I had won Cox & Kings’ Grab Your Dream Contest and the prize was an all-expenses paid trip to Israel. During this trip, I was also reviewing Canon 5D SR and EF 11-24mm f/4.0 USM. Here is just a small glimpse of this trip that appears in October 2015 Issue of India’s Premier Photography Magazine – Smart Photography.
Akko – A Medieval Mediterranean Gem
While we pride ourselves in having Varanasi as one of the oldest continually inhabited cities of the world, tiny Israel boasts of having one too – Akko (also called Acre). Here I am ignoring the oldest city, Jericho that has been in existing for the last 7000 years since it is in Palestine, which is technically a separate sovereign state.
While modern day Akko is a city with a population of mere 50,000, it dates back to about 3000 BCE, also known to us as the early Bronze Age. Over these 5000 years, it has always been considered an important city for trading with the West. The old city of Akko has been accorded UNESCO World Heritage site status for multiple reasons. These include (but are not limited to):
1. Though the city changed hands from Phoenicians to Assyrians, Egyptian Ptolemids, Syrian Seleucids, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Ottomans, French, British and Israelis, the ancient structures are quite well preserved even today
2. Despite an entire Muslim period township having been built on top, large parts of medieval fortress from the Crusader era both, above and beneath the street level are still almost intact
3. A fortress-like city wall facing the Mediterranean Sea dating back to about 1900 BCE still holds forth
Akko lies to the north of Tel Aviv. The drive up from Tel Aviv to Akko will take you past Mount Carmel, Caesarea Aqueduct (a raised canal) and Haifa, all of them significant in their own right, over the last 2000-year history of modern-day Israel.
As an ancient city, the place is milling with structures built by many faiths and religions and its population today is a mix of Jews, Arabs, Christians, Druze and Baha’is. Amongst the most notable of these structures are the City Walls, Jezzar Pasha Mosque, Hospitaller Fortress, Khan al-Umdan and Bahji Mansion (the holiest of Baha’i Shrines) that is just outside Akko.
Its history has been bloody, mainly because of its significance as a port for trade. From a flourishing, buzzing city to almost a ghost town to a small fishing village to the most important pilgrim spot for Baha’is, Akko has been through the seesaw of times.
Since it always had merchant visitors, it has many Caravanserais (inns) that were built for accommodating these business visitors; most notable was built in late 18th century CE. It has forty pillars and it is quite well preserved even now. Having so many pillars, it was rightly named Khan al-Umdan (Caravanserai of the pillars). It is so well preserved that a few years back, there was a proposal to convert it into a luxury resort for tourists.
The Hospitaller Fortress (generally called Crusader Fortress or Citadel) has been converted into an aesthetically pleasing museum that recounts the history of this town in medieval years from around 1000CE to around 1200CE. It was named Hospitaller Fortress as this was built as a hospital during the Crusades. There is also a tunnel inside called Templar’s Tunnel (remember the secret order of Knights Templars prominently portrayed by Dan Brown in ‘Da Vinci Code’?).
Even to this day, Akko is a port town. It is a big draw for tourists, regardless of their faith. While walking on the sea wall, the deep blue of Mediterranean, Haifa skyline, an old lighthouse and a string of seaside cafés create a delightful mélange of ancient, medieval and modern times.
While there, I also discovered that Akko also had its own share of adrenaline junkies. A few jet skis apart, there was a group of young men who were diving from the city wall into the sea beneath, a drop of about 20 metres or more. What made it risky was the profusion of rocks around the base of the wall and this necessitated them to come sprinting to make the jump, so as not to land on these rocks! During the few minutes I was there, I saw them gleefully repeating these jumps a few times over. They were clearly having fun doing this. And sure enough, I was clearly having fun shooting them!
During your visit to Israel, this may not be a town where you spend a night. But, at the same time, this also should not be a town that you give a miss. Its seaside is happening; the town is replete with heritage and old architectural marvels, and it is not too crowded. Do bookmark it for your Israel travel!