Safed’s history is filled with fascinating events, uprisings, epidemics and calamities. Many historical sites were preserved and now serve as a testament to the city’s history.
Safed was already mentioned during the first century, when Yosef Ben Matityahu, mentioned the Safaf Fortress (a reference to Safed) in his writings. In the second and third centuries, during the Bar Kochba Revolt, Safed was noted as a city in which Cohens settled and where torches were lit. The Crusaders who settled in Safed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries built a large fortress there, which was destroyed; these days archaeological digs are conducted at the site of the fortress.
The Jewish settlement in Safed was renewed in the thirteenth century. At the time, the large fortress was conquered by the Mamluk Sultan and its knights were slaughtered. In the following centuries, churches in the city were destroyed and many mosques were built. The Jewish settlement in the city continued to grow. Rabbi Yosef Saragossi settled in Safed toward the end of the fifteenth century.
Safed was conquered by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century, and during that period it became one of the largest Jewish spiritual centers, mainly because of its proximity to the burial site of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. With the conquest of Safed in the seventeenth century by the Druze Amir Faher a-Din, who slaughtered many Jews, the community dwindled; plagues struck and disease and hunger afflicted the city’s residents for an extended period of time. In the eighteenth century, despite the fact that an earthquake struck the city, the Jews’ situation in Safed improved. Hasids from Lithuania came to the city and the Jewish settlement recovered and grew.
During the nineteenth century, a harsh plague and one of the region’s most powerful earthquakes struck the city. The Jewish quarter was destroyed and only began to recuperate during the second half of the nineteenth century. The city, which had already begun to recover at the onset of the twentieth century, was hit hard with a typhus outbreak, famine and hardship during World War I. Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, there was a massacre and uprisings in Safed. During the War of Independence, the city’s Jewish quarter was under siege. Units from the Palmach force launched a campaign to free Safed, and after many fierce battles, the Jewish quarter was freed and troops gained control of the city. After the establishment of the State of Israel and the conclusion of the war, Safed became the capital of the Galilee, and many new immigrants settled there, among them members of the religious community. An artists’ colony was established, with galleries and cafes, restaurants and hotels. Safed became a spiritual tourist center, attracting visitors and travelers from around the world.