Imagine you’ve just spent 17 hours traveling to an unusual place. A place that is steeped in history. You know all about this history but so far have only seen an ultramodern airport and a nice beachside hotel. You’re in a bus, driving up Israel’s Mediterranean coast and the suddenly, BAM! History hits you right in the face! You’ve arrived in the city of Akko (also known by its English name, ancient Acre).
Akko? Compared to the major historical sites in this part of the world, known as the “cradle of civilization,” who’d heard of Akko? I certainly hadn’t, so when I saw “Crusader city,” on the first day itinerary of the recent Birthright trip that took me to the Middle East, I had no idea what to expect. The crusades are cool, but they’re not that old compared to most of the sites around here, right?
The Old City
It was only once we wandered through the large gate in the stone wall surrounding the old city that this UNESCO World Heritage Site came into focus. Explained by the first of many ridiculous introductory films we’d see in our time in Israel, Akko was much more than just a Crusader city. You’ve heard of the Knights Templar, right? You know, from The DaVinci Code? They were here. What about Napoleon? He was turned around here.
Wow. So much history in this one, truly fascinating city that hadn’t even been on my radar. The first of many a place in this region that holds enormous significance in this world, Akko may be a simple taste of the true big names waiting in the wings to be seen. Though having now seen those big names, I can confidentally state that Akko’s one of my favorite places in Israel, for a walk through its old-fashioned streets and through its subterranean escape tunnels is a walk through history (albeit rather corny in a few places).
Largely Arab, the Old City of Akko is bustling with charm, a common trend I would come to find amongst old cities throughout the region. Its worn stone streets, wet from the rain the day I visited, weaved through colorful markets before giving way to large open air courtyards and covered halls, many of which are still in a wonderully preserved state. They come with fancy titles, like “Knights Hall,” giving hints to what may have happened in the impressive valuted underground chambers.
But Akko’s underground world is not limited to rooms for Knights. Somewhat ingeniously, crusaders had a direct route from their quarters straight to the port, patroling what was once an important stop on trading routes or defending (successfully) against the invading armies of Napoleon. You can walk through the tunnel and admire the tacky projections on the walls, ending up at the coast of the Mediterranean, never far away when you’re in Israel.
A Personal Story
There was one moment in our visit where things really hit home, as we stood in a courtyard staring up at the imposing walls of the Citadel. The grandfather of one of the members of my group had been imprisoned there as a member of a resistence group, fighting against the British for Israeli independence. It may be recent, but this was personal history right in front of my eyes. A generational divide that lead to the very reason why I was standing there that day.
Akko may not have the heavy duty historical sites that you might come to expect in the Middle East, but the more recent history (as in the last millennium…) is truly fascinating there, making it well worth a visit, for a step beyond its walls is a step into a different era.
What do you think?
Have you been to Akko (Acre) before? What about other Crusader cities?