In late 2015 I lived in a 1970s-era camper in South Tel Aviv owned by a woman named Malka. The trailer is in a compound off Derech Ben Tsvi, the street that divides modern-day Tel Aviv from Jaffa, the southernmost and oldest part of the city. Despite being only a 15-minute walk from the Mediterranean Sea, it’s a rundown and desolate area dominated by motorcycle repair shops and stray cats. Just outside the rusting metal gate of the compound is an oddly positioned dusty public park that was shaped by forces no longer visible. On its western edge, along the road, there is a graffiti-ridden stone structure with three faded red domes and plants growing out of the walls. On one façade, over a long-defunct fountain, there is an inscription in Arabic. No passersby seem to notice this building.
Given its present condition, it’s hard to believe that during the late Ottoman period this building was one of the most famous in Palestine, according to ArchNet, an MIT-developed online database of Islamic architecture. In those days, Derech Ben Tsvi was known simply as “the Jerusalem Road,” and it served the needs of the legions of merchants and pilgrims traveling from the Jaffa port to the holy city of Jerusalem. The edifice was constructed in 1820 as a public fountain (sabil in Arabic) for these travelers to rest and water their camels for the journey, which took about 12 hours, and for the devout to purify themselves with before prayer. Sabils were built at crossroads and outside mosques throughout the Ottoman Empire. Wealthy families and rulers often built sabils to demonstrate their piety and benevolence.
The one near my trailer was named for the governor of Jaffa, Muhammad Abu Nabbut, who commissioned the sabil after reestablishing friendly relations with the sheikh of the Abu Gosh family, which controlled the pilgrimage route. Abu Nabbut undertook many construction projects as Jaffa’s governor, including new fortifications (Napoleon had sacked the city in 1799), the Mahmoudiya Mosque and the public markets.
Sabil Abu Nabbut was built from kurkar (a regional sandstone), limestone and red marble. There is no way to know, at a glance, that the sabil contains two tombs, one of which is (or was) reportedly occupied by Muhammad Abu Nabbut himself. In its heyday, domes and pinnacles were also topped with finials. In English, Sabil Abu Nabbut is known as Tabitha’s Well—Christian tradition honors the location as the site of a well used by a disciple of Jesus by that name. According to the story, Tabitha lived in Jaffa and was known for her good deeds.
The Ottomans ruled what is now Israel for 400 years, and during that time they made some iconic contributions to the man-made landscape. Sultan Suleiman I (a.k.a. Suleiman the Magnificent) completed the current walls of Jerusalem’s Old City in 1541. The Jaffa Clocktower, finished in 1903, was built to celebrate the silver jubilee of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Over time, innumerable Ottoman buildings have been lost, replaced by those of British or Israeli design, just as they in turn had replaced those of the Crusaders, Mamluks, Byzantines, Romans, Hasmoneans, Greeks, ancient Israelites, Babylonians, Assyrians and Philistines.
Sabil Abu Nabbut still stands, and it is an especially potent example of the palimpsest that is Israel. The irregular, semi-paved Jerusalem Road on which pilgrims once plodded has become a modern thoroughfare. The immense orange groves that once surrounded Jaffa are now sprawling developments. Instead of sabils, travelers stop for refreshment at an AM:PM or at the Paz gas station across the street. And still Sabil Abu Nabbut sits, its pipes dry, its windows and tombs walled up, a forgotten anachronism in an industrial no-man’s-land.