A World Heritage Site in Israel

The walls of the Old City

The walls of the Old City

Acre is one of the most ancient port cities in the world, and its history goes back as far as the Bronze Age. For centuries, the city was overtaken by one dominion and then another, as warriors found it a strategic point of entry from which to conquer the land of Israel. Acre reached the height of its development in the 13th century, when it served as the capital of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. The most impressive remains found in the city date from this period, as well as from the Ottoman era, when Acre served as the major port city of the area. In the 19th century, the prominence of the city of Acre began a steady decline, as Haifa became the major port city in Israel.

Up until Israel’s war of Independence, in 1948, Acre was an Arab city within the Arab Territories. According to the UN Partition Plan of 1947, it was to remain so; however, as the Arab countries rejected the plan to divide the land into two separate –Arab and Jewish-states, the War of Independence broke out, and Acre was conquered by Israel. Following the war, a third of the Arab population remained in the city. After the founding of the State of Israel, thousands of Jewish immigrants settled in the new neighborhoods built outside of the Old Walled City. Nowadays, Acre is a city with a mixed population comprising approximately 46,000 inhabitants, where Jews and Arabs live together.

In 2001, UNESCO declared the city a World Heritage Site. The relatively small area of the Old City contains an impressive number of churches, mosques, synagogues, and historical structures from the various eras of the city, particularly from the Crusader and Ottoman periods. Within the Old City, you will find an abundance of restaurants, a vibrant market, and an active port. All of these make the ancient city of Acre a unique and attractive tourist site.

The walls of the Old City were built over a 90 year period during the Ottoman era, from 1750 until 1840. The walls as well as the guard towers along were built in a pentagonal shape surrounding the Ottoman city, with some following the coastline and the rest set inland. Defensive tunnels were dug along the walls, where cannons were placed. There are three guard towers in the wall, and four impressive gates provide entry into the city. Unlike the coastal fortification, the wall set inland was preserved almost entirely, along with the dugout trench that runs parallel to its outer rim.

The citadel was built during the period of the Turkish rule, in the northern part of the Old City, on top of the ruins of a Crusader fortress. The citadel encompasses two rectangular courtyards, which run 170 meters from East to West and measure 100 meters wide from North to South. Throughout the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century, the structure served as a jail house; it is now the location of the Old Acre Visitor Center, and it is surrounded by a beautiful cultivated garden modeled after the Crusader garden that once existed here.

The underground Knights’ Halls was built under the Citadel of Acre. archeological excavations from 1992 revealed a large complex of halls, built by the Knights of Saint John, who were part of the Hospitaller Knights of Jerusalem. This complex was part of the Crusader fortress, and was attached to the city’s northern wall. The western side of this square shaped area faced the Citadel courtyard, and its northern part, which consists of six halls linked lengthwise, gives the complex its current name. The “Large Hall,” located at the southern end of the chain of halls, was discovered only recently and has yet to be completely excavated. Inside it are fifteen columns arranged in three rows, which support the ceiling. Next to this, there is a small hall, which served as a prison. The Crusader dining hall (the refectorium) is on the southern side of the courtyard and can only be reached from the courtyard. It features a double vaulted ceiling supported by three massive pillars. Underneath it there is a tunnel that connects between the dining hall and the southern end of the complex. The tunnel contains a crypt, and remnants of a gothic church, as well as those of a Turkish bathhouse, located on the Crusader level. A small hall, dubbed “The Beautiful Hall,” as well as part of the southern path are also part of the Crusader level of the city; however, excavations of this layer have not yet been completed.

The Templar Tunnel is an underground tunnel located beneath the streets of the Old City of Acre. At its western end was a Templar castle, which in 1291 was destroyed and sank into the sea, and at its eastern end was the port of Acre. Built towards the end of the 12th century, by members of the Templar order who had settled in Acre after Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem, it served as a strategic underground passageway. The Tunnel is 350 meters long and runs under most of the city’s historical Pisan Quarter. The floor of the Tunnel was dug in the natural rock, while its upper part consists of an elongated arch made of hewn stone.

In 1994, the Templar Tunnel was discovered accidentally, when the residents of one of the buildings above it complained of a blocked sewage pipe and had the matter investigated. In August of 1999, the western end of the tunnel was opened to the public, after being equipped with a wooden floor, proper lighting and a pumping system that constantly removes the accumulating ground water.

The Tunnel is approximately 2 meters high in most parts, but due to excavation constraints and its elevated wooden floor, at some points it is only about 1.5 meters high, which requires visitors to be able to squat down in order to get through. The current entrances to the Tunnel are not the original points of entry; therefore, at each end, one located near the western parking lot adjacent to the port and the other next to Khan?A?Shuna in the south-central part of the Old City, steps were dug to enable access to the Tunnel.

The Al-Jazzar Mosque is the largest, most important and most ornate of the eight mosques in Old Acre, and it the major place of worship for the Muslim community of the city. It is named after Ahmed Al-Jazzar, who built it in 1781, and who is buried in the Mosque yard,

along with his successor, Suleiman Pasha. The Mosque stands on the ruins of the Church of the Holy Cross, which in turn was built on the site where the Friday Mosque stood during the Arab Period. Featuring the traditional color of Islam, the green dome of the Al-Jazzar Mosque, as well as its minaret, dominates the city skyline and can be seen clearly from any location in the city. Some claim that the structure, built in the Classic Ottoman architectural style, was designed by Ahmed Al-Jazzar himself.

Just near by the Al-Jazzar Mosque located The Jazzar Pasha Hamam (Turkish bath).This historical bathhouse, located in the northern section of the Old City, was built in 1795 by one of the strongest rulers during the Ottoman era, the Governor Ahmed Al-Jazzar, after whom it is named. Until the establishment of the State of Israel, it indeed functioned as a bathhouse; then, between 1954 and the 1990s, it housed the municipal museum. Recently, the building’s original function has been brought to life by means of an audio-video presentation, titled “The Last Bathhouse Attendant,” which presents the history of Acre by following the family dynasty of a fictional character, the “Bathhouse Attendant.”

Khan Al-Umdan is one of the most beautiful Ottoman buildings in all of Israel. Its name refers to the granite columns that line its ground floor facing the courtyard. Built towards the end of the 18th century by Ahmed Al-Jazzar, the Governor of Acre, it is located on the ruins of an inn from the Crusader Period. The building’s convenient proximity to the port of Acre made it the optimal venue for marine merchants, who would unload their wares on the ground floor and lodge in the Inn’s upper level. The Khan’s courtyard was where negotiations took place between the merchants and the local consumers. In 1906, a clock tower was added on top of the building’s entrance, to mark the 50 year anniversary of the rule of the Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

The marketplace, The Souq in Acre is one of the most colorful outdoor markets in the country. It is vibrant with sounds, scents, tastes, vendors’ stalls, and tourists. Numerous Middle-Eastern style hummus restaurants populate the market, along with shops selling spices, souvenirs, notions, house wares, fish, vegetables, oriental sweets — among them the renowned delicacies of baklava and Knafe. Scattered among these are stands selling natural orange and pomegranate juice. Many of the alleys that wind through the Old City lead into the market.

The Okashi Art Museum is located in the Old City of Acre, next to the Acre prison and across from the Al-Jazzar Mosque. It is housed in a structure from the Ottoman period, featuring a high, double vaulted ceiling characteristic of the period’s architecture. More recently, the building served as the workshop of the artist Avshalom Okashi, one of the founders of the New Horizon Group. After the artist’s decease, in 1980, the building was turned into a museum dedicated to his memory. The Museum’s permanent exhibit consists of Okashi’s works, which focus on biblical and panoramic scenes of the land of Israel. The museum also hosts temporary exhibits.

The “Treasures in the Walls” Ethnographic Museum is located underneath the eastern walls of the Old City of Acre, in an area called “Burj-al-Kommandar” (Commander’s Fort). It first opened its doors in 2007. The main wing in the Treasures in the Walls Museum contains a restoration of the 19th century Ottoman market, complete with stalls displaying crafts and artifacts from that period. Another section of the Museum exhibits various collections, such as furniture, ceramics and bells, dating from the end of the 19th century to the mid 20th century.

Beyond the Old City, recommended places of interest include the Tunisian Synagogue of Or Torah and the site of the Bahá’í Shrine and the Mansion of Bahji.

The Tunisian Synagogue Or Torah was established in Acre by immigrants from Tunisia, and hence it is also referred to as “the Tunisian” and “the Djerba,” invoking the large synagogue on the island off the coast of Tunisia. Nowadays, however, Or Torah synagogue is attended by Jews from communities of varied eastern ethnicities.

The Tunisian immigrants established their synagogue within a pre-existing ancient structure. The manager of the synagogue decided to add mosaics to the structure, in the tradition of the ancient synagogues, as seen in excavations found throughout of Israel. He appealed to the mosaics factory of Kibbutz Eilon, which brought in the first mosaic work for the synagogue. Many others followed over the years, and now the interior and exterior walls, as well as the ceiling and parts of the floor are covered in tiny, naturally colorful mosaic tiles. None of the tiles are artificially painted; they were brought in from various parts of Israel, ranging from the Golan Heights to Eilat.

There are also 140 painted glass windows in the synagogue. Both the mosaics and the painted windows present topics related to the history of Israel, from Biblical stories to 20th century events, as well as scenes depicting Israel’s cities, landscape, flora and fauna. There are eleven works dedicated to the topic of the Holocaust, and a series of works showcasing Israeli coins. To date, most of the mosaics were produced in Kibbutz Eilon.

The beautiful Bahá’í gardens are on the outskirts of Acre. This site is the most holy of the Bahá’í shrines, the location of the home and burial site of Bahá’u’lláh, founder of the Bahá’í Faith. Soon after the founding of the Faith in Iran, in the mid 19th century, the Bahá’u’lláh and his followers were persecuted and exiled from Iran to the territories of the Ottoman Empire. At first they were incarcerated in the Citadel of Acre, but shortly after, they were permitted to exit the Citadel and reside in the city itself. Finally Bahá’u’lláh settled in a small mansion, which his followers named “Bahjí” (small garden), where he spent the last years of his life, until his death in 1892.

All of these sites make the city of Acre a unique and attractive tourist site in Israel.

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