Perhaps more than any other city in Israel, Acre represents Israel’s tumultuous history. The Romans, Ottomans, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Byzantines, right down to the British – all left their fingerprints on this town. Even today it is populated by an eclectic mixture of Jews, Christians and Muslims living, studying, working and trading together on a daily basis.
Acre’s multicultural and artistic character also make it a favorite venue for many popular international festivals and artistic events.
In 2001, UNESCO inscribed Acre on the World Heritage List. It achieved this status because of the remains of the Crusader town both above and below street level, which provide an exceptional layout of the medieval Crusader kingdom; also because it is an important example of an Ottoman walled town with citadels, mosques, khans and baths built on top of the underlying Crusader structures.
Over the last 10 years, extensive archeological digs, renovations and rebuilding work have been carried out in several areas of the city. These sites all come under the auspices of the new Visitors Center, which you enter through what is known as the Enchanted Garden.
This small garden, with its enormous trees – together with public rest-rooms and drink machines for the 21st-century visitor – staked its claim to fame as the place where Napoleon was routed in humiliation. He tried to lay siege to and capture Acre in 1799, but failed miserably and was reduced to fleeing in retreat, leaving behind boats and weapons used in his sea-battles – many of which have been retrieved from the ocean over the years and can be viewed in maritime museums.
After entering the Visitors Center, you will first be invited to see a short film explaining the multi-faceted history of Acre. Then you can continue your visit by touring the large renovated Knights’ Halls of the Hospitaller Fortress, which was a main part of the defense of Acre during Crusader times in the 11th century.
You’ll see spacious rooms that were used as ceremonial halls and dining areas for the knights alongside long, narrow alcoves assumed to have been kitchens and storeroom. The beautiful cruciform vaulted ceilings and columns with decorated bases enabled the archaeologists to confirm their ideas on the century and purpose of this fortified edifice.
There is also a separate dormitory wing, with one building built in a different gothic style, indicating that it was added at a later date.
Another exciting find in 1994 was the underground tunnel, which was discovered to have been the Templars Tunnel. The Templars were knights originally stationed around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (hence the name), whose task it was to safeguard the Christian pilgrims from attack by the Muslims. Toward the end of the 12th century, they were moved to Acre and built this secret tunnel to get from the port area in the east into the fortress in the western part of the city in time of battle.
As you advance along the wooden walkway, through the 350-meter tunnel, you’ll see the water on either side, kept at a safe level for visitors by means of a specially installed pumping system.
Another not-to-miss feature is the sound and light performance at the Hammam Al Basha of “The Story of the Last Bath Attendant.” The Hammam (Turkish Bath) was far more than just a bathhouse; it was the in-place to be for the rich, the influential and of course the politicians. Secrets were let out of the bag, hatchet jobs were plotted, political downfalls were decided – and all under the eye, and ear, of the “invisible” bath attendant.
We visitors walk from room to room in this beautifully renovated bathhouse, listening and watching on screens as the story of Ottoman Acre unfolds colorfully amid the steam and massaging of its rulers.
As you leave the main compound of the fortress and enter the colorful, noisy shuk, a short walk will take you to Jewish Acre, one of whose most famous sites is the modest little shul called the Ramhal Synagogue, named for Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzatto, kabbalist and author of Mesilat Yesharim (The Way of the Just), the famous book on ethics.
One of the most unusual aspects of this synagogue is that the chazan (cantor), instead of standing on a raised bima while reciting the prayers, stood in a cavern below ground. The congregation could hear and see him through a hole in the floor – echoing the psalm “Out of the depths I called to you, my God.”
The caretaker was happy to tell us stories about the history of the synagogue; and in keeping with Jewish tradition of hospitality, at the entrance stood a table of drinks and snacks for visitors.
As you leave the market area, take a walk along the sea front atop the ancient city walls and watch the fishermen trying their luck and the boats bobbing up and down in the marina. The view is stunning, particularly at sunset. It is the view that the pre-State Jewish prisoners incarcerated in the old fortress saw as they stared out of their cell windows.
The Museum of the Underground Prisoners is an oppressive place, as it obviously was for the fighters who were imprisoned there. You may have to ask for its location, as it is still undergoing renovation and the signs seem to be missing. But as you enter the area of the Visitors Center, it is on your right, down a side alleyway.
Crossing the drawbridge to enter the fortress, look down into the deep moat and you’ll understand why no one would have survived jumping out of a prison window. Escaping alone from that side was not an option. So the famous escape of May 4, 1947 was carefully planned down to the last detail.
Through coordinated messages, it was discovered that one of the prison walls where the fighters were held backed directly onto the market, and so this was the wall that was breached with explosives strategically placed inside the prison and outside in the market.
In the ensuing chase, many escaped, but three underground members were recaptured and sentenced to death by hanging. They were not the first Jews to be hanged in this prison, but they were the last.
Right at the top of the fortress you can watch a film of the breakout as seen/imagined by a 21st-century teenager reading his grandfather’s diary and newspaper cuttings.
The buildings and rooms have undergone extensive renovation and life-size models now sit around the old cells and the exercise courtyard. The room the prisoners used as a synagogue and the gallows room where they were hanged are also open to the public.
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