seen from a hotel.
During the excavation, a series of extensive archaeological digs throughout the property were completed, unearthing artifacts that date back as far as the 12th century. Artifacts from various periods were found stacked on top of each other—Roman, Christian, and Turkish objects all buried in a jumble. One of Eyal Ziv’s favorite finds was a horse skeleton from when Napoleon came to conquer Israel. Jaffa was his first stop, and he brought along horses to overtake the city, some of which died at the fortress. Items like British guns from Israel’s War of Independence and stone pipes that former prisoners smoked from were uncovered. The hotel plans to display some of these items in a showcase for guests to peruse and discover the history of this storied site. But the horse skeleton remains with the Israel Antiques Authority.