Always seeking to increase our knowledge of Israel’s tourist sites, from time to time, us tour guides take refresher tours.
Recently I joined a group of my colleagues on an in depth tour of the famous ancient port city of Akko on Israel’s northern coast. Akko is a gem of history, archeology and folk lore – from the ancient Egyptians, to the Maccabees, Maimonides, Richard the Lion Heart, Napoleon, Jewish underground fighters breaking out from the British “Bastille” and the victorious Israeli army of 1948. Akko has seen them all and its winding old street and alleys and picturesque fishing port seem eager to tell their story.
Before I go any further, let me highly recommend a visit to the former Turkish/British prison-fortress where the Jewish underground fighters of the Irgun and the Lechi were imprisoned and nine of them hanged by the British. The museum features a state of the art series of presentations that, using the back drop of the actual prison locations, offer a wonderful dramatic, reenactment and explanation of the events and zeitgeist. A handful of determined young men and women defeated the British Empire and won their people’s independence for the first time in two thousand years. Not a bad story line. If you are a movie goer you may remember how in “Cast A Giant Shadow,” Paul Newman ran along the roofs as he blew a hole in the prison walls
But our story does not begin in Hollywood. Archeology has uncovered remains from the times of Alexander the Great who used the port in Akko to dislodge the Persians. In addition, Yonatan the Maccabee was murdered by his supposed Greek hosts and buried near Akko’s “Land Gate.“ Roman remains have been found from the time of the great Jewish revolt and the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. It was from the port of Akko that Jewish slaves were shipped to Rome.
The most extensive unearthing is by far from the Crusader period. When the horde of French and Italians suddenly appeared on the horizon it was too late for the Muslim defenders to put up a good enough fight. The knights of the Crusades stormed Akko in 1096. In 1099 Jerusalem was sacked.
When Saladin finally defeated the Crusaders, Richard the Lion Heart was able to hang on to the port city of Akko for another fifty years.
As Mamluk and Ottoman residents built upon the Crusader ruins, the latter were allowed to sleep in the dust of time undisturbed until very recently. Hall after hall, secret escape tunnels, grand dining rooms – all appear today as they looked when the swords and shields were gashing and pounding
With Saladin’s ultimate victory over the Western invaders, famous Jewish luminaries came from the corners of the Diaspora to make Akko their home. In fact Rabi Yechial of Paris and a few hundred of the great Baalei Tosafot set up a yeshiva in Akko. Eventually the great Ramban, Nachmanadies became its head.
Maimonides entered into the land of Israel through Akko port and the spot where he set foot is named after him.
Rabi Nachman of Breslov actually found himself in Akko at not quite the very best time. He had visited the Holy land and Jerusalem and was ready to depart when Napoleon began his famous siege of the city. Rabi Nachman escaped on a Muslim warship and was given a gun to help in the battle against the French. Not what he had planned.
When Napoleon made his bid for Mideast conquest he tried to sway the Turkish governor’s key Jewish adviser to join him. He issued a declaration in which he acknowledged the Jewish longing for their land and agreed it was just to restore it to them. Napoleon promised to make it happen if he won. Chaim Farchi, an adviser to Al Jazir – the Butcher, would not betray his master. Napoleon lost the battle and Chaim Farchi was eventually executed by the Pasha’s heir. So much for loyalty. What if Napoleon had indeed won..?
The Ramchal and the Ohr Hachaim, two famous Jewish scholars made Akko their home in the eighteenth century. The synagogue named after the Ramchal is a lone Jewish out post in the other wise Arab Old city today. His original synagogue was turned into a mosque and religious-Jewish looking visitors are denied entrance.