Acre is hungry for another crusade, this time against urban decay

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The northern city’s rich heritage is blighted by neglect, casting a shadow on its many gems, including the Turkish bath, Crusader citadel and knights’ dining hall.

Acre is a dreamy, ancient Mediterranean seaside resort. It goes back millennia, which you can see on the spot.

“There are very few cities like Acre – it has a lot of history, a mixture of religions and unusual sites that you can weave a good story around,” says Kawas, manager of the new hostel at the entrance to Acre’s Old City.But Acre is, in many respects, a place that has failed to realize its enormous tourism potential.

In 2001, Acre and Masada became the first two places in Israel to be declared UNESCO World Heritage sites. But there is no comparison today between the number of visitors to Masada – which for several years running has topped the list of the most visited sites [requiring entrance fees] in Israel – and the still meager number of tourists who stroll through Acre. A one-day visit to the northern coastal city reveals why: There is a huge gap between the formal sites, which have been developed over the past few years by various tourism bodies, and everything in between. Wandering through the Old City’s alleyways, I was overcome with sadness. So much has been invested in the city over the last few years, yet these side streets, even the ones closest to the main market street, exude neglect.

The main section of the Old City, which is home to several thousand people,is quite small. It takes no more than 20 minutes to cross from one end to the other, but it lacks signs and is not particularly inviting to visitors. Each official site in the old quarter is a gem, but because these gems are not strung together, they fail to create a single piece of jewelry.

Acre is a fascinating city, but it can and should turn into a place that showcases not only isolated tourist sites, but also one that opens a window on contemporary life in the old quarter. In the meantime, here are a few of the gems worth viewing.

The Hospitaller’s Citadel

Something about medieval knights, who came to the Holy Land during the Crusades, sparks the imagination, conjuring up visions of courage. But the reality of the lives of these men in armor, who passed this way just under a thousand years ago, was apparently less glamorous than what the movies portray. Among other things, they required medical treatment and hostels where they could find refuge and safety in the untamed land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. The Knights Halls in Acre’s Hospitaller Citadel were the jewels in the crown of the city. It is worth coming to Acre just to see them.

The spacious, lovely halls, which were built in the late 12th century and during the course of the 13th century, have high ceilings and thick walls. The lighting adds a fitting dramatic touch to the visit. The Hall of Columns, which was probably the knights’ dining hall, is the most impressive in the fortress, and causes a sigh of renewed wonder with every visit. A beautiful attraction such as would probably draw hundreds of thousands of tourists if it was in a European city.

Arranged around it are the Northern Hall, the Sugar Bowl Hall, the Art Hall, the Beautiful Hall and the Hall of the Imprisoned.

The Templar Tunnel

The 350-meter-long tunnel runs from the fortress to the seashore, adjacent to the port. It opened to the public in 2007, and for the past few months animated clips have been screened on the walls depicting the history of the Templars. Members of the order helped the Crusaders and the sick and moved to Acre from Jerusalem after its conquest by Saladin in 1187.

The Al-Basha Hamam

The 18th-century Turkish bath is probably the most well developed site in Acre’s Old City. It was built during the days of Acre’s governor Jazzar Pasha, when the city experienced its biggest construction boom. It is obvious that much effort was invested in making a visit here into a multidimensional experience: films are screened on the walls, dolls have been placed in the center of the hall, assorted accessories are scattered around the rooms and pictures and sounds enhance the atmosphere. It is even a little overwhelming, distracting from the beauty of the structure.

Khan al-Omadan

The large traders’ khan next to the port is one of the city’s nicest structures and unfortunately has not been developed at all yet. It is neglected and dirty, and visits there are limited to the entrance hall. This beautiful khan deserves better. It was built in the 18th century by Jazzar Pasha, at the same time as the hamam, and when I stood outside it, I tried, unsuccessfully, to understand why such huge sums were put into the hamam, while the khan was left untouched. The Acre Development Company plans to turn the Khan al-Omadan and the adjacent Khan a-Shuneh into a large hotel with 170 rooms, but there are no signs of this happening. In any case, such major plans are always a cause of concern when they involve a designated landmark.

Three museums

The Treasures in the Walls Museum is the most interesting of the city’s three museums. The building located in the eastern wall of the Old City is exquisite, and the display features many items meant to preserve the local history, crafts, furnishings and arts. The collection is not organized or displayed scientifically, giving one the sense of visiting a big antiques shop. Address: 2 Weizmann Street, in the Eastern wall.

The Okashi Art Museum is located in a 300-year-old arched building. It is a fascinating structure, but one that distracts considerably from the works hanging on the white-washed walls. The permanent exhibit includes works by Avshalom Okashi, who lived in Acre for most of his life, and had his workshop in the museum. Alongside them are rotating exhibits of contemporary Israeli art. Currently on display is the “First Exposure 2012,”a photo exhibit featuring the works of 10 young photographers.

The Underground Prisoners Museum depicts the history of the place when it was a British-run jail that housed members of the pre-state Jewish undergrounds who fought to end the British Mandate. It may be a fascinating place, but memories of a long-ago visit during my school days prevented me from properly viewing the current exhibit and led to a hasty exit.

The Al-Jazzar Mosque

The mosque is known in Arabic as the Jama al-Basha (the Pasha’s mosque ) and is another relic of Jazzar Pasha’s extensive building activity 250 years ago. It is the largest mosque in Israel, after the al-Aksa mosque in Jerusalem, and the biggest one built here during the Ottoman period. The trapezoidal courtyard is a beautifully landscaped garden that exudes great tranquility. Scattered around are benches that allow a visitor rest and contemplation. In the center of the courtyard, there is a covered fountain that was used for bathing. The inside of the mosque is filled with decorative touches, rugs and colored glass windows. It is said that a clipping of the Prophet Mohammed’s hair is stored somewhere in the depths of the mosque and displayed once a year. I did not see it. Address: Al-Jazzar Street. The mosque is open all day and closes for short periods at prayer times.

The port

There is evidence that the Acre port existed over 2,500 years ago. In recent years, extensive excavations next to the southern seawall have uncovered fragments of a stone pier, large stone anchors and clay vessels from the Mediterranean isles. The port reached its peak during the Crusader era in the 12th century. It achieved its greatest notoriety in the 18th century when Napoleon besieged the city and was blocked from reaching the port by ships that had been intentionally sunk.

The old port is now a marina; the main attraction is the Pisani port several dozen meters to the west. Two veteran restaurants, Abu Cristo and Doniana, compete for customers. Both have large balconies with views of the port. Not much has changed here in the last 40 years. The children who, in the 1970s, used to jump into the water from the walls above, are today responsible adults and have been replaced by other youngsters leaping into the sea with the same fervor.

Future facelifts

The sites listed above have been developed over the last few years by various tourism bodies, including the Old Acre Development Company, the Antiquities Authority and the Ministry of Tourism. A glance at the list of projects the Old Acre Development Company is planning reveals how much work still remains. The list includes the Khan al-Shawarda, the city’s largest khan, where a commercial center and hotel are to be built. The small hamam, currently a dilapidated building beside the Khan al-Omadan, is slated to become part of a hotel. A facelift is also in the works for the Burej al-Quraim, an intriguing site northwest of the city that is considered to be the largest and most fortified seaside fortress – and offers fantastic views. All of these projects, if and when they are completed, will increase the number of hotel rooms in Acre, enhance the state of some buildings and further highlight the necessity of developing the alleyways themselves.

Useful information

Getting there: Take Highway 4 from Haifa to Acre. At the Ein Hamifratz junction turn left (west ) and travel along the sea. At the first traffic light turn left, and follow the signs to the Old City.

Entrance fees: the Old Acre visitors’ center is in the Enchanted Garden on 1 Weizmann Street. Joint entrance ticket to many sites listed here (the Knights Hall, the Templar Tunnel, the Okashi Art Museum ) may be purchased. Sites are open from 9:00 A.M.-6:00 P.M. daily, including Saturdays. For more information see: http://www.akko.org.il

in Haaretz.com