Thursday, 5 April 2012

A day in Akko

Akko (or Acre as its sometimes called), is a small city just 30 minutes train ride away from Haifa. I made my second visit there yesterday after a gap of about five years. The city is little different to the way it was then, but I discovered some places I'd missed before and revisited some favourites.

There are two Akko's - the old city and the "new" city. The old city is where everyone makes for and this is because of its well deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The city boats a number of small but bustling khans where you can buy just about any food stuffs, but especially herbs and spices, fruit, fish, meat and brightly coloured sweets. 

There are also many excellent and cheap cafes tucked away in the khans selling probably the best hummus in northern Israel. Humous Said is the one to go for - I confess I went to a more touristy cafe - Abu George, as there was a big queue at Said's and I was too hungry to wait. However, Abu George was also very good - the foul (a type of bean, pronounced "full" so skip the jokes) topped hummus with a couple of warm pitas hit the spot and as many of the Akko cafe owners do, George throws in a free Arabic (or Turkish if you prefer) coffee if you buy a meal here. Abu George is one of the many small restaurants adjacent to the Al-Jazzar mosque. It is interesting to watch how one restaurant fills up while the others are empty or sparsely occupied and then a different one fills up whilst the busy one empties out - for no obvious reason!

The Jezzar Pasha mosque is one of the jewels in Akko's crown. Ahmed al Jezzar Pasha was the Ottoman governor of Akko in the late 18th century. He was a bit of a card, routinely mutilating his subjects and his retinue, apparently to test their loyalty, even going so far as to have them kill members of their family to prove their devotion to him. History remembers him for preventing Napoleon from taking the city in 1799, holding out against the combined forces of the French and the English. He died in 1804 and one can assume there were some fairly relieved mourners at his funeral.

Construction of the mosque began in 1781and it is still in use for prayers. Anyone can visit for a small charge (10 shekels yesterday - about two pounds). If you arrive during prayers you will have to wait for them to finish before you can enter, but this normally only  takes about 20 minutes, so not too long. The mosque is entered by a stone staircase which gives onto an open courtyard with a small fountain, decorative gardens and an arcaded area which can be used for prayers during hot weather. The building is extremely striking with its green domes which dominate the old city, its many coloured ceramic facade and its cool, light interior. Visitors can go into the first part of the prayer hall, see in and take pictures, but you must remove your shoes before entering, dress modestly and in the case of women, cover your head.

Interior, Ahmed al Jezzar Pasha mosque
Just around the corner from the mosque is another link with Al Jezzar - the Turkish bath or hamam, which forms part of the Municipal Museum. The hamam was built as part of the mosque complex in the 1780's and is no longer used for its original purpose. Visitors can see the three rooms built on the Roman model of the dressing room which served a social function and where tea and food could be taken, leading to the tepidarium with warm steam and finally the caldarium with hot steam.

Visitors are treated (or subjected depending on your taste) to an audio-visual presentation with a re-enactment of the days of "the last attendant". Very kitsch but perhaps a good way of introducing visitors to the social aspects of the hamam as well as the more technical side of things. The hamam has been lovingly restored with highlights being the skylights in the dome of the first two rooms which let in rays of light from outside, and the wonderful ceramic tiles that cover parts of the walls throughout the museum. You can buy a combination ticket for the hamam and several of the other sites in the city, but entrance to most places is very cheap.

There has been a Jewish presence in Akko for a very long time - the city is mentioned as part of King David's realm and was given to Hiram, King of Tyre, by King Solomon as a gift for his help in building the Temple. Crusaders took and held the city in 1104, renaming it Saint Jean d'Acre, until it fell to the Mamluks in the 13th century. There are still echoes of this period with St. John's Church serving the local Arab Christian community and it is possible to visit the Crusader tunnel linking the port with the Citadel.

Then followed a period of decline until 1749 when Bedouin Sheik Daher el-Omar took the city and commenced a period of redevelopment that reached its zenith under our old friend Al-Jezzar. The city thrived as an important port until the advent of the steamship and more modern naval technology which necessitated moving most of its business to the larger port at nearby Haifa.

There are two very different synagogues in the city - both well worth a visit. The Ramchal synagogue can be found at the end of a very narrow alley in the old city. It is named for Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, a rabbi and kabbalist who came to Akko with his family in 1743. This Italian rabbi also authored the "Messilat Yesharim", or Path of the Just. The then Jewish community lost its synagogue to Dahar el-Omar who converted it to a mosque, giving the small, plain building that is now the Ramchal as compensation. Luzzatto turned it into a synagogue and services continue today. It is a tiny building but with a very warm and welcoming atmosphere. The shammes (a bit more than a caretaker), Eliyahu is very friendly and welcomes visitors but doesn't speak English so brush up on your Hebrew if you want to ask questions.

Entrance, the Ramchal synagogue
The second synagogue couldn't be more different. Built only in 1965, the Tunisian  synagogue is located in the new city and occupies four floors of a stunning building. All four stories are decorated internally and externally with colourful mosaics from Kibbutz Eilon. The mosaics together with the stained glass windows show scenes from Jewish history, ranging from Biblical times to today, as well as flora and fauna of Eretz Israel. There are some oddities too - the leaning tower of Pisa is depicted on one of the staircases!

It wasn't so easy to visit the Tunisian synagogue. The tourist information staff in the old city provided me with the contact number of a woman called Yafah (meaning beautiful). She helpfully told me I could visit at 5pm. By 5.30 no one had arrived and the gate was locked. I called her again and a very flustered Yafah said she would come herself, immediately.

Sadly, I never did get to see Yafah, but at 5.45 an elderly man turned up with a key and let me in. Although he didn't say, I am fairly certain he was the shammes. Like Eliyahu he was very friendly and gave me the run of the synagogue and told me to take as many photographs as I wanted. We spoke Hebrew with each other and I also found myself speaking in French when Henri, a Parisian whose daughter lives in Akko arrived to visit. Henri was extremely friendly and gave me a lift to the station after my visit so that I could catch my train back to Haifa.

My experience in visiting the Tunisian synagogue reminded me of everything I love about travel - the sense of achievement in finally getting into a building you really want to see (sometimes against the odds!), working with whatever words in whatever languages you have to make yourself understood and also those chance meetings with people from sometimes very different backgrounds and their unsolicited acts of kindness.

Detail, Tunisian synagogue
Perhaps the most important Jewish site in Akko is a building that is not "Jewish" at all. It is the Akko fortress which during the British Mandate period served as the largest prison in northern Israel. It was here  that many members of the various underground movements - the Haganah, the Irgun and the Lehi were held. It was from here that one of the most episodes of the Mandate period took place in May 1947 when 251 prisoners managed to escape with the help of the Irgun. The escape is featured in the film Exodus.

However, not all prisoners were so lucky and eight Irgun men were hung here by the British in the last ten years of the Mandate. Most of them were in their early 20's. It is possible to visit the hanging room. I could not bring myself to visit on this occasion having been before.

Finally, no visit to Akko is complete without walking along the seaside promenade which includes the remaining ramparts that made the city difficult to attack in days gone by. The breeze and the smell of the sea are great for cooling down after having strolled in Akko's hot narrow streets. Also great for cooling down is Endomela, a new home made ice cream shop, linked to the well know restaurant, Uri Buri. The ice cream comes in many tempting flavours...and the coffee is good too! 

For more information on places to visit in Akko go to
For more pictures of Akko, view my flickr account at

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