When the urge to go overseas becomes unbearable but the family budget is at its usual low, we pick up and go to Akko. It’s the easiest, cheapest and most effective way I know to go to Greece without leaving Israel. As I sit in the fishermen’s harbor and watch the fishermen mending their nets (above), dine on fresh fish at Abu Christo, and stroll along the seawall of the Old City, I sense that in all Israel, no other site is so much a part of the Mediterranean world as Akko.
And yet the city is still very much a part of modern Israel; two thirds of its 45,000 inhabitants are Jewish. The other third, including the whole population inside the Old City—which juts south into the sea—is Arab.
Once visited by the likes of St. Francis of Assisi, Marco Polo and thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem, the harbor of Akko (opposite, center) was the last major outpost of the Crusaders in the Holy Land. The cavernous Crusader remains—now underground—are what attract most visitors today. But before entering the Crusader city, I enjoy visiting the great mosque (opposite, top) of Ahmed Pasha, the 18th-century Ottoman governor of Akko, whose violent ways earned him the nickname of el-Jazzar, “the Butcher.” With its sharply pointed minaret, arcaded courtyard and numerous domes, the Akko mosque is the most Turkish-looking building in Israel.
Just opposite the mosque is the entrance to the 12th- to 13th-century Crusader city (opposite, bottom), which lies about 20 feet below the modern city. When the Arabs defeated the Crusaders in 1291, they were determined to make the seacoast unusable. For the Arabs, after all, no good came from the sea, only Crusaders! So after throwing out the Christians, they destroyed as much of the coastal cities as they could, in the case of Akko by burying its important buildings and harbor facilities in dirt and rubbish.
Today, only about 10 percent of the Crusader city (which they called St. Jean d’Acre) has been dug out, but this part is very much available to the visitor. Anyone 061who hasn’t been to Akko in the past few years will be astonished by the buildings that have been uncovered. The castle built by the crusading Order of St. John (called the Hospitallers because they provided hospital and medical facilities to the Crusader population) stands right up against the northern walls of the city. One would think that the waterfront, to the south, would be a more desirable location. But the Hospitallers’ task was to defend the city, and defense meant being where an attack would arrive, that is, along the landward walls. Enemies did not attack port cities from the sea because they couldn’t undermine towers or transport battering rams by row boat!
What was strategically sound for the Grand Master of the Hospitaller Knights in the 12th century has proved equally valid for every ruler since. Over the years, every leader of Akko has taken advantage of this well-protected spot by building fortresses and governor’s houses and prisons on top of the castle. Even the notorious Akko Prison—site of the most famous prison break in the country’s history (involving 255 prisoners and memorialized in the film Exodus)—was built right on top of the Crusader castle. Now a memorial to the men imprisoned there, the prison held common criminals as well as Jewish resistance fighters jailed for antigovernment activity during the British Mandate. Visitors can view a video presentation and model of the prison break, the gallows in the ghastly death row chamber, where condemned prisoners were hanged, and a new memorial room.
Most impressive of all the castle rooms is a great vaulted Gothic hall, which has been identified as the dining hall of the Hospitaller knights. A fleur-de-lis graces the corner of the groin vault (the Hospitallers were mostly French), and the room itself is the best example of Gothic architecture in the country. It also leads us to the underground of the underground: a network of tunnels dug beneath the now-buried Crusader buildings. To protect themselves from hostile neighbors, the Hospitallers constructed underground tunnels that led safely from one end of their quarter to the other and from their castle to their hospital. Tourists can still walk though a short section of the tunnel that is easy even for the most claustrophobic. (Don’t be put off by dripping water.)
The tunnel through the underground city opens onto a restored covered market street, where local artists and craftsmen have been encouraged to open stalls.
From the market, it’s an easy stroll across the city to the seawall. The present Old City walls were built by the Muslims in the 18th and 19th centuries. For a wonderful, romantic view of the walls along the sea and of Haifa and the Carmel Mountains in the far distance, I like to walk along the wall from the northernmost tower (Burj el-Kuraijim) to the lighthouse in the south. At the southern end is the most beautiful khan, with alternating pillars of gray and Aswan-pink granite, I have ever seen. Once a way station for caravans, the khan was built in 1785 by el-Jazzar.
By the time we reach the harbor, we have quite forgotten that this is Israel and half imagine ourselves on a Mediterranean island. The pangs of longing for overseas travel have been assuaged, and the pangs of hunger have taken over. What luck—a number of good restaurants, and one very good one, Abu Christo, are right here along the harbor. I think fondly of the night some years ago when 13 of us enjoyed dining here on one gigantic lokus (grouper) fish! A memorable evening indeed.
Located just 15 miles north of Haifa, Akko is easily reached by car or bus on Israel’s northern coastal road. Maps of the old city are available from the tourism office, just across from the mosque of el-Jazzar. Their phone number (from the United States) is 011–972-4–991-1764. For more information, contact the Israel Ministry of Tourism, phone:1–888-77-ISRAEL; www.goisrael.com.
Akko, Israel When the urge to go overseas becomes unbearable but the family budget is at its usual low, we pick up and go to Akko. It’s the easiest, cheapest and most effective way I know to go to Greece without leaving Israel. As I sit in the fishermen’s harbor and watch the fishermen mending their nets (above), dine on fresh fish at Abu Christo, and stroll along the seawall of the Old City, I sense that in all Israel, no other site is so much a part of the Mediterranean world as Akko. And yet the city is […]