The Old City of Acre

Tired of endless travel itineraries? Well, this World Heritage Site has got its attractions stacked on top of each other—that means less down time, and loads more exploration
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Sunset of the Ages: The ancient city of Acre—and modern-day Akko (courtesy, Israel Ministry of Tourism)
Acre at a Glance
Name: The Old City of Acre
Date of Inscription: 2001
Why Go: Get two historical cities—and quadruple the cultures—for the price of one visit.

Peek under the Old City of Acre and a surprise awaits: another city. Unlike most conquerors who destroy the past, the Ottomans built their city atop the Crusaders', creating an urban center that harbors a secret beneath its streets.

Since the Early Bronze Age, Acre was the place to live, and vanquish. The attraction was its golden location by the Western Galilee port and at the crossroads of the East and West. Ancient Acre—which is different than Old Acre by some years and miles—was ruled in turn by the Asher tribe, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Hellenistic Ptolemid dynasty of Egypt, and the Seleucids of Syria. Then the Crusaders rolled in, and out, and in again. Well, not exactly. First the Jewish Hasmonaean kingdom, the Roman Empire, and the Arabs all had to have their conquering moments. Now cue the Crusaders.

In 1104, the Crusaders moved into Acre and went on a building spree, creating mono-ethnic neighborhoods similar to today's Little Italy, Chinatown, Dearborn, etc. Merchants from Pisa, Genoa, Venice, and England inhabited separate, self-contained neighborhoods, as did military orders like the German Knights, the Hospitallers, and the Templars. The Jews and the Muslims also lived apart, while the French settled comfortably into their Provencal Quarter. Public buildings also sprung up, creating a lively mix of courts, pilgrim hostels, bakeries, bathhouses, and covered markets.

For nearly 200 years, everyone got along swimmingly and the city prospered. It even held the title of second-most important city in Israel, after Jerusalem. Until…the battle for Acre ensued once again. Soon after, the city fell out of favor and was abandoned, leaving only a smattering of Romanesque, Gothic, and Muslim buildings as reminders of former glories.

Phase II of Acre began in the 16th century, when the Ottomans swept in and decided to build on top of their predecessors' structures, inadvertently protecting the Crusaders' handiwork by burying it. During the 18th and 19th centuries, mosques, bathhouses, and caravanserai (inns where caravans could park and sleep) were erected. And money-bag merchants commissioned Neoclassical-style manses to show off their largesse.

But Acre was not just one happy commercial success story; it had a dark side, too. Baha'ullah, the founder of the Baha'i faith, spent 24 years imprisoned or under house arrest in Acre. He was buried at his estate just beyond the city walls, and his faithful rate his tomb as the holiest of holy sites. In the early 1900s, when the British took over Palestine, a handful of Jewish Zionists were hung in the citadel prison's Gallows Room. However, while the Brits may not have been so nice to freedom fighters, they were gentle with the existing architecture and built their city outside Acre.

Calm has since settled over Acre, now a municipality of Israel (Akka in Arabic, historically written Arce in English, is today referred to as Akko in Israel). About 45,000 residents call it home, and despite some wear and tear, Acre still retains its retro-ancient look. Visitors can walk the centuries-long timeline, starting with the Crusaders' well-preserved subterranean city. One layer up are Ottoman structures, including the citadel, which perches above the Hospitaller Knights' citadel. The city also counts among its attractions mosques (El-Jazar being one of the most important in the country), tombs of sheiks, markets, bathhouses, caravanserai, churches, and cemeteries. In fact, there is so much to see in Acre, it is like visiting two distinct cities that just happen to share the same name and vertical space.

Published: 8 Feb 2006 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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