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A unique meeting place of art and religion, boasting the remnants of various cultures, it was one of the most important cities in ancient times
Tour guide Dudu Katzin has been pounding the narrow alleyways and sea walls of Acre for more than three decades. The enthusiastic Hebrew- and English-speaking guide lovingly explains the ins and outs of this city by the sea whose fascinating history offers a rare mix of East and West.
With its authentic sites of bygone eras, Acre was inscribed as a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2001. A unique meeting place of art and religion, boasting the remnants of various cultures, it was one of the most important cities in ancient times. Many a ruler, warrior, builder and glorifier trod the narrow alleyways within the walls of the city. They built castles, fortifications and houses of worship that still tell tales of those who came and went, including Canaanites, Jews, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Mamelukes and, in latter times, Turks and British.
A tour of Acre with Katzin, a man of modern times who most days talks only of the past, turns into an exciting journey to ancient places and personas, known and unknown.
One of his many stories relates to when the 1991 film Not without My Daughter (about an American woman's attempt to escape post-Islamic-revolution Iran, starring Sally Field) was shot in town. He points to a long line of stone arches close to the green-domed El Jazzar mosque that was used for the Persian market scene in the film.
"I remember one scene where they somehow overlooked a certificate of the Israel Soldier's Welfare Association hanging on the wall," says Katzin with a broad smile. In another scene, he adds, a bus from the Dan bus company passes across the screen.
There is definitely a new atmosphere to Old Acre. The Ministry of Tourism has made tremendous efforts over the past few years to renovate many of the historic buildings and reinforce some of the newer ones that had fallen into neglect and looked ready to crumble with the next spurt of spray coming over the sea walls.
Katzin explains that most of the Arab residents within Old Acre hail from the Haifa area. The original occupants of the crowded abodes left for Lebanon during the War of Independence; others, having fled Haifa with the intention of also going to Lebanon, stopped in Acre and moved into the vacated homes of their absent brethren, remaining there until this day.
"The houses are owned by a government agency. They were the property of absentee owners and therefore taken over by the state," he explains. In latter years, the homes - clusters of unplanned extensions upon extensions - became not only uglier but also dangerous to all who lived in them or passed in the streets below.
"In a concerted effort, the local authorities created groups of workmen from within the community itself who go from house to house making repairs and putting things in order. The results are plain to see."
The once-gray square alongside the entrance to the recently renovated and reopened Knights Halls has been spruced up. An until-recently closed area tucked under the ominous walls of the ancient city has been turned into the underground complex's main entrance. An enchanting small garden - which Katzin relates was developed by the British mandatory forces in Palestine - now forms the entrance area behind a huge door that used to be always locked.
Walking through what was a permanently locked door is like entering a Dickensian secret garden. Visitors are dwarfed by gigantic ficus trees almost as tall as the walls, offering some shade from the burning sun. Then they enter a small air-conditioned high-ceilinged hall to see a short audio presentation about Old Acre.
Another feature to be found in Acre is a site entitled "The Story of the Last Bath Attendant" at the Al Basha Hammam (Turkish bath) built by Jazzar Pasha, governor of Acre in the late 18th century, who turned the small fishing village into a teeming harbor city and major trade and cultural center. The beautiful and fascinating hammam comes to life through an imaginary story based on a line of bath attendants that tell the history of Acre during the Ottoman period.
History takes on a somewhat luscious dimension when seen through the eyes of the bath attendant. Turkish baths were for more than religious purification, serving as a social center where people met for rest, entertainment and banquets. Here was the place where the wealthy and prominent as well as common folk met. A plot or two was probably hatched in the Hammam's steamy rooms, and it's easy to let your imagination run away when basking in the exotic aura of the building.
Walking through a narrow alleyway, Katzin points out a rainbow-shaped row of stones at ankle level on one of the alley walls.
"UNESCO recognized the importance of Acre not only because of what can be seen here but also because of what is obviously underground," he explains, elaborating on the stones - the top portion of an arch.
Much of what is underground has not been dug out for the simple reason that the buildings above might collapse if the earth underneath is disturbed. Katzin says that quite a lot has been uncovered, although not open yet to the general public.
What has opened is the Templers' Tunnel. The Templers were a military-monastic order that took care, on behalf of the Pope, of pilgrims who came from Europe to the Holy Land.
They first settled on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem - hence the name Templers, the guards of the Temple - but after the conquest of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187 they settled in Acre. During the second half of the 12th century, members of the order began to build their quarter in the southwest part of the city.
The tunnel was discovered by chance in 1994 during repairs on a sewage pipe running under nearby homes. The lower section of the tunnel is hewn out of natural rock, the upper part built of cut stones and covered by an arch. The tunnel leads 350 meters from the Templer fortress in the west to the port in the east, and apparently served as a strategic subterranean passageway. There are plans for continuing the excavation right up to the palace itself - once a way can be found to prevent the modern homes above from collapsing to the same ground that withholds many more secrets of a glorious past.