Safed is 900 metres above sea level and is the highest city in Israel located in the North and has a population of around 32,000. It has warm summers and cold winters due to its height. According to tradition Safed is one of Judaism’s four Holy Cities, along with Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias.
The city has been occupied since the time of the Second Temple. During the Roman period Safed was known as Sepph when it was a fortified Jewish town in the Upper Galilee and is mentioned by Josephus. It is cited in Talmud as one of five elevated spots where fires were lit to announce the New Moon and festivals during the Second Temple period. According to the Book of Judges (1:17) the surrounding area was given to the Tribe of Naphtali. Legend has it that Safed was founded by a son of Noah after the Great Flood.
During the 12th century Safed was a fortified Crusaders’ city and was known by the Crusaders as Saphet. In 1168 King Fulk built a fortified castle which was guarded by the Templar Knights. After a long siege after Saladin’s at the Battle of Hattin Ayyubids captured Safed in 1188. In 1210 and Samuel ben Samson visited Safed and recorded that there was a Jewish community of around fifty. The Ayyubid emir of Damascus, al-Mu’azzam ‘Isa demolished the fort to prevent its capture by the Crusaders. In 1240, Theobald I of Navarre made a treaty with the Muslim Ayyubids of Damascus against Egypt and re-established the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. They refortified the city and rebuilt the fortress.
In 1260 Baybars declared the treaty invalid and attacked the crusader castle. In 1266, during a Mamluk military campaign against the Crusader strongholds Baybars captured Safed in July, following a failed attempt to capture the Crusaders’ coastal stronghold of Acre. Unlike the coastal Crusader fortresses, which were demolished upon their capture by the Mamluks, Baybars spared Safed from destruction. He appointed a governor in charge of the fortress. It is likely the he preserved Safed because the fortress was seen to be of strategically valuable due to its location on a high mountain and its isolation from other Crusader fortresses.
According to al-Dimashqi writing around 1300, Baybars built a ‘round tower and called it Kullah …’ after destroying the old fortress. Under the fort is a cistern for rain-water, sufficient to supply the garrison of the fortress from year’s end to year’s end. According to Abu’l Fida, Safed ‘was a town of medium size. It has a very strongly built castle, which dominates the Lake of Tabariyyah. There are underground watercourses, which bring drinking-water up to the castle-gate…Its suburbs cover three hills… Since the place was conquered by Al Malik Adh Dhahir Baybars from the Franks Crusaders, it has been made the central station for the troops who guard all the coast-towns of that district.’
Under Baybars’ Ottoman rule, Safed became a prosperous town and the administrative centre of Mamlakat Safad, a province in Mamluk Syria whose jurisdiction included the Galilee and the lands up to Jenin and extended to the Mediterranean coast. This sanjak was part of the Eyalet of Damascus until 1660, when it was united with the Sanjak of Sidon. From the mid-19th century it was part of Sidon. The orthodox Sunni courts arbitrated over cases in ‘Akbara, Ein al-Zeitun and as far away as Mejdel Islim. In 1549, under Suleiman I, a wall was constructed and troops were stationed to protect the city. In 1553-4, the population consisted of 1,121 Muslim households, 222 Muslim bachelors, 54 Muslim religious leaders, 716 Jewish households, 56 Jewish bachelors, and 9 disabled persons.
Following the expulsion from Spain in 1492, many prominent rabbis travelled to Safed, among them the Kabbalists Isaac Luria and Moshe Kordovero. Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch and Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, composer of the Sabbath hymn ‘Lecha Dodi’ also resided in Safed. The influx of Sephardi Jews reached its peak under the rule of Sultans Suleiman I and Selim II and established Safed a centre for Jewish learning and a regional centre for trade throughout 15th and 16th centuries. During the early Ottoman period from 1525–26, the population of Safed consisted of 633 Muslim families, 40 Muslim bachelors, 26 Muslim religious persons, nine Muslim disabled, 232 Jewish families, and 60 military families. A Hebrew printing press was established in Safed in 1577 by Eliezer Ashkenazi and his son, Isaac of Prague. This undoubtedly assisted the spread of the Shulchan Aruch. In 1584, there were 32 synagogues registered in the town.
From Egyptian to Ottoman rule in 1517 Jews were often subjected to violent assaults. There was major economic decline after 1560 and the expulsion decrees of depleted the Jewish community. Jews who remained were assaulted by local Arabs. In 1589 and 1594 two epidemics further diminished the Jewish population. The Kurdish quarter was established in the Middle Ages and continued through to the 19th century.
Around 1625, Quaresmius spoke of the town being inhabited ‘chiefly by Hebrews, who had their synagogues and schools, and for whose sustenance contributions were made by the Jews in other parts of the world.’ In 1628, the city fell to the Druze and five years later was retaken by Ottomans. In 1660, in the turmoil following the death of Mulhim Ma’an, the Druze destroyed Safed and Tiberias, with only a few of the former Jewish residents returning to Safed by 1662. Tiberias remained desolate for several decades and Safed gained importance among Galilean Jewish communities. In 1665, the Sabbatai Sevi movement is said to have arrived in the town.
Plague decimated the population in 1742 and the earthquakes of 1759 left the city in ruins, killing 200 people. The Jewish community was revived in the 18th and 19th century by an influx Russian Jews in 1776 and 1781 and by Lithuanian Jews of the Perushim in 1809 and 1810. In 1812, another plague killed 80% of the Jewish population, and, in 1819, the remaining Jewish residents were held for ransom by Abdullah Pasha, Acre-based governor of Sidon. During the period of Egyptian domination, the city experienced a severe decline, with the Jewish community hit particularly hard. In the 1834 looting of Safed, much of the Jewish quarter was destroyed by rebel Arabs, who plundered the city for many weeks.
In 1837 there were around 4,000 Jews in Safed. The Galilee earthquake of 1837 was particularly catastrophic for the Jewish population, as the Jewish quarter was located on the hillside. About half their number perished, resulting in around 2,000 deaths. Of the 2,158 inhabitants killed, 1507 were Ottoman subjects. The southern, Moslem section of the town suffered far less damage. In 1838, the Druze rebels robbed the city over the course of three days, killing many among the Jews. In 1840, Ottoman rule was restored. In 1847, plague struck Safed again. The Jewish population increased in the last half of the 19th century by immigration from Persia, Morocco, and Algeria. Moses Montefiore visited Safed seven times and financed rebuilding of much of the town. The Kaddoura family was a major political force in Safed. At the end of Ottoman rule the family owned 50,000 dunams including eight villages around Safed.
Safed was the centre of Safad Subdistrict. During the 1920s tensions between Jews and Arabs rose under the British Mandate. In 1929 during the Palestine riots Safed and Hebron became major centres of unrest and conflict. In the Safed massacre 20 Jewish residents were killed by local Arabs. Safed was included in the part of Palestine allocated for the proposed Jewish state under the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine.
In 1948 there were around 1,700 Jews and 12,000 Arabs in the town. On 5 January 1948, Arabs attacked the Jewish Quarter. On April 16 the day that British forces evacuated Safed 200 local Arab militiamen supported by Arab Liberation Army soldiers tried to take over the city’s Jewish Quarter. They were repelled by the Jewish garrison consisting Haganah fighters and assisted by a Palmach platoon. In 1948 during the War of Independence Safed was the site of major battle between the small Jewish community of the city and its Arab neighbours. Despite being outnumbered the Jews managed to hold onto their place in the city.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Safed was known as Israel’s art capital. Safed is home to a large Kabalistic community. There is a large community of followers of Nachman of Breslov. Safed has been hailed as the klezmer capital of the world, hosting an annual Klezmer Festival that attracts top musicians from around the world. Safed is a popular holiday resort frequented by Israelis and foreign visitors due to its mild climate, scenic views, history and mysticism.