Sitting on the shores of the Mediterranean at the northern extremity of Haifa Bay, Old Acre is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. It is its location that helped it to remain populated since the middle Bronze Age, since 4,000 years ago. Today, Old Acre’s population is nearing 50,000 people who make it a diverse community. Christians, Druses, Jews, Muslims, and the Baha’is coexist in this city that is the holiest in the Baha’i faith. Anyone visiting Old Acre and Haifa will notice that coexistence and cultural diversity is something that both cities share in common.
Just before getting to Old Acre, despite the overcast skies, I made a brief stop in Haifa overlooking the Baha’i Gardens. One of the most visited sites in the Middle East, the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa and Acre are breathtaking. Geometric shapes, a long staircase with nineteen terraces, and the golden domed Shrine of the Bab, are stunning features of the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa. The geometrical composition with natural elements and shapes create an ambiance of pure beauty, peace, and tranquility.
Old Acre, or Akko is also known as Akka, and it is referenced to in Phoenician and biblical texts with slight variations of the word. More importantly, throughout its long existence and its history, Akko was conquered and dominated by different armies that contributed to shaping its cultural heritage. It was, however, the Ottoman Turkish empire that perhaps left a visible mark in the city. Certainly, it can be seen in the skyline of the city and its minarets.
Once called the Mosque of Lights, the Al-Jazzar Mosque, known in Arabic as Jama El-Basha (the Great Pasha’s Mosque), is among the largest mosques built by the Turkish empire in Israel. Completed in 1781, in the early years of the rule of Pasha Al-Jazzar, it was built in the Ottoman Turkish style and it is the largest mosque outside of Jerusalem. It is the third largest mosque in Israel and the Palestinian territories after Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem and the Ibrahim Mosque (Tomb of the Patriarchs) in Hebron.
Ahmad Pasha Al-Jazzar was nicknamed “the Butcher” thanks to his cruelty. As the governor of the provinces of Sidon and Damascus, Al-Jazzar was based in Akko where he left his mark stamped by three things he was famous for. Not only he was renowned by his use of cruel force, but by his impressive public works and for defeating Napoleon during the Siege of Acre in 1799. Along with his adopted son and successor Suleyman, Al-Jazzar’s resting place is at the small twin-domed building at the base of the minaret of the Mosque of Lights renamed Al-Jazzar Mosque in his honor.
The region of Haifa and Acre is known for its diverse population peaceful coexistence. Built on the slopes of Mount Carmel, which according to tradition was the home of prophet Elijah, Haifa is a destination for Christian, Jews, and Muslim pilgrims who venerate the prophet. Moreover, the fact that the City of Peaceful Coexistence is home to the Baha’i who are persecuted in most countries of the Middle East speaks volume about its tolerant society. Interfaith initiatives along with arts and sports events that encourage peaceful coexistence, have earned Haifa and its neighboring Acre and the surrounding region the reputation of all working together to foster and maintain peace.
As the popular Israeli saying goes, “In Jerusalem people pray, in Haifa they work, in Tel Aviv they have fun.”
And it does not take long for a visitor to notice the ‘relaxed’ atmosphere on the streets of Haifa and Old Acre. Walking on streets, cafes, the market, and street vendors interactions with locals and tourists alike immediately gives a sense of calmness and stability. Years ago I visited Haifa for the first time, and after my recent visit to Acre, I have added a longer visit to Haifa to my bucket list.
After visiting Al-Jazzar Mosque, walking through the souk and buying more than I needed sweets from a street vendor and savoring a large cup of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, it was now time to visit the Knights Hall.
Visiting the Knights’ Hall complex or the Citadel is quite moving and exposes the magnificence of Old Acre’s two golden ages: the first in the thirteenth century, and the second in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Excavations in the 1950’s and 1960’s exposed remains from the Hellenistic Period (300-63 BC), from the Early Arab Period (638-1099 AD), from the Crusaders Period (1104-1291 AD), and most extensively from the thirteenth century.
Today tourists enjoy the site thanks to the extensive restoration work that took place in the 1990’s. The Knights’ Hall, which served as the Knights Hospitaller Compound, is a testament to the Crusaders Period in Old Acre.
The capital of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Old Acre saw the destruction of the Crusaders compound during the Mamluk period (1291-1517 AD). In the late Ottoman Period (1750-1918 AD), the citadel was built on the ruins of the Crusaders’ fortress structures as part of the city’s defense. Later on, during the British Mandate Period (1918-1948 AD), serving as the main prison in northern Israel, the site was used to hold the Jewish Zionist resistance activists prisoners.