Imagine a Mediterranean city dating from antiquity having an enchanting marina, a wealth of historical sites, authentic restaurants and a colorful souk (market street). Did you think of Istanbul or perhaps Antalya? Surprise, Akko’s Old City is no less wonderful!
After touring in these three cities, it may be said with assurance that the Old City can hold its own against the well-oiled tourism machine of Turkey. The Old City has it all, just on a smaller scale. The Turkish influence, by the way, can be recognized in almost every corner of the Old City.
The Great Napoleon? – a failure
In 1799, a man short of stature but solidly built, set out to conquer the eastern Mediterranean. He nearly succeeded, until he arrived at Acre in spring of that same year. The Emperor Napoleon achieved only the right to view Acre from the outside, especially as he observed the city every morning from the heights of Tel Akko (“Napoleon’s Hill” as called since by the locals). How was it that Napoleon couldn’t breach the walls and fortifications, that were relatively simple, and his scathing failure took place even before Ahmed al-Jazzar Pasha built the mighty eastern wall? The tradition,
according to which the name Akko is composed of the joining of the Hebrew words AD KOH (“until here”), received an additional reinforcement.
Ideal for Walking Tours
The first station of our tour of the Old City, for those arriving from the direction of Karmiel (from the east), is the same steep hill atop which Napoleon stood like a dragoon on an iron horse, while at its foot, to the north of the city, his soldiers were arrayed for battle. Continuing westward, we find three entrances by land and one from the port that lead into the Old City. The area of the Old City is not large, approximately 10 acres (4 hectares) altogether. The distance between any two of its corners is no more than 700 meters and thus is ideal for walking tours.
To welcome those coming to the Old City from the east, there is an enormous moat 12 meters deep that extends to the foot of the al-Jazzar wall. From here can also be seen the gun ports for the cannons emplaced on the wall. It is also possible to see the layout of the protected eastern Land Gate, which was built with the purpose of making it extremely difficult for attackers to break through to the city.
On the right, just past entering by the Land Gate, stands the Akkotel boutique hotel, located in the old building that was until a few years ago Akko’s Magistrate Court. This is the only hotel located within the Old City’s walls, apart from a hostel or two.
The Tour “Marches on its Stomach”
Walking on ahead, you’ll discover to the right Old Acre’s the commercial trademark: its hummus restaurants. If your doctor has not forbidden sweets, it is warmly recommended to visit one of
the baklava bakeries in the area, for every successful tour, like Napoleon’s army, “marches on its stomach.” At the back of these hummosiyot and bakeries is a lesser-known covered souk that in the past teemed with activity but today is run down and awaiting investors. This is the Souk al-Abyad (the White Market). Passing beneath the arches of the souk, or walking alongside it in Salah ad-Din Street will convey you to four important points of interest in the city:
To the south – the active market street (souk) of today; to the west – the Crusader Citadel complex, better known as “the Knights’ Halls” (these being only part of the enormous Citadel complex); southward from the Citadel – the al-Jazzar Mosque; westward from the mosque – the Turkish bathhouse, Hammam al-Pasha. Of the buildings in the Old City that remain standing, the vast majority were built during the rule of the Sultanate and the Ottoman Empire (1517-1917). A smaller number of buildings, particularly those below road level and the Ottoman structures, belong to the Crusader period.
During the period of the British Mandate the Crusader Citadel was used as the central prison for northern
Palestine. Many of those imprisoned here were underground fighters who fought the British. The gallows room, where three of them were executed, is today part of the Akko Museum of the Underground Prisoners.
The al-Jazzar Mosque is the most important, the most magnificent, and the noblest of the eight mosques scattered throughout the Old City. Here, according to believers, is a hair from the beard of the Prophet Muhammad. This is also the burial place of Ahmed al-Jazzar Pasha and his heir and successor, Suleiman Pasha.Further west, the Turkish Bathhouse, Hammam al-Pasha, no longer functions as a bathhouse, but presents a fascinating sound-and-light show, “The Last Bath Attendant,” that tells the history of the Old City.
The Most Beautiful Khan of All
The colorful souk next on our route is the superlative attraction for all who come to the city. Fish fresh from the sea; pastries sweet and salty; spices; perfumes and cosmetics; fabrics and shoes; fruits and vegetables; toys, housewares, and what not! Add to this: ice cream vendors; hawkers of pomegranate and orange juices; legendary oriental restauran
featuring seafood and Middle Eastern cuisine – and you have the souk at its best. Along with the smells, flavors, and sounds of the souk, you can find the long-established (1972) “Ouda” restaurant (with a second entrance from the Khan al-Faranj); and the most sought-after restaurant of all: “Sayid”, for the true hummus aficionado.
At this point, it’s recommended to visit the Ramchal Synagogue, where Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto—known by his acronym: the RaMCHaL—immersed himself in the study of Kabbalah, for which he was excommunicated by
the Rabbis and his writings were consigned to a genizah. Dahr al-Omar, the Bedouin ruler of Acre in the mid-18th century, turned the synagogue into a mosque, the al-Muallaq Mosque, while allowing the city’s Jews to build a synagogue where the Ramchal synagogue now stands. The visit here includes a short explanation spiced with humor and enlightening commentaries. The souk leads us on to additional attractions on the south side of the Old City. First, the Khan al-Umdan, the most beautiful of the six khans that functioned in the Old City in the days of the Ottoman Turks. Next, and nearby, is the Clock Tower, similar to the renowned clock tower of Jaffa.
Refuge from the Heat and Sun
Nearby is the Crusader-era Templars’ Tunnel. These “Knights of the Temple,” in building themselves quarters in, of all places, the southwest of the city (whose coastline has no port), wisely dug this tunnel so they could secretly, beneath the noses of their enemies, reach the port on the city’s eastern shore (the present-day marina). Today the tunnel serves as an escape route from the summer heat and sun for those hurrying to
reach their car in the Lighthouse parking lot
At the marina you can see a motley throng of boats and their facilities: piles of nets awaiting repair; fishermen setting out to sea and others returning; excursion ships to cruise the length of the walls, and next to these the pleasure craft called “yachts” by the locals though modest by international standards; and of the human landscape: tradesmen, street vendors, battalions of tourists and idlers. Along the southern Sea Wall Promenade , where the Old City meets the Mediterranean, you’ll encounter four of its best-known restaurants:
Ptolemais, Abu Christo, Doniana, and Galileo.
This, in short, is the Old City of Acre, and its many outstanding qualities. And here I’ve not yet said a thing, not even half a thing, about its people and culture. Instead of waiting and reading, go forth and wander through the length and breadth of the Old City, alone or with a guided tour.
Written by Ido and Ariel Hadari.
This article, with slight changes, was published on the site of YNET under “tourism, 28.09.07