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May 12, 2018

Old New Land: The Story Behind the First Photograph of the Founding of Tel Aviv, 1909

Over 100 years ago, some 66 Jewish families congregated on the sand dunes of what would become Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city in a British colony called Palestina. Using seashells to divide the land between them, these families changed the course of history. This is the strange story of how Tel Aviv was born and built.

April 11th, 1909: About 100 people participated in a lottery to divvy up a 12-acre plot of sand dunes. These dunes pictured here would later become the city of Tel Aviv.

The same area in 1911

On April 11, 1909, 66 Jewish families gathered on a desolate sand dune to parcel out the land by lottery using seashells. This gathering is considered the official date of the establishment of Tel Aviv. The lottery was organised by Akiva Arye Weiss, president of the building society. Weiss collected 120 sea shells on the beach, half of them white and half of them grey. The members’ names were written on the white shells and the plot numbers on the grey shells. A boy drew names from one box of shells and a girl drew plot numbers from the second box. A photographer, Avraham Soskin, documented the event. Within a year, Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, Yehuda Halevi, Lilienblum, and Rothschild streets were built; a water system was installed; and 66 houses (including some on six subdivided plots) were completed.

Tel Aviv’s first water tower and home to the founding collective’s offices.

The moment was captured on film by Abraham Suskind. In the iconic image, members of the collective can be seen standing where Tel Aviv’s famous Rothschild Boulevard now sits. According to legend, the man standing behind the group, on the slope of the sand dune, is Shlomo Feingold who opposed the idea, allegedly telling the others: “Are you mad! There’s no water here.”
“One day, it was in 1909, I was roaming with the camera in one hand and the tripod on my other arm, on my way from a walk through the sand dunes of what is today Tel Aviv to Jaffa. Where the Herzliah Gymnasium once stood I saw a group of people who had assembled for a housing plot lottery. Although I was the only photographer in the area, the organizers hadn’t seen fit to invite me, and it was only by chance that this historic event was immortalized for the next generations.” – Avraham Soskin on his most famous photograph.
The name Tel Aviv is from Sokolow’s translation of the title of Theodor Herzl’s Altneuland (“Old New Land”) based on the name of a Mesopotamian site mentioned in Ezekiel 3:15: “Then I came to them of the captivity at Tel Abib, that lived by the river Chebar”. It embraced the idea of a renaissance in the ancient Jewish homeland. Aviv is Hebrew for “spring”, symbolizing renewal, and Tel is a mound made up of the accumulation of layers of civilization built one over the other symbolizing the ancient.

Building Tel Aviv, circa 1920s

Tel Aviv 1922

Herzl Street then and now



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