I arrive at the visitors’ center in Acre and stand in the parking lot, blinking in the December sunlight and gazing up at the Hospitaller Knights’ fortress. A loud, winding call to prayer from a nearby mosque reminds me that in the end, the Crusaders passed into history – while Arabs and Jews are still living there, and indeed digging up their past.As I walk through the entrance gate, the massive stone compound opens up before me and layers of time begin to drop away. Sounds seem to ring between the alleys and stone halls – voices of weary pilgrims and knights conversing in Latin and French; solemn harmonies of the Catholic mass; merchants bawling out their wares; echoes of the gentry’s revels at feast and the wounded in the sick bay; and finally, battle cries.No one thought to hear them again. Yet these ancient voices have returned to life, whispering and lingering in the stones of the fortress, thanks to renovations done by the Old Acre Development Company and the Tourism Ministry.
In 2001, Acre’s Old City was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The present-day city is a mere 300 years old, but underneath the rubble and dust of 900 years, an entire Crusader metropolis is being uncovered.Winding alleys, an open-air market and in the fortress, vast hall after vast hall with vaulted ceilings, stand in restored dignity. Even the Crusader dungeon and privy have been uncovered and renovated for the public to visit.I visited the fortress several years ago, and while it was impressive then, the tour wasn’t nearly as rich as it is now. A state-of-the-art audiovisual guide system has been installed that makes the past come alive in an almost personal way. The headset offers the tour in 10 languages, each narrated by a native speaker with a pleasant voice. You walk through the site at your own pace, savoring the sensation of being almost in physical touch with the past. It’s like being whizzed back in time by a convenient magic carpet.Elka Gal, secretary of the Old Acre Development Company and manager of the site, kindly takes the time to escort me through the tour.“We’ve excavated 25,000 square meters of the Citadel and the streets around it since 1993,” she says. “The Crusaders were in the Holy Land for 200 years, and Acre was their capital. In 1187, Richard the Lionhearted lost the battle of Karnei Hittin and retreated from Jerusalem. In 1204 he established his headquarters in Acre, which became the capital of the Crusader kingdom.“What isn’t commonly known is that Acre was the capital city of the Western world in its day, with a population much larger than that of London or Paris. There’s always been a Jewish presence in Acre, too; at one time, the city hosted a yeshiva of 300 rabbis. From 300 BCE until today, there was always a Jewish community here.”Inside the exhibit, a little clay bread stamp with the imprint of a menorah affirms the presence of Jews in and near Acre in Byzantine times. But the Crusaders, the elite of Europe’s aristocracy and members of religious military orders, considered Jews and Muslims sinners to be exterminated. The knights rampaged in pogroms through Europe’s Jewish quarters as they rode to waiting ships. They were confident of spiritual redemption, in light of their lofty mission: to occupy the Holy Land and free it from the infidel.“All the nobility of the Crusader period visited Acre,” resumes Gal. “Whoever was important came to Acre, because it was the gateway to the Holy Land and the capital of the Crusader kingdom.”The Hospitaller Knights built the fortress to care for the thousands of much humbler people who streamed through the city on their way to Jerusalem and other holy places – Christian pilgrims seeking a place to lay their heads. The pilgrims found accommodation, and medical care if needed, in the Citadel, as the fortress is sometimes called. The monk-knights also organized pilgrim groups and accompanied them on their way, for the roads were dangerous.“What we did after the excavation, restoration and conservation of the site was to establish an experience of 5,000 years of history in Acre,” recounts Gal. “We decided to bring the history alive in those huge halls.Archeological artifacts from many historical periods are displayed at eye level. We found an entire sugar factory in the Citadel, with all the vessels and equipment they used; part of them are on display.“I’ve been here since 1982, so I remember what we didn’t have and what we have today – a great difference.”I will go on to view artifacts like an excavated Greek statue, Roman glassware and authentic dishes from which the Crusaders ate. The tour is enriched by screenings on the walls and even the floors, short segments of video explaining what you’re seeing, and the artisans market, where modern artisans mimic 12th-century arts.I don the headset and begin the tour. Led by Gal, I walk through the sunlit inner courtyard dotted with Ottoman cannonballs and a Gothic column or two.Entering the fortress via a downward stairway, we come through a tunnel-like passage. To my right, the wall is covered with a facsimile of a colorful medieval illustration.It shows knightly conquerors gesturing graciously towards a group of imploring locals. There are many such illustrations placed here and there along the passageways, and studying them brings close a vision of medieval battles, religious life and scenes from the everyday in the fortress.We enter one of the enormous halls, where lamps placed high against the walls at intervals create the effect of torchlight. Imposing chivalric banners stand like guards near each entrance. As I wander, electronic trigger points set into the floor activate the audio guide.It’s pleasantly different from standard museum audio guides in that the narration only starts when you arrive at a trigger point, so you’re never hurrying to catch up with a description of something two or three stops ahead.Surprises keep popping up: an animated cartoon projected onto the floor, more walls covered with medieval art illustrations, a video showing the knights in their alternate roles as monks gathering for Mass. You move on, and the wall behind the marble crypts of two Hospitaller knights lights up with an animated drawing of their medieval funeral, complete with a tumult of voices. In one place, you can see carefully preserved religious graffiti scratched onto the walls, evidence of ancient pilgrims’ religious joy.I linger, with the obliging Gal, over booths set up in the ancient artisans’ alley. There, a glassblower creates colorful glass works and a basket weaver gives a talk about the all-natural materials of her craft. A lady leather worker with a medieval leather apron and a thick braid over one shoulder crafts jewelry and handbags.The vendor of medicinal herbs sells handmade soaps and essential oils; he offers us tiny cups of strong black coffee, brewed there in his little space, and is very proud of his essential oil distiller, which he imported from Syria via Jordan. There are booths for a blacksmith, fabric weaver and potter, and more craftsmen who are traveling during this off-season.All the same, my personal favorite room is the impressive refectory, where huge square columns set in rows support an immensely high ceiling and perfect acoustics magnify the voice. It’s fun to sing a few bars there and hear your own voice come trilling back down.Gal says, “The site offers a knights’ banquet, where you can eat, drink and be entertained like the Crusaders did, except the food is kosher. There’s no cutlery; you drink soup from cups and eat with your hands. The waiters and waitresses are singers, dancers and acrobats, including fire acrobatics. There’s lots of wine, beer and cheering.“King Richard and his wife are hosting,” notes Gal with a smile. “At the end, you go to the moat and watch a tournament of jousting, with real horses and real knights trained by English experts.”The Crusader banquet is scheduled for the end of January.It looks like the Tourism Ministry is sparing no effort.For the disabled, stairs are circumvented by an alternative route. As renovations continue, more state-of-the-art audiovisual guides will be installed around the site, so the tour is continually enlarging and improving.The audiovisual system was installed by Acoustiguide; (09) 763-4417, www.acoustiguide.com.For information on tours and events at the Citadel: (04) 995-6706/7, www.akko.org.il.