The City Under a City – The New Indian Express

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Navigating the charming streets of Akko (Acre), a city in the Galilee region of northern Israel, I am mesmerized by a landscape frozen in time. Lanes with high walls, underground passages, Turkish baths, a Templar tunnel and ancient archaeological sites form a fascinating picture. Add to the smorgasbord of fascinating museums, pristine beaches fringed by an aquamarine sea, a quaint fishing port and there’s reason why UNESCO listed Acre as a World Heritage Site in 2001.

Perhaps more than any other city in Israel, Akko is the perfect showcase of Israel’s turbulent history. Ruled by the Romans, Ottomans, Crusaders, Mamluks, Byzantines and the British, it is peppered with remnants of medieval Crusades, the Ottoman Empire and ruins below street level, making it famously a ‘city beneath a city’.

The Citya
The Templar Tunnel

“Akko exists both above and below street level and offers an exceptional glimpse into the medieval kingdom,” our guide Tami tells us as we snap madly for photos. “It is an important example of a walled Ottoman city, with citadels, mosques and baths built on Crusader structures below.”

Akko – the perfect meeting place for East and West, new and old, beauty and ruins – is one of the most important cities of antiquity. A diverse population – Jews, Christians and Muslims – has lived, worked and traded here for centuries. Napoleon Bonaparte was so enamored with Akko’s cultural riches that he attempted to conquer it in 1799. But after two months of siege and several failed attempts to storm the city walls, he withdrew, humiliated. Boats and weapons used in his naval battles – many of which have been recovered from the seabed over the years – are now on display in maritime museums.

Once a fortified city in the 11th century, much of Akkos Caché dates back to being a central port city and docking point for hundreds of seagoing vessels carrying soldiers, horses and supplies in ancient times. The port has dominated northern Israel as a strategic trading stop for centuries.

A good way to get a glimpse of a place’s personality is through the markets. Akko’s outdoor food market, nestled between labyrinthine alleyways, is buzzing with energy. When I visit early one morning, it’s brimming with a cornucopia of living produce – shiny vegetables, juicy fruits, olives, dates, nuts, spices, sesame halva, bread… There’s excellent fish nearby in the fishing port Restaurants serving the freshest catches. Not far from the city is a beautifully manicured Bahai Garden, whose pathways and carefully designed flower beds bring sensual pleasure.

Among Akko’s many exciting discoveries is the Templar Tunnel, discovered in 1994. The Templars, Tami explained, were knights originally stationed around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, guarding Christian pilgrims from Muslim attacks. In the 12th century they moved to Akko and built this secret tunnel to get from the port area in the east to the fortress in the west of the city in times of battle.

Next we visit The Hammam (Turkish Bath) – a unique attraction of the city – which we are told was much more than just a bathhouse. It was the favorite haunt of the rich and famous to gossip, network and plan coups. As we leave the Hammam, we are surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a colorful and noisy shuk (market) surrounded by a stormy sea. We walk along the shore on the walls of the ancient city, watching the shimmering sea and the fishing boats bobbing up and down in the marina. Waves from the Mediterranean smash against the walls of Old Akko, washing the centuries-old, rugged sandstone with liquid silver.

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