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The city of Acre (Acco in hebrew) was the first Israeli site recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. With a history dating back to the Bronze Age (2500 years BC), it's no wonder that this Israeli port city was bestowed with this honor. From the time of the tribe of Asher's unsuccessful attempt to grab this rocky coastal plateau from the Philistines (Judges 1:31), its value as the main door to the Holy Land has been appreciated by the various conquerors who have ruled this part of the world.
During the first Israelite kingdom, Acre was ruled by a governor appointed by King Solomon. Later, Alexander the Great conquered the city in 333 BC. and it was eventually named Ptolemais in honor of Alexander's long time friend and trusted general who later ruled Egypt. This was the name that St Paul knew it by when he visited the city on his final journey to Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago. You can still see some of the artifacts of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. But the Old City of Acco, approximately 600 square meters occupying Israel's Mediterranean coastline, boasts some of the best preserved Crusader structures in the world.
The Crusaders' Lasting Mark on Acco
The Crusaders left Europe almost 1000 years ago in 1096 C.E. and arrived in the Holy Land in 1099. Except for one brief interruption, they ruled the Holy Land for almost two centuries until they were driven out by the Mamaluks of Egypt in 1291. Archaeologists estimate that, at the height of the Crusades, over 1,000 pilgrims arrived on the Holy Land shores daily. What was it like for them after the weeks-long treacherous journey?
A visit to the Hospitalier's extensive defensive complex reveals the immense sophistication and planning employed by the Crusaders. As you tour underground through tunnels and massive halls, you'll see evidence of an elaborate fresh water collection system, sewage system and large supply rooms which held the inventory of beds, linens and other supplies necessary to care for the daily influx of pilgrims. Continue your walk along the five-meter-wide street that once led to the Church of Saint John, the main church of the Hospitaliers.
The Templars were another knightly order of the Crusades who left their mark on this city of never-ending marvels. Their fortress, once the strongest structure in the city, exemplifies the architectural evolution from Roman to Gothic arches. You can walk under enormous vaulted ceilings and then navigate your way along the same 350 meter tunnels employed by Richard the Lionhearted and his men when they recaptured the city after the four year rule of Salah al-Din (Saladin) in 1291.
As you marvel at the grandeur and sophistication of the architecture before you, listen as tour guides describe the excitement of finding old European ampoules filled with Holy Land water and soil. The pilgrims had to return home, but if they couldn't be in the place where Jesus walked, they could wear a memento of their pilgrimage around their necks and close to their hearts.
The Crusaders held onto Acre for another hundred years but were finally driven out by the Egyptian Mamaluks. They ruled the Holy Land for almost three hundred years before succumbing to Ottoman military prowess in 1517. Conqueror after conqueror built on the ruins below, so that today, we can look up in an underground storage room and see one thousand years of hewn history before our eyes.
Acco remained dormant for almost three hundred years, but in the mid-eighteenth century, the Ottomans began to rebuild. When you visit, look carefully at the walls around you. You'll observe that the large rectangular stones stop three-quarters of the way up the wall and give way to smaller ones. The Ottomans had their own building style that was supported by the Crusader foundation hidden below. You'll witness a magnificent stone layer cake where the "new" Ottoman city was supported by the almost impenetrable Crusader fortress and tunnels hidden below.
The industrious but ruthless Ottoman governor, Jazzar (The Butcher) Pasha, transformed what had become a small fishing village into the prosperous city of late eighteenth century Acco. He staved off Napoleon's attempt to capture the city in 1779 and built massive walls to protect his beloved city from further invasion. Once adequately protected, he knew that his flourishing port needed fine cultural and social amenities to insure that the wealthy merchants doing business there madekktheir home. The time had come to build a Hammam (Turkish Bathhouse).
You can visit the restored bathhouse and enjoy a multimedia experience as you watch fictional bathhouse attendants come to life to tell the tales of empire building, lost loves and neighborhood gossip that all poured out as attendants massaged, slapped and batted their wealthy clients during their twice-weekly visits. Admire the tiled walls, restored to their original beauty as the film transports you to a bride and her entourage celebrating in the steam-filled room before her big day. That's right; the Hammam was not just for men!
In the northeast corner of Akko's Old City, you can enjoy a taste of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Galilee life with a visit to the Museum of Ethnography. The original arched halls of the Ottoman garrison now hold a wonderful collection that depicts daily life of the era. Wander past the old hat store and the pharmacy which even includes the doctor's medical license which he gained in China! There's a recreated leather shop and even a toy store filled with games and toys popular over a century ago.
The Old City in Modern Times
The British replaced the Ottomans as Holy Land rulers after World War I. The impenetrable Crusader and Ottoman Fortress became the site of a British jail where hundreds of Jews were imprisoned for Zionist activities. Beginning in 1942, twelve men were hanged there by the British. You can still see their jail cells and gallows today. Before you leave, read about the heroic attack on the jail which allowed twenty Jewish prisoners to escape in the quest for independence for the Jewish state.
The magic of Acre, with its modern day Arab shopkeepers, boasts new life and offers a treasure trove of sites for every traveler. You can wander along the shouk (market) and buy freshly-squeezed orange juice or treat yourself to freshly baked pita. Different stalls line the stone paths with vendors hawking their wares; everything from authentic brass tea sets to elaborately decorated crosses and crucifixes to brightly colored dresses. Enjoy the aromatic treat of the local spice merchant, selling cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks and a vast array of local spices guaranteed to tempt you into his stall. Sit and sip freshly brewed coffee while you admire the church spires and listen to the muezzin call the faithful to afternoon prayers.
Finish off a day of touring with an overnight stay at the Akkotel. Totally renovated, this old style intimate hotel offers every modern amenity in an old world setting. Owned by Greek Catholic brothers who were intimately involved in the restoration, the charming lodging offers the kind of warm, professional service only found in the Middle East.
And if you're looking for a special, romantic evening, wait for the grand opening of the Effendi's Palace, expected to open in early 2010. Effendi is a term of respect used by the Ottomans, and this place will live up to its name. Each guest will feel special and respected as they escape the noise of twenty-first century life for the more refined calm of Middle East nobility. The wine cellar will be housed in a small, Crusader-era hall and some of the twelve guestrooms will be decorated with original, Ottoman-era ceiling paintings. Owner Uri Bouri, explains that the old world elegance will offer adults an unparalleled evening of luxury. Each room opens to a dijwan (parlor) so that couples can enjoy some quiet conversation before retiring to their room for the evening.
Acre has been the port of entry that has challenged and inspired everyone from Saint Paul to Marco Polo; from Napoleon to the one million annual visitors who now put Acre on their "must see" list of places they need to experience.
Touring Acre is easy and can be purchased along with a tour to Caesarea, Rosh Hanikra, situated nearby.
Written by: Onnie Schiffmiller