Akko – Charm and History in a Walled City by the Sea

Akko (or variously Acre or Acco)

While Akko’s history spans over 5,000 years, it is mainly the Crusader and Ottoman periods that stand out because of  the way that they molded the city, both above and below ground.

Acre’s rich history has meant that several cultures have played an important role – Israelites, Romans, Greeks, Crusaders, and Arabs.

The Old City of Akko as we see it today, was built during the Ottoman period.  Its thick walls, wide moat, khans, markets, Turkish bath and the Ahmed Jazzar Mosque are all products of 400 years of Ottoman Turkish rule.  Beneath the present-day Acco lie the ruins of the Crusader city, which can be visited in the Knights’ Halls and Templar Tunnel. The Pisan Harbor and Templar Citadel are hidden, submerged in the Mediterranean just off the city’s walls.

The Old City has been designated by the UNESCO as World Heritage Site.

Visiting Akko

The Old City of Akko’s northeast tower, called Burj El Commander, offers a great view of the Acre skyline. Then head across the parking lot to the Knights’ Halls. At the admission booth, ask about a joint ticket, which includes several sites.  From the Knights’ Halls, continue on to the Turkish Bathhouse. Don’t skip the audio-visual presentation and make sure to look up at the ceiling to see the tiny glass skylights that adorn its dome.

Next visit the Ahmed Jazzar Mosques and then wander through the nearby market towards the Acco port. The market is home to Sa’id, one of Israel’s most renowned hummus bars. If the lines are intolerably long, try Shamsiya, an excellent small hummus bar just a few steps away. While in the market, don’t miss the spice and folk medicine shop. If you’re not shy, ask what dried geckos are used for.

Weaving the through the market, head in the direction of the port.  After looking at the port and the “Tower of Flies”, which once guarded its entrance, peek into Khan El Umdan, an old merchants’ inn next door. Nearby is the entrance to the Templars’ Tunnel. From the tunnel’s exit, continue to waterfront and climb up on the walls near the lighthouse to look out across the bay at Haifa and Mt. Carmel. In the water below the lighthouse to the northwest lie the sunken foundations of the Templar citadel.

Hospitaller Fortress

You cannot leave Akko without visiting the most impressive site, the Hospitaller Fortress, a complex of four Crusader buildings built around an open courtyard.

During the Crusaders’ time, the building once belonged to the monks of Order of the Knights of Saint John, also known as the Hospitallers. They founded this order to help the pilgrims in their journey to Holy Land. But because the monks also had to protect the pilgrims, they also made it a military order — which was a new concept at the time — and the monks were referred to as the “warrior monks.”

There you can see enormous stone rooms, vaulted ceilings, and awesome acoustics, which is perfect for singing! The complex also includes a spectacular dining hall that was also used as a gathering hall, halls that contained the knights’ living quarters, and the Orders hospital, all of which are perfectly preserved. Even the latrine (communal toilet) is still in good shape, too.

To enter the building, you can buy a combined ticket that offers other attractions in Akko, such as Okashi Art Museum and the Templar Tunnel, as well as other sights outside Akko.

Templar Fortress and Templar Tunnel

As Israel is teeming with ancient buildings, it is not surprising to find a lot of Crusader-era structures there. Apart from the Hospitaller Fortress, there is also another Crusader building in Akko, the Templar Fortress, which is one of the strongest buildings there. The Order of Solomon’s Temple, also known as Knights Templar or simply Templars, built this fortress during the late 12th century.

The Templars also did an amazing feat — they dug a 350-meter tunnel that connected them from the fortress to the city port. This tunnel was discovered only in 1994 by chance during a plumbing project that was done in the area. It is now called Templars Tunnel.

It can be fun crawling under the tunnel, especially if you hear the ocean sounds from the outside. However, it can be tricky to navigate this tunnel if you’re too tall and/or claustrophobic.

The Museum of Underground Prisoners in Akko

The Museum of Underground Prisoners in Acco embodies an interesting chapter in Israeli modern history.  Used by the British mandatory authorities as a prison for Jewish underground fighters, several of whom were eventually hung there. The gallows is still on display as a memorial room.

The story of the daring Acco prison escape is also recounted. A highly dramatized version of the escape was portrayed in the book and film Exodus. The entrance to the Museum of Underground Prisoners is off of Haganah St. at the northwest corner of the Old City.

For more photos – please see the Akko Photo Album