Always seeking to increase our knowledge of Israel's tourist sites, we tour guides take refresher tours from time to time. Recently, I joined a group of my colleagues on an in-depth tour of the famous ancient port city of Akko (also written Acre) on Israel's northern coast.
Akko is a gem of history, archaeology, and folklore from the ancient Egyptians to the Maccabees, Maimonides, Richard the Lionheart, Napoleon, the Jewish underground fighters, and the victorious Israeli army of 1948 — Akko has seen them all, and its winding old alleys and picturesque fishing port seem eager to tell their story.
It is highly recommended to visit the former Turkish/British prison fortress, where the Jewish underground fighters of the Irgun and Lechi were imprisoned and nine of them hung by the British occupation. This museum now offers a state-of-the-art series of presentations that — using the backdrop of the actual prison locations — offer a wonderfully dramatic reenactment and explanation of the events and the “zeitgeist.”
A hand full of determined young men and women, hunted down by the British empire and denounced by the Jewish establishment, expelled the British occupiers and won their people's independence for the first time in two thousand years.
Not a bad story line. If you are a moviegoer you may remember how in Exodus Paul Newman ran along the roofs of old Akko as he blew a hole in the prison walls.
But our story does not begin with Hollywood. Archaeology has uncovered remains from the times of Alexander the Great that he used Akko port to dislodge the Persians. Yonatan the Maccabee was murdered by his supposed Greek hosts and buried near the “land gate“ of Akko. Roman remains have been found from the time when the legions entered the land through Akko, on their way to suppressing the Jewish Great Revolt and eventually destroying the Temple in Jerusalem.
The most extensive unearthing is by far that of the powerful Crusader Kingdom. When the horde of French and Italians suddenly appeared on the horizon, it was too late for the Muslim defenders to put up a good enough fight. Akko was stormed by the knights of the Crusades in 1096. Muslims and Jews fought and fell before the Pope's sword. The Land was occupied by the brutal guardians of Christendom.
When Saladin finally defeated the Crusades, Richard the Lionheart was able to hang on to the port city of Akko for another fifty years until the last Crusader fled and set sail.
It is this Crusader capital city that is continually being excavated, unearthing revelations. As later Mamluk and Ottoman residents built their structures upon the Crusader ruins, the latter was allowed to sleep in the dust of time undisturbed until very recently.
Hall after hall, secret escape tunnels, knights’ grand dining rooms — all as they looked when the swords and shields were gashing and pounding and when the ale freely flowed.
With Saladin's ultimate victory over the western invaders, some famous Jewish luminaries came from the corners of the diaspora to make Akko their home. Rabbi Yechiel of Paris and a few hundred of the great Tosafists (ba'ale hatosafot) set up a yeshiva in Akko.
Eventually, the great Ramban (Nachmanides) who fled Spain became the head of the Torah school there. Rambam (Maimonides) entered the land of Israel through Akko port, and the spot where he set foot is named after him.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov actually found himself in Akko at a very historic moment. He had realized his dream and visited the Holy Land and Jerusalem. He was ready to depart from Akko port when Napoleon began his famous siege of the city. He escaped on a Muslim warship and was given a gun and forced to help in the battle against the French. This was not part of his original itinerary.
When Napoleon made his bid for Middle East conquest he tried to sway the Turkish governor's key Jewish adviser to join him. He issued the equivalent of the French ”Balfour Declaration,” in which he acknowledged the Jewish longing for their land and agreed it was correct to restore it to them after their long-suffering and their dream to come home. Napoleon promised to make it happen if he won. He would do and say anything to conquer Akko.
And so he contacted Chaim Farchi. Farchi was the chief advisor to the Muslim ruler of Akko, who was known as al-Jazzar — “the Butcher.” But the adviser would not betray his master, the Butcher. Napoleon lost the battle and Chaim Farchi was eventually executed by the Butcher's heir. So much for loyalty. What if Napoleon had indeed won?
The Ramchal and the Ohr Hachaim, two very famous Jewish scholars, made Akko their home in the eighteenth century. The synagogue of the Ramchal is a lone Jewish outpost in the otherwise Arab Old City today — a visit is strongly recommended.
In modern times, the Arabs launched one of their rounds of pogroms in 1936 as the British looked on, as usual. Akko's Jews fled, not to return until 1948 when the port city was liberated by the Israeli army as it defied the Arab attempt to wipe out the newborn Jewish state.
Many of Akko's Arabs fled the fighting. The smarter ones remained to become citizens of the new Jewish state. They are the envy of those who fled. Jews who had been expelled from their homes in Arab lands found a place to live in some of the vacant Arab properties.
In recent years, the Arab population has been expanding into Jewish neighborhoods and there have been Arab riots and intimidation. Young national-religious idealist Jews have moved into the "mixed" city in an attempt to stem the tide of Jewish flight.
On our tour, our Akko city employee told us that the forty artistic signs placed above Jewish landmarks in the old city were all torn down by the local branch of the “Muslim Movement in the Galilee.” They were replaced with verses of the Koran. The Koranic verses are never disturbed. It appears the Akko authorities do not want to anger the Arab population.
The latest battle for the city is being fought in real estate offices. I had occasion to look at a number of buildings in the “changing” former solid Jewish areas. These Jews fled Arabs in the old country and are now doing the same in the “new country.” It was an eerie sight to see many apartments with the mezuzah torn off the doorposts and pictures of Mecca in its place.
No storming of the walls or cannon fire is being used to conquer Akko today. It is in the real estate offices where the silent victory or defeat is determined. I was told by real estate agents that Jews sell to anyone in their desire to flee the “changing neighborhood.” Arabs never sell to Jews — that would be dangerous if not fatal for them.
In a way, Akko is a microcosm of Israel today. Deep Jewish roots with aggressive weeds encroaching. Where is the gardener?
Contact Shalom Pollack, veteran licensed tour guide, for upcoming tours at Shalom Pollack Tours: Personalized Tours in Israel. Join him Tuesday, December 17 for a unique tour of Masada. For information and details of upcoming tours, email him here. Click here to read more of this writer’s work in The Jerusalem Herald.