Akko: The Maritime Capital of the Crusader Kingdom
AKKO -- Perched on a promontory lashed by crashing Mediterranean breakers, the ramparts of the ancient city of Akko are a spectacular setting for a lazy waterside lunch, a hand-in-hand stroll, or for watching children dive into the warm waves. It doesn't get more romantic than this.
But if that's all travelers do in this fascinating city, they'll miss much of one of the most exciting historic sites in all of Israel.
Like everywhere in this old-new land, Akko -- on the Mediterranean just north of Haifa and west of the Sea of Galilee -- has a rich history that spans centuries, a history currently being highlighted and counterpointed by a tasteful, ecologically balanced yet ambitious program called the Akko Project.
Akko has been a village, a fishing hamlet, a city, a pilgrims' port, a fortress and a prison. The Assyrians were here. So were Macedonia's Alexander the Great and Egypt's Ptolemy. And the Saracens, Crusaders, Mamelukes and Ottomans. Napoleon wanted to get here too -- but was defeated by the moat his Crusader ancestors had built six centuries earlier. In this century alone, Akko has been governed by the Turks, the British and the Israelis.
And it is the Akko Project, begun in 1994, that is designed to bring Akko into the 21st century -- at the same time preserving its intricacy, majesty and charm, not to mention the souvenirs left by the parade of civilizations that came here.
Consider this. The elegant Jazzar Pasha Mosque is here in Akko. After the great mosques of Jerusalem's Temple Mount, it's the largest in Israel -- and, with its geometric marble cloisters, mosaics, fragrant gardens, ornamental fountains and pencil-like minaret -- some consider it Israel's most beautiful.
Beneath Akko's rambling ancient city's lanes, an entire Crusader City stretches underground -- complete with vaulted Crusaders' Hall and the Crypt of St. John of the Knights Hospitaliers. And not far away, the cavernous Caravanserai of the Pillars, a vast, square two-story construction of cloistered balconies (its dozens of marble pillars were plundered from the ruins of Roman Caesarea), once housed merchants on exotic camel caravans to Damascus or Baghdad or Jerusalem.
Akko is a living encyclopedia. It's mentioned in the Old Testament Book of Judges. Tel Akko -- a layered archeological mound -- attests to Akko's origins as a Canaanite city. In 220 C.E., the Romans moved in and anointed Akko an "Italian City" -- the highest stature bestowed upon a foreign city by the Roman Empire.
The city prospered economically and socially for almost 900 years, its natural sheltered harbor making it the goal of ships from all parts of the Mediterranean. As Islam swept from the east in the seventh century, Akko became a Muslim city, and was subsequently enclosed within high and thick stone walls.
The Crusader King Baldwin I captured Akko in 1104, and quickly turned it into the Crusaders' chief port and staging area for their hoped-for conquest of the entire land of Israel.
In the moments they rested from massacring the country's non-Christians, the Crusaders rebuilt and beautified Akko, furnishing it with an array of magnificent structures that stand to this day.
Indeed, under Crusader rule, Akko, designated capital of the Crusader kingdom when Jerusalem was beyond reach, gained a prominence matched neither before nor since. They christened it St. Jean d'Acre and, to this day, Europeans still call the city "Acre."
It wasn't to last. In 1291, the Europeans left as the Mamelukes reconquered the city for Islam. The Mamelukes and Ottoman Turks were responsible for hundreds of changes and additions over the subsequent centuries, producing today's eclectic mix.
Today, Akko is a town of some 60,000 inhabitants, the majority of whom live north and east of the old town in the adjoining "new city" of Akko -- built since Israel's independence in 1948.
But the Old City is where the charm resides. The market that laces its way through the center of Akko is one of Israel's most attractive, retaining a uniquely Middle Eastern character. A rich melange of colors, smells and sounds tempt the visitor's senses and cameras: earth-toned pyramids of fragrant spices, giant circular trays of honey-brushed pastries, buckets of flowers, intricate arrangements of shiny fruits and vegetables, piles of Mediterranean fish.
The Akko Project will restore and preserve all of these elements, at the same time improving the lot of the residents of the Old City -- sprucing up their gardens and beautifying their homes.
One of the chief goals of the Akko Project -- in addition to the general improvement and upgrading of the city's sites and tourist services -- is the conversion of two ancient caravanserais (travelers' inns) into a 170-room hotel with restaurants and shops.
The Old Akko waterfront is ringed by ramparts -- complete with arrow slits and crenellations, delightful areas for ambling and browsing in antique shops and boutiques. There are several delightful wharfside restaurants, serving fresh-caught seafood, traditional Mediterranean fare and desserts. A yacht-filled marina and busy fishing port -- complete with nets and nautical paraphernalia, complete the idyllic setting.
Stone relief of royal Crusader emblem, found in Akko
The Subterranean Crusaders Knights Halls In Old Akko
Under the citadel and prison of Acre, archeological excavations revealed a complex of halls, which was built and used by the Hospitallers Knights. This complex was a part of the Hospitallers' citadel, which was combined in the northern wall of Acre.
The complex includes:
* Six semi-joint halls.
* One large hall, recently excavated.
* Dining room (with a tunnel).
* Posta and Crypta (remains of an ancient Gothic church).
Akko1 is one of the northernmost cities on Israel's Mediterranean coast. The city projects out into the sea, and is surrounded by water on three sides.
There are two possible sources for the name of the city. According to Jewish lore, there was a flood during the generation of Enosh, a biblical character. As the waters of the flood rose towards modern Akko, God said 'Ahd koh!', which means 'until here' in Hebrew. Over the years, the name got shortened to 'Ahko', or Akko. Greek legend, on the other hand, claims that Hercules was once seriously injured. He found the herbs necessary for recovery in the area of Akko. Accordingly, the name of the city would then be derived from the Greek word 'Aka', which means 'healing'.
Akko is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world. It is first mentioned in written records in 3500BC, when it shows up in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Later on, the Kambizes2 used its port as their base in their campaign to conquer Egypt in 525BC, suggesting that Akko already had a sophisticated and well-developed port.
According to Jewish scholars, it is debatable whether or not Akko is part of the Land of Israel that is said to have been allotted to the Jewish nation by God. The Old Testament suggests that it was not part of Israel during the reign of Joshua, the period of the Judges or the reign of King Saul. King David is said to have been the first to annex it, and for a while it had the distinction of being the northernmost city in the land of Israel.
After Alexander the Great took over the Middle East, he set up a mint for coins in Akko. The city was then taken by the Syrian-Hellenists, which precipitated the Maccabee rebellion3. Most of the Maccabee battles are believed to have taken place in and around Akko. Yonatan, one of the Maccabee brothers, was killed in a battle in Akko. When the Romans conquered the area, Julius Caesar paid it a visit, and for years after all the city's documents were dated from his stay there. During the Middle Ages, it was famous enough that Marco Polo made it a stop on his journey to the East.
The Middle Ages brought many wars to Akko. Crusaders, Mamelukes, Syrian Muslims and Chinese Mongols all fought over the strategically located city. Later, Napoleon attacked the city, hoping to use it as his base for capturing the entire Middle East. The governor of Akko, Ahmed Al-Jazzar ('The Butcher'), successfully rebuffed the attack with the help of some British forces and aided in the end of Napoleon's attempt to rule the world. As Napoleon retreated for home, he is quoted as having said, 'Had Akko been mine, the world would have been mine'.
When the British began their rule over Palestine, they captured Akko and used one of the old Crusader fortresses as a prison for captured members of the Irgun-Jewish underground. Today, Akko is a picturesque fishing port, and home to Israel's steel industry. The old city contains many buildings which date back to the Crusader era and before. It also has two oriental markets, several museums and a handful of restaurants. The city inhabitants are a peaceful blend of Arabs and Jews who co-exist in harmony.
The Old City and the New
Pretty much everything that a tourist would be interested in seeing is contained within the walls of the old city of Akko. The rest of Akko is basically an industrial town with neat streets and not much else to see.
A visit to Akko would not be complete without a walk on its walls. Akko is one of the few cities in the world whose walls have remained standing over the centuries, despite being attacked by many large and powerful armies. The modern-day walls, which are built vaguely in the shape of a pentagon, with moats, counter walls, towers, and guns as secondary defence, were built in stages between 1750 and 1814. But the walls of Akko, having never been completely destroyed, have a history that goes back almost a millennium.
The old city of Akko was fortified for the first time in the days of Ibn Tolon, a ruler during the time of the Ptolemy rule over modern-day Israel. The wall was fixed and improved in 1071 in preparation for the invasion of the Seljuk Turks and again in 1099 in anticipation of the Crusaders. In the 1200s, the Crusaders built the wall up higher, added some new ones and constructed towers. Their renovations were clearly insufficient, because in 1291 the Mamelukes razed most of the wall when they captured the city. Akko retained the damaged walls until 1750, when Dahar El-Omar, a Bedouin ruler, built them back up. Between 1800 and 1814, the current walls were completed by Al-Jazzar. They are unbelievably thick, with watchtowers and counter walls, and are protected by guns. Napoleon's forces were defeated at the eastern wall, known as 'Napoleon's Wall', when the defending forces allowed his army to scale the outer wall and trap themselves in the moat, where they were easily shot down. The wall is still completely intact, with even the guns in their original positions.
The Akko fortress is the largest building in the old city. It comprises the most complete remains of a Crusader fortress in Israel. It was built by the Hospitaller Order of Knights4 in the early 1200s, and an Ottoman fortress was built on top in the late 1700s.
The fortress is built very vaguely in the shape of four wings around an open courtyard. The north wing was built along the northern wall of the city. It basically consists of nine long and narrow halls, which served as storerooms and water reservoirs where rainwater was stored.
The eastern wing contains a roomy hall with a vaulted ceiling and huge square columns, which is presumed to have served as a ceremonial hall for the Hospitaller Knights. This was also the hall where the British kept the members of the resistance that they had captured, pending death by hanging. You can still see the hole in the roof where the prisoners planned to escape. They didn't end up using that way out, because free resistance members engineered a better escape plan, which was so effective that it still holds the record for largest prison break in Israel.
The south wing contains a large dining hall and an adjacent kitchen.
The western wing contains two floors of sleeping accommodation. In the northern section of the hall are public bathrooms, each floor containing approximately 30 toilet stalls. The toilets drain into pipes set into the walls, which lead into an underground cistern, which drain into the city sewers.
Towards the end of the 12th Century, the Templar Knights built themselves a fortress in the southwestern quarter of the city. It was considered the strongest fortress in Akko, and was protected by several towers. The fortress was later dismantled by Dahar Al-Omar so that its stones could be used in the city walls and it is now underwater. The only part of the fortress that can be visited today is the Templars' Tunnel, which leads from the fortress eastward to the sea. It was discovered underwater in 1994, and since then a system of pumps was installed to keep the water level below the wooden walkway.