Transforming ancient Akko into magnet for modern tourists

AKKO — Perched on a promontory lashed by crashing Mediterranean breakers, the ramparts of the ancient city of Akko are a spectacular setting for a lazy waterside lunch, a hand-in-hand stroll, or for watching children dive into the warm waves. It doesn't get more romantic than this.

But if that's all travelers do in this fascinating city, they'll miss much of one of the most exciting historic sites in all of Israel.

Like everywhere in this old-new land, Akko — on the Mediterranean just north of Haifa and west of the Sea of Galilee — has a rich history that spans centuries, a history currently being highlighted and counterpointed by a tasteful, ecologically balanced yet ambitious program called the Akko Project.

Akko has been a village, a fishing hamlet, a city, a pilgrims' port, a fortress and a prison. The Assyrians were here. So were Macedonia's Alexander the Great and Egypt's Ptolemy. And the Saracens, Crusaders, Mamelukes and Ottomans. Napoleon wanted to get here too — but was defeated by the moat his Crusader ancestors had built six centuries earlier. In this century alone, Akko has been governed by the Turks, the British and the Israelis.

And it is the Akko Project, begun in 1994, that is designed to bring Akko into the 21st century — at the same time preserving its intricacy, majesty and charm, not to mention the souvenirs left by the parade of civilizations that came here.

Consider this. The elegant Jazzar Pasha Mosque is here in Akko. After the great mosques of Jerusalem's Temple Mount, it's the largest in Israel — and, with its geometric marble cloisters, mosaics, fragrant gardens, ornamental fountains and pencil-like minaret — some consider it Israel's most beautiful.

Beneath Akko's rambling ancient city's lanes, an entire Crusader City stretches underground — complete with vaulted Crusaders' Hall and the Crypt of St. John of the Knights Hospitaliers. And not far away, the cavernous Caravanserai of the Pillars, a vast, square two-story construction of cloistered balconies (its dozens of marble pillars were plundered from the ruins of Roman Caesarea), once housed merchants on exotic camel caravans to Damascus or Baghdad or Jerusalem.

The caravanserai's fanciful clock tower — added in 1906 — provides not merely an eccentrically jarring architectural note, but also an extraordinary view.

Akko is a living encyclopedia. It's mentioned in the Old Testament Book of Judges. Tel Akko — a layered archeological mound — attests to Akko's origins as a Canaanite city. In 220 C.E., the Romans moved in and anointed Akko an "Italian City" — the highest stature bestowed upon a foreign city by the Roman Empire.

The city prospered economically and socially for almost 900 years, its natural sheltered harbor making it the goal of ships from all parts of the Mediterranean. As Islam swept from the east in the seventh century, Akko became a Muslim city, and was subsequently enclosed within high and thick stone walls.

The Crusader King Baldwin I captured Akko in 1104, and quickly turned it into the Crusaders' chief port and staging area for their hoped-for conquest of the entire land of Israel.

In the moments they rested from massacring the country's non-Christians, the Crusaders rebuilt and beautified Akko, furnishing it with an array of magnificent structures that stand to this day.

Indeed, under Crusader rule, Akko, designated capital of the Crusader kingdom when Jerusalem was beyond reach, gained a prominence matched neither before nor since. They christened it St. Jean d'Acre and, to this day, Europeans still call the city "Acre."

It wasn't to last. In 1291, the Europeans left as the Mamelukes reconquered the city for Islam. The Mamelukes and Ottoman Turks were responsible for hundreds of changes and additions over the subsequent centuries, producing today's eclectic mix.

Today, Akko is a town of some 60,000 inhabitants, the majority of whom live north and east of the old town in the adjoining "new city" of Akko — built since Israel's independence in 1948.

But the Old City is where the charm resides. The market that laces its way through the center of Akko is one of Israel's most attractive, retaining a uniquely Middle Eastern character. A rich melange of colors, smells and sounds tempt the visitor's senses and cameras: earth-toned pyramids of fragrant spices, giant circular trays of honey-brushed pastries, buckets of flowers, intricate arrangements of shiny fruits and vegetables, piles of Mediterranean fish.

Travelers also shouldn't miss the ominous Citadel, built by the Crusaders and fortified by the Turks to withstand Napoleon's onslaught. In the 1940s this was a British jail, where Jewish underground fighters were imprisoned and executed in the years between the Holocaust and Israel's independence.

The attempt to free Jewish prisoners was depicted in the 1960 Otto Preminger movie, "Exodus," the actor-prisoners escaping through the adjoining old Turkish Bath, in use to this day. It's a fascinating — and steamy — place to visit.

The Akko Project will restore and preserve all of these elements, at the same time improving the lot of the residents of the Old City — sprucing up their gardens and beautifying their homes.

One of the chief goals of the Akko Project — in addition to the general improvement and upgrading of the city's sites and tourist services — is the conversion of two ancient caravanserais (travelers' inns) into a 170-room hotel with restaurants and shops.

The Old Akko waterfront is ringed by ramparts — complete with arrow slits and crenellations, delightful areas for ambling and browsing in antique shops and boutiques. There are several delightful wharfside restaurants, serving fresh-caught seafood, traditional Mediterranean fare and desserts. A yacht-filled marina and busy fishing port — complete with nets and nautical paraphernalia, complete the idyllic setting.