10 November 2007

Akko - 'Akká - Acre - Saint-Jean-d'Acre

Although we've been here for over a year and a half now, we hadn't really taken the time to get to know the walled city north of the bay of Haifa. This is due in part to the fact that whenever we take the half-hour ride north around the bay, we are generally bound for the holiest spot for Baha'is, the Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh, just beyond Acre, so this historic, unique and vibrant Arab town rather misses out on the attention it deserves.

Of course, I am speaking only for us two - many of our friends have been often, and our failure to go until today may simply be down to nothing more than a penchant for Saturday morning lethargy.

Though a mere 15 miles from Haifa and surrounded by Israeli new towns, to enter Acre is to leave the Jewish Isreal behind and submerge oneself in an Arab world; and not a solely Muslim one. We are assured by our sherut (minibus service taxi) driver that Christian and Muslim Arabs get on well together, and this is evidenced by the fact that he, a Muslim, is driving with the taxi firm of a very reputable local Christian.

Akko to the Jews, 'Akká to the Arabs, Acre in English, and Saint-Jean-d'Acre to the crusaders, this city has one of the longest histories in the region. The pleasant, waterfront restaurant where we take our lunch bears the settlement's famous Alexandrian Greek name: Ptolomais. But it first appears even earlier in history, 1500 B.C., listed as Aak by the Egyptians in tribute lists.

Over the centuries it played host to the struggles between various would-be occupiers of this region, until it became, for four hundred years, a quiet backwater of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, famous only for being the remotest prison available to which to send the worst of the Empire's criminals, and for the foul stench that pervaded it. It was to 'Akká as prison-city that Bahá'u'lláh was sent in 1868, in the Ottoman and Qájár Persian authorities' (clearly vain) hope that he would perish unremembered and the teachings he espoused would lose their influence and fade away.

So what should you see here? Well, the Turkish baths offer a rather short but atmospheric and informative trip back to vibrant eighteenth- and nineteenth-century 'Akká social life (free entry, but don't forget a wallet full of shekels and some valid ID for the mandatory headsets); the al-Jazzar Mosque is certainly worth a visit and cheap at a quarter of the price of the baths; and there's the Ottoman citadel--originally built as a Crusader fortress--where Baháh'u'lláh was imprisoned for two years upon his arrival in Acre, and Jewish Zionist resistence fighters were held and executed during the British mandate period. Other significant excavation work is now taking place there on earlier periods in the complex's history.