Akko is a city that has been shaped by the Romans, Ottomans, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Byzantines, and British, and fittingly is today home to an diverse and coexistent mix of Jews, Christians and Muslims. The Old City of Akko is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the oldest ports in the world, and the city is also home to part of the Bahai World Centre (the other part being in Haifa, just down the road), another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Akko’s Old City was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001 in recognition of remains of the Crusader town both above and below street level and because the city is one of a small number of well-preserved Ottoman walled towns with citadels, mosques, khans and baths, in this case built on top of the underlying Crusader structures.
Akko has been extensively excavated and conserved over the past ten years, with large scale renovations and rebuilding works taking place across the Old City to create the new Visitors Centre which actually consists of a number of structures and buildings spread across the Old City, but which is entered through the Enchanted Garden.
The Visitor Centre experience consists of a short fascinating film explaining and guiding the visitor through the marvellous history of Akko. Following this, visitors are free to explore the Old City. First on the tour is a visit to the large renovated Knights’ Halls of the Hospitaller Fortress, which was a main part of the defence of Akko during Crusader times in the 11th century.
The tour continues with a startling visit to an underground tunnel discovered in 1994 and believed to have been the Templars Tunnel. The Templars were knights originally positioned around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem whose task it was to safeguard Christian pilgrims from attacks. Toward the end of the 12th century, they were moved to Akko 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 great part of the Old City is the sound and light performance at the Hammam Al-Basha (the Turkish Bath) of “The Story of the Last Bath Attendant.” The bath house was the in-place to be for the rich and the influential Arab residents of Akko, and this amazing show brings the visitor a glimpse of what the building would have been like when operated.
Leaving the market (suk), 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 striking, particularly at sunset.
The Museum of the Underground Prisoners is an oppressive place, as it obviously was for the fighters who were imprisoned there. 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.
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 prayer place and the gallows room where they were hanged are also open to the public.