By Renée S. Gordon
Sixteen miles north of Haifa, via a coastal road, sits Acre (Akko), one of Israel’s most storied sites. The earliest documented reference to the city is found in the chronicles of Pharaoh Thutmoses III more than 3500 years ago. It was part of the realm of King David, was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., was visited by St. Paul (Acts 21:7), and Julius Caesar stopped there in 48 B.C. In 1104, the Crusaders took the town from the Arabs, established it as their regional headquarters and renamed it St. Jean d’Acre.
The Crusaders held the city until 1187 when Saladin took it. It was retaken by Richard the Lion-Hearted and was held until conquered by the Mamelukes in the 1200s. Acre’s importance declined until it was conquered in 1749 by Bedouin Sheik Daher el-Omar. After the sheik’s murder in 1775, Ahmed Jezzar Pasha, who rebuilt it, ruled the city and it is many structures that we see today.
Old Acre was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2001 based on its history as a port town and its historic structures and medieval street plan. Visitors should plan to spend several hours exploring the winding streets of Old Acre and the best place to begin is with a stop at the Mosque of Ahmed Jezzar Pasha.
The mosque compound was constructed in 1781 and is a prime example of Ottoman Turkish architecture and the smooth combination of sacred and secular buildings that characterized the mosque complex. The compound, with the mosque as its focal point, included shops that helped fund the mosque, institutions for the maintenance of the poor, a Turkish bath, library and school. Of special note are the mihrab (prayer niche), mimber (pulpit) and the tombs of Pashas Ahmed Jezzar and Suleman.
Near the mosque is the entrance to the Subterranean Crusader City built above Roman ruins. The tour route takes you through a courtyard with 125-ft. walls, Ottoman Gate, the Knights? Hall and the Grand Maneir and the Knights? Dining Hall. Though the rooms are unfurnished it is easy to imagine them filled with the raucous voices of warriors.
The Municipal Museum is housed inside the 1780 Hammam El-Basha, the Turkish Bath. A visit to this location is an absolute must. There are a series of small displays but the real treat here begins in the bath itself. This 35-minute tour starts in the lobby where you are seated and a video, complete with special effects, provides background on the Ottoman history and the importance of the baths as part of the mosque complex.
The Turkish Bath was built on the Roman plan with 3 main rooms. It was important to the community and serviced the people from the cradle to the grave. As you proceed you pass a number of small rooms where doctors, barbers, etc., plied their trade. Larger rooms were used for bridal and bachelor parties and women gave birth here. The tepidarium and the caldarium provided warm and hot steam. The building is ornately lovely, with glass skylights, colorful tiles, scrollwork and marble.
Each location has life-sized figures in the act of using the facilities and we are privy to their conversations. From Hammam El-Basha, it is a short walk to Acre’s bazaar where you can top off your visit by purchasing great souvenirs. Along the Mediterranean Seacoast, 23-miles south of Haifa is one of Israel’s premier sites. Caesarea’s origins can be traced to Straton’s Tower, a Hellenistic era Phoenician port. The Romans annexed the city in 63 B.C. and in 22 B.C., King Herod the Great undertook the task of creating a port that would be the envy of the world. He named this fantastic city in honor of Caesar Augustus.
The city served as the Roman administrative center in Israel and plays a central role in the life of Paul the apostle. Here he was tried for heresy, (Acts 21:8-14, 25 and 26.)
Caesarea’s archeological remains are within a two-mile area by the sea and are representative of the Romans, Byzantines and Crusaders. An outstanding orientation film provides a good overview prior to your self-guided tour. If you have limited time, there are three sites that are not to be missed.
Herod’s Port of Sebastos was completed in 10 B.C. and was much larger than it is today. Once it featured warehouses, two towers, huge sculptures and homes. The towers also served as anchors for a chain that could be strung across the harbor to prevent entry. Paul was sent to Rome to stand trial from Sebastos.
The 20,000 seat Hippodrome was 80-ft. by 960-ft. and was ornamented with statues brought from around the known world. This was the scene of chariot races and games as well as the 60 B.C. massacre of nearly 2,000 Jews. It was this act that helped lead to the fateful stand of the Jews at Masada in the 70s A.D.
The Roman Theater on the site has been meticulously restored. It seats 5,000 and is acoustically outstanding. www.caesarea.com
Masada! After Jerusalem this is probably the most recognized site in the country. It stands in the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea, a symbol of resistance for more than 2,000 years. It was the site of the last stand of the Jews against the Romans during the Great Revolt and was inscribed as a WHS in 2001.
King Herod constructed a fortress and palace complex on the mountaintop circa 40 A.D. A small Roman force, until taken over by Jewish revolutionaries in 66 A.D., manned it. In 70 A.D., 10,000 Roman soldiers began a yearlong siege against 1200 men, women and children on Masada. After the Romans crashed the ramparts they decided to wait until dawn to launch a final attack. When they entered the fortress in the morning they discovered all the defenders had committed suicide.
Visitors have two options for reaching the fortress, a cable car or the Snake Path hiking trail. Highlights of the tour are the 90-ft. Northern Palace built on three rock terraces, the Western Palace complete with mosaics, white plaster walls and throne room and Rebel houses used by the resistors. Remains reveal that the defense wall was 4,232-ft. long, had 27 towers and contained 70 rooms and three gates.
A museum at the base displays artifacts collected at the location including pottery shards, vessels, cosmetics, scrolls, amphora (a jar with two handles) and sandals. Displays are thematic and interpret the stories of Herod, the Rebels, and the Roman Army.
Ein Gedi is mentioned in the Song of Solomon, “My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphor from the vineyards of Ein Gedi,” and the Nature Reserve of Kibbutz Ein Gedi evokes the ancient village. The kibbutz was founded in the oasis in 1949 and provides access to a 300-ft. waterfall, ruins of ancient Ein Gedi and a garden that features 800 plants and flowers from around the globe. A centerpiece of the garden is the Obama Baobab Tree. Though planted in 1961 this tall, strong tree is named after President Obama because it grew fast, strong and sturdy. Kibbutz Ein Gedi’s oasis hotel is an outstanding alternative to your average accommodations. It offers spa services, Dead Sea panoramas and proximity to attractions. www.ein-gedi.co.il
The Dead Sea, 10-miles from Ein Gedi, is 1312-ft. below sea level, the lowest point on earth. Its high salinity of the water makes it impossible to sink and the water has long been known for its healthy properties. Cleopatra considered it her personal spa, she allowed no one else to enter the area and use the water, and evidently it worked.
Numerous hotels and restaurants have been built in the area. In 2003, the White City of Tel Aviv was listed as a WHS based on its proliferation of Bauhaus architecture. There are more than 2,000 such structures with 200 meeting all of the qualifications.
In the 20s and 30s German-Jewish architects relocated from Germany to Palestine and constructed buildings in the International or Bauhaus Style. The style is characterized by a white box-like structure with small windows, glass-brick towers and terraces.
Tel Aviv was established in 1909 on 32-acres as a Jewish suburb of the Arab city Jaffa. Jaffa dates back to Biblical times and was the port where the cedars of Lebanon were off-loaded for the construction of Solomon’s Temple. Greek legend has it that this was also where Andromeda was chained to the rock as witnessed in the first version of “Clash of the Titans.” Tours of Tel Aviv-Jaffa are available daily. www.telavivcity.com
We are only 36-miles from Jerusalem and next week we enter the gates of the “Golden City.” Join me as we complete our journey in part three.
I wish you smooth and peaceful travels!
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