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Akko, also known as Acre: Where Is It & Why Is It So Famous?
Mysterious, Magical Akko
Akko, the place called Acre in the Bible, is one of the most thrilling spots in Israel. It's like nowhere else, with spectacular sights, stirring history, and an intensely exotic aura.
However you refer to it, (Akko, Acco, or Acre), being inside this Biblical port city's ancient stone walls is unforgettable. Visitors are dazzled by Akko's winding narrow streets, mysterious passageways, towering minarets, and muezzins' chants calling Muslims to prayer.
Akko's Old City, whose port dates back at least 4,000 years, is set on a tiny peninsula. You can walk from one side to the other in under 20 minutes, and see over a thousand years' worth of unsoiled landmarks. In the pages of this story, you'll preview many of Akko's incredible sights.
Where Is Akko?
Akko is in the northeast of Israel, set in a Mediterranean bay directly across from the major port city of Haifa. Like every place in this compact country, Akko is easy to get to.
A Holy City in the Holy Land, Meaningful to Four Faiths
Old Akko is especially distinctive in Israel because it shelters sacred sites of four faiths: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Baha'i.
- In the Baha’i faith, Akko is the holiest place of all. The founder, Baha’u’llah, lived just north of Akko, and the Baha’i Founder’s Shrine & Gardens are nearby
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Akko's Old City is one of the world's 971 designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the real list of "places to see before you die."
Akko in the Bible
In Old Testament times, Akko was part of Judaea, the ancient Jewish homeland ruled by King David and King Solomon. (Find out more about Akko's vivid history as a crosroads of the world.)
Who Lives in Akko Today?
Akko residents speak of its pull, its mystique. The tiny, original Old City has 5,000 residents: Muslims and a few Christian Arabs.
Though this is Israel, there are almost no Jews in the Old City. They lived here until the Arab Revolt of 1939.
But just beyond the ancient walls is "new Akko," whose population is about 70% Jewish.
• Most of these Jews came to Israel from Northern Africa in the 1950s and 60s
• Today, Russians, French Jews, and North Indian Jews ("B’nai Menashe") are also settling in New Akko
Intrigued? Here's Some Advice
Akko asks for your time and attention: to climb the Citadel steps, to watch real belly-dancers, to hear Ottoman music, to get your fill of clean Mediterranean air at seaside cafés.
• Many tourists go to Akko for the day (or even a half-day}
• Consider staying longer, and luxuriating for a night or two at Efendi Palace Hotel, a former pasha’s mansion, and the only luxury boutique hotel in the Old City
Get Your Akko Bragging Rights
Akko -- unique, multicultural, ancient and flavorful -- is on the cusp of rediscovery. I was told by a resident, "Akko is a gem in the rough, just now being polished."
• Akko Visitors' Center's practical advice
Akko as the capital of the Holy Crusades >>Continue to 2 of 12 below.
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Akko, the Crusaders' Capital in the Holy Land
Akko Was the Crusaders' Base in the Holy Land
Then known as Acre, the city was the Crusaders' stronghold in the time of the Holy Crusades, the 1100s and 1200s.
- Knights -- well-funded aristocratic adventurers -- from all over Europe converged on Akko
- Several orders of knights built their own headquarters in Akko. These included the Malta-based Knights Templar and the Benedictine Knights Hospitaller, who cared for the sick and wounded
- Civilians followed them, and established neighborhoods: French, German, English, Castilian, Venetian, Pisan, Genovese, and so on
- Akko once again became a thriving port, as in ancient times
The Crusaders' City is the Underground City
Much of what the Crusaders built is still standing, yet most of it is now underground. Thanks to impeccable excavation and restoration done in the past 50 years, today's visitors can marvel at and tour Old Akko's subterranean Crusader City.
Top of Your Must-See-in-Akko List: The Crusaders' Fort
You can walk through the Crusader Fort, atop its ramparts, and through its imposing vaulted rooms.
- This vast stone structure was built over hundreds of years with locally quarried stone
- The Crusaders built their fort with cathedral-like high arches that come to a point; to me, they resembled hands clasped in prayer
- The Crusaders were defeated and driven out in 1291
- Their fortress was left in ruins until the end of the 1700s, when the Ottoman Turks took Akko and built on top of it
Beyond the fort's Central Courtyard are several halls.
- They include the Knights Hall, the Hall of Columns, the Hospitallers' Hall (shown), the Pillars Hall
- Your Crusader Fortress ticket includes the Turkish Bathhouse and the Templars Tunnel, one of the world's most incredible medieval experiences
- The Prisoners Hall is a riveting part of the fortress. In this medieval gaol, you can still see the square holes in the wall that once held heavy chains for prisoners' manacle
- Crusaders' Fortress website
See more of Prisoners' Hall >>Continue to 3 of 12 below.
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Akko's Underground Prison Museum
Right above and across from the Crusader complex, almost a part of it, is a notorious jail, underground. Today it is the...
Museum of the Underground Prisoners
Its backstory: In the first half of the 20th century, Palestine's British overlords repurposed the Citadel of Acre's fortress. They used it to imprison Jewish settlers who struggled against Britain to establish modern Israel.
- Jewish Underground freedom fighters (Hagana), and Arabs as well, were imprisoned here between 1920 and 1948
- Among the prisoners: Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinski and Moshe Dayan, the eye-patched soldier who aced the Six-Day War in 1967
- Eventually, Hagana's cause triumphed, and Israel was founded in 1949.
Now a museum, this intimidating stone edifice uses life-size metal statues to show what prison life was like.
- This is a dramatic place, especially the court-martial room and a wall of photos of those who died here, including an old, bearded Orthodox rabbi deemed a danger to the crown
- The Hanging Room is presented intact, complete with gallows
- The museum offers a well-produced video about the prison, including historic footage
- Museum of the Underground Prisoners website
See the dazzling synagogue where Akko's North African Jews worship >>Continue to 4 of 12 below.
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Akko's Tunisian Synagogue, Treasured for its Mosaics
Akko's Tunisian Synagogue: A Celebration of Jewish Pride
For Jewish visitors, Akko's most exciting place may be the modern Tunisian Synagogue, a mere seven-minute walk from the Old City in "new Akko." It was built in 1955, and is exuberant with Israeli pioneer spirit.
This place of worship, also known as Or Torah Synagogue or Synagogue of the Mosaics, is resplendent inside and out. Its floors, walls, and ceiling, even its dome, are composed of small stones from all over Israel, creating mosaics.
- These echo the ancient mosaic floors of 2,000-year-old synagogues excavated in Israel
The mosaics give information in pictures, just as ancient mosaics did. They tell stories of:
- Akko’s history
- Jewish history and holidays
- Bible tales
- Israel’s holy cities: Hebron, Safed, Tiberius, Jerusalem
- The coins of Israel…and much more.
The synagogue's silver doors protect the doors to the Ark, which shelter Torahs brought from Tunisia's Sephardic community.
- Those hand-hammered sterling doors celebrate Jewish history, such as the fight for statehood (whose heroes were imprisoned in Akko), and the European Jewish communities annihilated by the Nazis
Stained-glass windows spotlight the State of Israel, depicting the Knesset (senate) and the symbols of Israeli Army regiments.
When the synagogue was established, there were no Jews living in Akko, either the Old City or the New. Rabbi Zion Baddash, the synagogue’s leader, told me, “Today, 54,000 people live in Akko, and two-thirds are Jews with 100 synagogues.”
Now it's time to visit Akko's most renowned mosque >>Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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Al Jezzar Mosque in Akko, Israel
A Big-Influence Mosque for Tiny Akko
For Muslims, Al Jezzar Mosque is the #2 mosque in Israel, its biggest and most significant, after Al Aqsa on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
- Al Jezzar is set just across the street from the Crusader complex
- It is all original, and feels like a trip to another time
This graceful house of prayer was built in 1784 by the Ottoman Turkish pasha (governor) of Akko, Ahmed Ja’azaar or Al Jezzar. The mosque is a complex whose buildings are still actively used by Akko’s Muslim residents. They pray here five times a day, facing southeast toward Mecca.
- The mosque impresses with its marble walls, arabesque designs, arches, chandelier, and red carpet with a square for each worshipper
- The mosque shelters a treasure a hair believed to be from the beard of the Prophet Muhammad. It is taken out once a year, at Ramadan
Who Was Pasha Ahmed Al Jezzar?
- This powerful ruler of Akko was born a slave in Albania or Bosnia
- He escaped, converted to Islam, and began his career as a strongman for the powerful
- He was nicknamed "the butcher;" see a dramatic bio
- Al Jezzar, in all his fierceness, held off Napoleon's siege of Akko, shaming the French Emperor
- He built important structures in Akko; the mosque is the most outstanding
- He and his successor are entombed at the mosque
See the Turkish Bathhouse that Pasha Al Jezzar built >>Continue to 6 of 12 below.
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The Turkish Bathhouse & Akko Municipal Museum
TheTurkish Bathhouse and Akko's Municipal Museum...
...are one and the same.
Around the corner from Al Jezzar Mosque is the hammam, or Turkish bathhouse, from the 1780s. They were both built by an Ottoman ruler of Akko, Pasha Al Jezzar, as part of the Al Jezzar Mosque complex.
The bathhouse is no longer used, and is part of Akko's museum.
- The bathhouse was designed in flavorful High Ottoman style, with authentic rounded arches and circular rooms
- Bathing was done not in tubs or pools but with steam, a style still associated with Byzantine cultures
- For visitors' added visual excitement, statues of "bathers" lounge about, like hammam patrons of their era (see photo above)
- Here you’ll find exhibits of antiquities, a history of Akko, and changing art installations
- A multimedia sound-and-light show plays all day
- Bathhouse/Museum website
Pasha Al Jezzar also built Akko's khans, or caravanserais. Its what? Come see >>Continue to 7 of 12 below.
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Akko's Impressive Khans: Its Caravanserai Inns
You've heard the word caravanserai. Akko is a good place to find out what that is. As you might guess, caravanserai (singular = caravansary) comes from the word caravan.
- Caravan: originally a Persian word meaning "merchants' camel train"
- Caravans transported goods on Silk Road trading routes between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia
- Caravanserai: a gated compound that provided overnight accommodations for the caravan, with stables and locked storerooms below and guest rooms above. (Many historians consider them the first hotels.)
- From About's Archeology Expert, more about the caravansary
Who Built Akko's' Caravanserai?
Hoping to drum up international trade, Akko's most powerful Ottoman ruler, Pasha Al Jezzar, built caravanserai. Of Akko's several extant examples, Khan el-Umdan, Inn of the Pillars, is the most imposing.
- It was built in 1785 by the Pasha, who also constructed Al Jezzar Mosque and the Pasha Turkish Baths
- In this period, Akko was a busier seaport than an overland travel hub; the inn is beside the port
- Its august pillars are columns that were taken (or looted) from the ruins of Caesarea, the Roman conquerors' provincial capital in Judaea
- Khan al-Umdan's web page
The more you know about Akko, the more you love it. A virtual visit to its "people museum" >>Continue to 8 of 12 below.
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Akko's "Real People" Museum
Akko Ethnographic and Folklore Museum: Crash Course in Akko Culture
Also known as the Treasures in the Wall Museum, this museum features everyday objects in a new light. This is a museum that depicts not the movements of kings and Crusaders, but the ordinary people of Akko.
If you sometimes wonder how real people lived in a particular time and place, this museum will fascinate you. It will show you objects that Akko residents used every day,
- They encompass olden times (from heavily embroidered Arab dresses and Oriental slippers; Persian copper dishes, farm tools, a beautiful display of padlocks
- From more recent times: typewriters with Hebrew keys, metal fans, cooking implements
- Other areas of the museum recreate whole rooms (I loved the Palestine-era Tel Aviv pharmacy, including its prescription book)
- A room of lavish furniture made in Damascus, Syria of shells, bone, and wood (Damascus was a trading stop on the Silk Road, and renowned for its artisans)
- Museum website
A 300-year-old synagogue named for its rabbi, a Kabbalah master from Italy >>Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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Ramhal Synagogue: Honoring a Rabbi with a Kaballah Name
Ramhal Synagogue, a Magical Place
Close by the Central Market (souk) in the Old City is a tiny, unprepossessing synagogue that one would hardly notice. But Ramhal Synagogue is very special, particularly to followers of "Jewish magic": Kaballah.
The temple is named for Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzatto, better known as the Ramhal, a noted Kabbalist who came to Akko from Padua, Italy in 1743.
- The Reb's Kabbalistic name, Ramhal, comes from Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzatto. (Kabbalah wordplay figures in many rabbis' nicknames, like the Maharal of Prague, from Rabbi Judah Moreinu ha-Rav Loew) and Maimonides (Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon)
There is no women’s section; the ladies stayed outside on the street to hear the service. But Ramhal Synagogue no longer an active shul for either gender.
- Nevertheless, the rabbi is present on weekdays to talk to visitors
- And the temple's treasure is there to be admired: a Torah inscribed on deerskin by Ramhal in 1740 right here in Akko. It's on the bottom left of the photo above. (Here's a closeup)
- More about this unique Ramhal Synagogue
As atmospheric as Akko is, it's still a port where you can stroll the waterfront and savor wonderful seafood >>Continue to 10 of 12 below.
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The Port of Akko: Ancient Door to Asia, Now a Delicious Kitchen Door
Akko's Seaport, Crossroads of the Ancient World
Akko’s well-placed harbor, jutting into the Mediterranean, perches at the crossroads of Egypt to the Golan, Lebanon, Damascus, and beyond. This stategic setting ensured Akko's place in the history of every era.
Some famous historical figures who came to Akko by sea:
- Julius Caesar
- Mark Antony and his love, Queen Cleopatra
- Benjamin of Tudela, a Spanish-Jewish adventurer who visited and wrote about Asia a century before the better-known...
- ...Marco Polo, who began his overland journey to China here
- Richard the Lionhearted
- Francis (later St. Francis) of Assisi
- Jewish scholars including the Spaniards Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon) and Rabbi Moishe ben Nachman, in 1164 (his Kaballah name was Ramban, now the name of a wharf in Akko's port)
Sailing around Akko
- You can take a sail around the bay aboard the 200-seat touring boat, Queen of Acre
- Or you can rent the luxury yacht Manyana, which holds twelve adventurers
Lounging at Akko's Port
The port is filled with the sights and sounds of any Mediteranean port
- The water shades from seafoam-green to turquoise to sapphire-blue
- You can join the locals and stroll along the walls of waterfront promenade called Ha Hagana. Its ancient walls are still intact
Dining at the Port: Uri Buri Restaurant & More Greatness:
- Further along, at the western port, Uri Buri Restaurant is famous for its creative seafood and fish dishes. This 400-year-old eatery is now owned and run by an Israeli celebrity chef, Uri Jeremias, who also owns Akko's stylish Efendi Hotel
- A review of Uri Buri: No Frills, Fantastic Fish
- A few doors down is Endomela, a small shop that sells Uri Buri’s homemade ice cream. You can also catch a cappuccino or Turkish coffee (espresso) here
Akko's shopping is like nowhere else, with handcrafted things to wear, eat, and smoke >>Continue to 11 of 12 below.
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Akko's Souk Market & Turkish Bazaar
Akko's Souk, or Central Market: Just What You Hoped For
This genuine, intriguing, vibrant souk, or Middle Eastern open-air market, sells a bit of everything.
- Amongst other offerings, you can buy colorful spices; sesame and rosewater-scented candies; essential oils; beads and hamsa charms
- Check out the narghiles (hookah pipes) at the market. (I don't recommend bringing one home to an American airport, so have a smoke at a shop)
- Try on a fez (Buy one, and be mistaken for a jazz musician back home)
- Haggling is expected. Here on Luxury Travel, how to bargain at a market
Snack your Way through the Souk
- Hummus Said is considered one of the best in Israel. You'll have to line up to dine on the marquee item; if you don't want to wait, go around the back way for takeout
- At Kashash Brothers Sweets, try the baklava and kanafeh cheese pastry
Akko's Turkish Bazaar
This is not exactly a trip to the mall. The Turkish Bazaar's narrow stone passageways and small shops with wooden doors evoke the feeling of Jerusalem’s Old City souk. This bazaar, hundred of years old, offers souvenirs, rugs, chachkes of all kinds, and noshes.
- It is close to Akko's souk; you'll have to navigate a maze of streets, but look for the Turkish Bazaar signs
The bazaar's souvenirs tend to be trinkets. But the merchandise is better-quality at Galleria Suza, a gift shop with local crafts and Israeli products.
- More Akko markets and info
Stop for a nosh in the bazaar.
- Osama Dalal's tiny eatery in the covered passageway is good for small plates of local recipes
- Across the way, Kukushka offers savory tapas-size snacks. Try the fried calamari and seared shrimp, with beer from the Galilee
- More Akko dining tips in the markets and beyond
Has Akko worked its magic on you? Find out about visiting >>Continue to 12 of 12 below.
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Find Out More About Amazing Akko in Israel
Excited about Akko? Find out More
Here are resources to get you started on an Israel visit, with Akko a must-see.
• Created by a passionate local, Akkopedia
• Akko on Facebook
• More of Israel's ancient villages and sites
• Here on Luxury Travel, Akko's eye-popping history
• An Akko photo gallery
• And pictures on Pinterest
• Akko Tourism has already planned your walking tours
• An Akko private guide I recommend: Roni Miyara