This week we were headed north again to the coastal town of Akko, or Acre. Although the area has been settled since the prehistoric period, the town really blossomed once the Romans were in charge, although little remains to testify to their presence. It rose again to be a city of major importance during the Crusader period, particularly during the time of the ‘Second Kingdom of Jerusalem’, when Akko was actually the capital (the Crusaders did not rule Jeruasalem at the time!). Today’s old town of Akko is largely from the Ottoman period (16th-20th century) with some excavations dating back to the Crusaders in the middle ages.
We began our visit, however, reliving events from the 20th century, and the time of the British Mandate. Akko was the site of a major prison, which today is the Museum of the Underground Prisoners. Among the prisoners here over the years were several important figures from the Haganah (the precursor to the IDF of today) as well as the more confrontational Etzel and Lechi splinter groups. Perhaps the most famous prisoner is Zeev Jabotinsky, about whom there is a special exhibition in one of the towers.
The museum sheds light on life in the prison but also, through the use of different video clips, tells the story of the break out led by the Etzel in 1947. It was very well done, I thought, and a fascinating tale for anyone interested in Zionist history. The break out made big waves at the time and was seen as embarrassing the British rulers. Whether or not it made much difference to anything is debatable; still, it’s a great story!
From the museum we began a walking tour along the outer city walls (lovely views of the sea) and then into the old city itself, noting some typical Ottoman architecture en route together with the location of some Crusader ruins. Our guide explained to us that in the middle ages the city was actually divided into several walled quarters. There was a quarter for each of the rich European merchant cities of Genoa, Pisa & Venice, who had received the land in return for helping fund the Crusades. The major knights’ orders of the Templars and Hospitallers also had territory. And then some land belonged to the crown – after all it was at one point the capital!
We returned to the Ottoman period with a visit to the most impressive Al-Jazzar mosque. Named after the ruler of Akko who had it built in the late 18th century, it is the third biggest mosque in Israel. The interior is beautiful; our guide pointed out some of the architectural features. Under the mosque is a large underground reservoir which some believe helped the city withstand the siege of Napoleon in 1799; next to the mosque is the tomb of Al-Jazzar himself.
A short stroll found us at the delightfully cute ‘Treasures in the Wall’ museum. Founded and funded by two private collectors of all sorts of items (perhaps one might unkindly call some of it ‘junk’!) from the 19th and into the early 20th century, it actually is a very nice little museum; curated and laid out well. There is some beautiful old furniture from the Ottoman period and all sorts of everyday household items from the lead up to the establishment of the state which it is remarkably interesting to see. Worth the detour.
After a quick lunch courtesy of the renowned Hummus Said, we descended into the depths of the Hospitaller Fortress; the base of the Order of the Hospitaller Knights in Akko in the Crusader period. Our guide explained the theories about the use of the different rooms, as well as more about the lifestyle of these very powerful knights in the ancient city. These crusaders certainly knew how to build!
On a sweltering hot day at the end of the July the last thing we had in mind was to visit a hammam (Turkish hot baths) but in the end it turned out to be a blessing in disguise – the Hammam al-Basha is no longer functioning and is in fact beautifully air-conditioned – one of the only air-conditioned moments of the day! I was really impressed with this site – it has been refurbished to give an idea of what it was like originally. However, more cleverly, it uses the pretext of short films depicting conversations in the hammam to tell the story of Akko from the time it was re-established as a major city by Daher el-Omar, the powerful Bedouin ruler in the north of Israel, in the 18th century. An unexpected delight, and great for all the family.
We continued on a bit of a walking tour, stopping at the Ramchal synagogue (named after Rabbi Haim Luzzato, a kabbalist and mystic who lived in Akko) and at the former home of the Bahaullah, the founder of the Bahai religion. From here our last stop in the Old City was to wander through the restored tunnel of the Templar Knights, which led from their quarter straight to the port – avoiding any potential confrontations by having to cross other quarters and potentially providing them with a handy escape route if needed.
Our day was almost done but we had two stops outside the walls of the Old City before we would head home. The first was at the quite amazing Or Torah Synagogue. The project of one man, the synagogue’s founder and gabbai (beadle), Tzion Badash, the building is covered in stunning mosaics. And when I say covered, I mean all the floors, walls and ceilings; inside and out. It is quite astounding. Some are modern, original designs; others are replicas of ancient maps and motifs; all are connected with Judaism and Israel. It can be difficult to visit (you need to arrange in advance or arrive at the time for a service) but well worth the short diversion.
To conclude our time in Akko, we made a brief stop at the Bahai Gardens known as the Bahji. Here the Bahaullah spent the last of his days, and here is his tomb. As a result, the site is actually more holy than the shrine in Haifa, although it seems it is less well known outside of the Bahai faith. As with the gardens in Haifa, it is remarkably beautiful and tranquil.