Saturday, July 12, 2014

Akko: The Tale of a Duck, a Cat, a Donkey, Four Jackasses, Three Horses, and a Camel

Devil Duck that greeted
us upon arrival.  I almost
got back in the car. 
Our friend Susan stopped by all the way from Warsaw, Poland for a brief visit in mid-February.  While TJ and I toiled away the working days in the office, she had many glamourous adventures that we won't be talking about here.  She does have her own blog, but she updates less frequently than I do, so I won't be linking you there for more detailed retellings of her exploits.  What I will do is share with you the wonderful weekend adventures we had with her while we were off the clock.

On Saturday, February 15th, we set out early in an attempt to visit the Baha'i Gardens in Haifa.  It didn't work out as planned, so we quickly moved on to the next stop.  (I did visit the gardens at a later date, so fret not!  We will get there eventually.)

Acre (Hebrew), or Akko (Arabic), is one of the oldest continuously
Regal Rooster was indignified 
by this paparazzi attack.
inhabited cities in the world.  The town has a Hebrew and an Arabic name.  It's located in Israel and 75% of the population is Jewish.  Even so, most signs in town use the Arabic naming convention, so I'll go with that for the remainder of this post.

Upon arriving, we walked past a satanic looking duck and a regal-but-boring-by-comparison rooster and made our way to a ramshackle ticket counter where we were able to purchase a "Sites of Akko" combo pass that allowed us access to several important locales.  I only mention the poultry because I've been back through Akko several times, and not once have I seen additional signs of farm life.  They were just…there.  In front of a seafood restaurant.  Weird.

Akko has been inscribed upon the World Heritage List as a site deserving protection for the benefit of all humanity. (Gosh, I just love visiting these places!)  Akko is a historic walled port city with continuous settlement from the Phoenician period.  The remains of the Cursader town, dating from 1104 to 1291, lie almost intact, both above and below the street level.  The city today is characteristic of a fortified Ottoman town dating from the 18th and 19th Centuries, with typical urban components such as the Citadel, Mosques, and Baths.

The first "site of Akko" was the Templar Tunnel, which extends 350 meters from the Templars

fortress in the west to the city's port in the east.  The Templars were a military-monastic order who aided pilgrims coming from Europe to visit the holy sites of Israel.  They first settled in Jerusalem, on the Temple Mount, thus earning their name, "the Templars," guardians of the Temple.  The Templars relocated to Akko following Saladin's 1187 conquest of Jerusalem.

The tunnel was discovered in 1994 and, after thirteen years of excavation and renovation, was fully opened to the public in 2007.  Exhibitions are only offered in English and Hebrew, which means anyone not in the know has basically paid for the pleasure of walking down a stone hallway with a ceiling that constantly varies in height.  Still, a must see and worth the cost when absorbed into the combo pass.

It was a sporadically rainy day, and as the sky let loose once more, we found shelter within the Al-Jazzar Mosque (White Mosque).  It holds the distinction of being Israel's largest mosque outside of Jerusalem as well as the largest among mosques built in Israel during the Turkish period.  According to an inscription above the front door, the mosque was inaugurated in 1781 AD.  It was built over the remains of other Muslim and Christian houses of worship as well as the ruins of Crusader buildings.  Perpetually dominating Akko's skyline, the mosque originally held the moniker Masjid al-Anwar, or "the great mosque of lights."  It has also been called the White Mosque, though this is not due to its white exterior walls, but rather the silvery-white dome that once glittered in the distance.  That dome is now painted green, as seen in the photos.  As you can see below, the interior was gorgeous.

I've been in several mosques in this part of the world by now, but I'm always amazed by their beauty.    

I was also amazed that this particular mosque had a cat.  Yes, a cat.  Just wandering around inside with a confident air that would make you think he owned the place.  Maybe he did.  Who am I to judge business kitties like that?  He was adorable and against our better judgement we played with him for a ridiculously long period of time.  As the rain began to subside, we bid him adieu and dashed for a nearby restaurant where we indulged in falafel and shawarma…and yes, we washed the stray kitty cooties off first. 

The cat followed us.  We fed him bits of food, which probably means that the Mosque Cat has now become the Falafel Stand Cat.  Sorry, chef!

After lunch, we headed over to the Akko Citadel (The Knights' Halls).  Originally serving as the Knights Hospitaller Compound, these facilities extended over an area of approximately 8,300 square meters.  The Hospitallers were a military, monastic order that have devoted themselves to caring for the sick in the Holy Land as well as maintaining the safety of those that made pilgrimage here.  During the Siego of Acre in 1291, the city fell under Muslim control and the Crusaders fled to Cyprus.

Structural integrity became a growing concern in the early 1990s, with noticeable cracks appearing in the vaulted ceilings and causing soil an mortar to fall to the floor below.  Akko's Development Company proceeded with restoration and developed the underground complex for tourism throughout the 90s.

Standing in one of many galleries that
features plaques without exhibits.
There is much to be found online about both the history and current usage of these structures, but I will leave that to you to investigate.  My first hand account of things would be that this is a beautiful facility full of opportunity that is being squandered.  In renovating the facility, they have overdone it, replacing most, if not all, of the original flooring with modern tile work.  Even so, it would make a stunning backdrop for a history museum or an art gallery, but it instead appears as if the whole facility is mid-exhibt installation.  Perhaps that it true, but one could hope for a few permanent exhibits, right?  Much like the Tunnels before them, these Crusader halls were a fun place to visit…but they would be better if only there was a little more "oomph."

Our next stop was hands down the most amazing thing any of us had seen in a very long time, simply for its sheer ridiculousness.  Akko's Hamam  al-Basha Turkish Baths are that in name only.  The baths, which date back to the Ottoman period, have been converted into a museum that demonstrates through video, sculpture, and steam effects the role of the bathhouse in the city's daily life.  Basically, you do your regular daily activities, then go get naked, have a steam, and gossip about anybody and everybody that doesn't happen to be in the room at that time.  Naturally, we waited for the rest of the tour group to pass through, and then paused for shamelessly inappropriate photos.

Exiting the Baths, we came across a horrifying display while en route to our next destination.  Four jackasses spray painting a donkey.  Just for fun.  We yelled at them to stop.  We tried to find police (no luck, it was Shabbat).  I took photos of them in an effort to scare them away.  Ultimately they stopped.  And then…the donkey…followed them?!?!  Not sure why, but if it turned out that one of them owned the donkey, I hope his parents walloped him upside the head for his disgraceful behavior.  Here are there photos, on the off chance that someone that knows them would ever see this and chastise them or turn them into the police.

In hindsight, I look back on this particular event, and feel totally ashamed for another event.

Slowly recovering from our anger, we walked along the city walls, which afforded us beautiful views of the Mediterranean Sea and a camel.  Five months into our stay here, and I apparently hadn't gotten out much.  The only other camel I had seen was at a butcher shop…and that was just the head.  No.  Really.

Atop the city walls, we found more opportunities for immature photography...

…before finding ourselves at our final destination:  Akko's Treasures in the Wall Museum, which was developed through private collections to establish an ethnographic center that would illustrate and preserve the way of life that was prevalent in the area during the Ottoman period up through the founding of Israel.  The museum acquired its name by being built into the old fortified walls that once protected the city.   It was a neat little museum, featuring a hodgepodge collection of Judaica, pottery,  furniture, and various knick-knacks.  Several exhibits were set up that demonstrated what various workshops may have looked like.  Nothing of earth shattering historical significance was to be found, but it was nice to enter a museum that actually had content.  Here's a smattering of what was to be seen.

That concluded the day's adventure in Akko.  I've since been back a handful of times, whether just driving through, or stopping by for more exploring, or to grab a bite to eat.  It always proves to be quite an interesting experience, jackasses and all.  We will revisit the city at a later date, as our eventual trip to Haifa also led back here. 

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