Old City of Acre
The Old City of Acre is renowned for its Crusader buildings and its Ottoman walled town.
This port-city has been inhabited since Phoenician times. In 1104, during the First Crusade, the Crusaders made the town their chief port in Palestine. The Ottomans under Sultan Selim I captured the city in 1517, after which it fell into almost total decay. Towards the end of the 18th century, it revived under the rule of Dhaher al-Omar and his successors.
Map of Old City of AcreLoad map
I recognize that Acre did not get a fair shake from me on my trip to Israel in November of 2019. I initially planned to visit it with a guide, in the early part of my itinerary, and give it 3-4 hours. In the end, I visited on my own, towards the end of my stay, and left for my next scheduled stop after barely two hours.
The World Heritage inscription of Acre is based on both its Crusader history and its features as an Ottoman fortified town. To get a good appreciation of the former, one needs to visit some of the paid points of interest in town. For the Ottoman features and the fortifications all you need to do is walk around the town core. When I did that, I encountered many signs of neglect, which colored my impression significantly. There are certainly picturesque corners and perspectives, but also frequent instances of dilapidation. Mosques are definitely the best-maintained building, as they would be in any other Muslim-majority town. Khans are impressive from a distance, but upon close inspection appear very much run-down. I am probably stretching it to make an excuse, but this general feeling of the town not being well cared after must have contributed to the fact that I neither took many pictures nor felt that I needed to extend my time in Acre.
I suspect a guided tour would go a long way to change that impression - when I come back, I will ensure that I have a guide on hand, even though it is clearly possible to see the town on one's own.
Read more from Ilya Burlak here.
Acre is another very unique site in the Holy Land. Just like Jerusalem and Bet Guvrin, it has no equal or comparable sites both in the region and in the world. Really, Acre is 2 cities, one above the other. The city we all see is the walled Arab city with its Ottoman architecture. Below it lies the wonder of the Crusader city, now mostly filled by tourists. Each chamber seems to have been converted into a museum exhibit, complete with colored lights shining onto the stone walls. The architecture is mostly evident in its pointed arches and groin vaults. After this, I pass through the markets and jewelry stores of Ottoman Acre to get to the Tunnels, another Crusader creation. These passages, unlike the vast hallways I had seen earlier, were used for military emergencies, and were quite cramped, with some sections where I had to bend while walking (a preview for the Pyramids of Giza?). This ended up being my favorite part of the short tour I had of the city as there were no other tourists. After surfacing again by the sea, I walked the seawalls to have a scenic view of the old harbor. By this time, the attractions of Ottoman times were already closed, so I got going. I visited in April 2018 on a long drive from Tel Aviv to the Galilee, so I only had a couple hours or so in Acre after visiting Caesarea and Haifa, but it definitely overshadowed the previous 2 in terms of uniqueness and value. Everything within its walls is a great show of history in this part of the world. Though Crusader Acre is a bit over-restored, commercialized, and museum-like for my liking, the fact remains that it's an unparalleled show of Crusader life in the world, and the various markets, khans, and mosques on the surface really add to Acre's authenticity as a living Middle Eastern city.
Akko is a great place to visit. The ancient sites are amazing, but also there is a very old, authentic shuk. You can also walk along a beautiful beach.
The Old City of Acre really has 2 aspects to it – the external experience of the narrow mediaeval streets/souks, walls and harbour and the interior experience of the “pay to visit” sites – in particular the Crusader City. The external aspects are pleasant enough with some nice views of and from the ancient walls of the town and harbours and, in the souks, what an earlier reviewer has called a “Jerusalem Feel”. Some parts have been restored but others are very run down- particularly some of the Khans. Yet, it was amazing how many run down buildings had a big notice stating that “This property is not for sale”! I guess there are investment plans which have yet to come fully to fruition.
I will concentrate this review on the “pay to view” visit. We had an Israeli National Parks pass but none of the “attractions” in Acre are under its control. It appears that Acre’s development and tourist sites are run by a government capitalized organization called “The Old Acre Development Company”. Its Web site is here - http://www.akko.org.il/en/ . It is interesting to read its Tourism Development strategy - this extract gives a good feel for what it is about - “To create experiential centers in the Old City's port and waterfront as bustling public expanses interconnected by pedestrian routes and a chain of events to be held throughout the year as a long-term infrastructure to achieve a constant flow of tourists and visitors.”
An understanding of this background will help understand the nature of the offering made to tourists. This consists of tickets for multiple attractions in the form of “The Crusader Citadel plus….”. So, you cannot buy a ticket for the castle without also buying a ticket for a Modern Art Gallery (“The Okashi Art Museum ….hosts temporary exhibits of Israeli art alongside a permanent exhibition of the works of Avshalom Okashi”) and an ethnological museum (“The Treasures in the Wall Museum is the product of 2 collectors Dan Hortman and Michael Luria. The Items on display shed light on the fabric of life in the Galilee over the past 150 years”). Beyond these the Turkish Hamam has been developed into an “experiential” audio visual tour and requires a separate add on ticket even if you don’t want the previous 2 museums! We didn’t work our way any further down the list of combination tickets and add-ons – at least they offered old fogie price reductions to all old fogies and not just Israeli old fogies as the National Parks did – but only from 46 NIS pp to 39!.
Once you have worked out what the best combination might be for your interests (or at least the least bad!) you pay your money and go on to the Audio Guide dispensing office. The little gismo you get in return for leaving your passport as collateral (not of the latest design – other sites had ones which were automatically triggered) is supposed to tell you what you are viewing when you key the number of the “station” you are at. You also have a “map” (designed by someone with no feel for cartography!!) to enable you to position yourself at the next station. Unfortunately the map was often wrong, the station numbers were often illegible or hidden or in a different place or not in sequence, some of them seemed to be operating 2 different numbering systems and others were completely missing (this may owe something to the fact that the area seemed to be undergoing rebuilding to put in place a new exhibition area). The net result - total frustration!
You also receive 2 different sets of instructions as to the route for your visit – 1 given at the gismo office consists of seeing the Citadel, returning to the start and handing in your gismo and then setting off across the town to find your other ticketed “attractions”! The other, given at the ticket check consists of leaving the Citadel through another exit at the far side after your visit straight into the souk, finishing your other “attractions” and then returning through the town to hand in your gismo from the outside to get your passports back! We did the latter and found our way ok with a bit of asking but they really should do a better job at signing – we met another group of non Hebrew/Arabic/English speakers who were hopelessly lost in the twisting souks!
I can’t say I was particularly impressed with the Crusader Citadel and don’t believe that the frustrations with the audio system played much part in this. There are a lot of vary large arcaded underground “Halls” used by the Hospitaliers (photo) but, to us at least, these all merged together and the impact of some of them had been destroyed by the introduction of large (as yet) empty display cases for some future exhibition. There were a few courtyards as well but the views of these were disfigured by the scaffolding of external reconstruction.
We moved on to the “Turkish Bath House – The Story of the last bath attendant”. Now I usually avoid such “experiential” events like the plague and despise myself when I get caught up in one – but this caught us unawares. I discovered later that it promised a “dramatic exciting and informative sound and light show” (as well as “mock steam”!!). Actually it was better than I feared when I realized what I had got us into!
The Okashi museum took 30 seconds – not our scene at all. The “Treasures in the Wall Museum” was an annoyingly long way away from everywhere else along the city wall which again was not well indicated and might be of interest if one had lots of time to fill but you could see why they got people into it via the “inclusive ticket” ploy. Which left the final “attraction” included in our ticket – the 350 m long Templar Tunnel from the fort to the port. Now I have never been in so many tunnels as on this trip – from Megiddo to Beersheba to Jerusalem to Akko ….. This one was ok with a couple of interesting slide shows playing on the walls but I could have done without it.
After I had written the above I searched the Web to check on the ticket prices I reported above and, totally coincidentally, came across this critique of the Acre offering by an Israeli publication. It chimes with a lot of what I have commented on (though it thinks more of the Citadel than I did) and at least shows me that I wasn’t ranting irrationally! See
Further up the Isreli coast, just as you've passed Haifa, you reach to the old town of Acre. Or Acco, which is the locals name for the town. For me it was a rainy day in December and having reached the town by train, I hopped into a taxi in order to quickly get to the older parts of the town, located right next to the Mediterranean seaside.
They say that the weather makes half the experience and this time it was a wet one. But with the sun on your side Acre is a brilliant little town which history dates back to Canaanite times. Acre has somewhat of a 'Jerusalem feel' to itself but actually reflects the time of the Crusaders and the Arabs. Actually, it is the ruins of the 'Crusader City' that today is Acre's major attraction. When the Ottomans rebuilt Acre, they did so on top of the old Crusader City which lies 25 feet below that of today. It has now been unearthed, revealing big Gothic halls and underground tunnels. And if that isn't enough, a visit to the Mosque of El-Jazzar, the bazaars and a lunch by the seaside will easily kill more than a couple of hours. Acre is easily accessible from Tel Aviv or Haifa and definitely worth a visit.
Akko/Acre/Ptolomais has been occupied by Greeks, Romans, Persians and Egyptians, as well as the Phoenecians, the Crusaders, the Ottomans and the British.
Under the Ottomans the city achieved notoriety as a prison city; amongst its notable prisoners was Bahau'llah, founder of the Baha'i Faith. The British continued the tradition by incarcerating and executing a number of notorius Jewish 'terrorists'. The prison museum is open to visitors.
Less traumatic to visit are the Ottoman inns or khans. In these inns merchants from all over the Mediterranean area came to conduct trade.
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