Discovering History in Old Akko (Acre)

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).

Building

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

City Wall

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.

Street Scene

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).

Shoe Planters

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.

Covered Hall

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.

Ruins along the Sea

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.

Courtyard

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.

Column

What do you think?

Have you been to Akko (Acre) before? What about other Crusader cities? 

 

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4 Responses to Discovering History in Old Akko (Acre)

  1. Brett Domue January 25, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Have not been to Akko, but we just saw the Citadel built by Saladin to protect against the crusaders in Cairo. The Crusades never made it that far, and enough other conflict has passed through since then to destroy most of the original structures except the walls, but still, very impressive considering the time…

    • Aaron January 25, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

      Haha and it wasn’t totally reconstructed? Seems odd for Egypt… :-P Still cool. There really is so much history in this part of the world that its kind of mind boggling! Even if you look at how far back some of these places have been inhabited (you know, a few millenia…), impressive stuff! I missed the Citadel in Cairo…opted for the old Islamic quarter instead. Good place?

      • Brett Domue January 25, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

        Not much of the old Citadel itself, just the walls, but the mosques that are now there, especially the Muhammed Ali Mosque, are pretty impressive. As well as some of the other mosques right outside of the citadel. And most impressive is the panoramic view of Cairo from outside of the Muhammed Ali Mosque. Wish the weather had been better when we were there. With the Siberian cold front and accompanying rain and haze, we didn’t get to enjoy as much as I think we could have otherwise. The Coptic quarter and old synagogue were actually much more of a letdown in my opinion. Though loved the irony of a book vendor in the middle of one of the main alleys of the old Coptic quarter with racks full of Stephen King books…

  2. Aaron January 25, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    Ah that sucks about the weather. Had great weather when I visited! Did you go to Al Azhar Mosque in the old Islamic quarter That one was pretty nice. I sat there for a while just contemplating.

    Really? I liked the Coptic quarter. Never seen churches like that before! And leave it to Egyptians to fully embrace capitalism!

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