Akko (also known as Acco, Acre) is stunning and storied old city, run through with ancient stone alleyways and built on layers of civilizations.
Though small, it contains so much: a cultural mix of people living in relative ease with one another; a zigzagging history of governing bodies stretching back to something like 3000 bce (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Akko is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world); and beautiful buildings that have survived from Akko’s many moments of glory through the ages. It has hosted such historical superstars as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Saint Francis of Assisi, and Marco Polo—it was less welcoming to Napoléon Bonaparte, who was drastically defeated here by the Ottomans in 1799. The city’s location, at the northernmost point of Haifa Bay, is visually stunning and served as a tactical advantage to clans and factions through the ages, from the Phoenicians to the ancient tribe of Asher to the Assyrians to the Rashidun caliphate to the Crusaders, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, and onward.
All these periods are visible in the city’s streets and buildings, and beneath them, too, in a web of underground tunnels and cavernous rooms built in the twelfth century by the Crusaders. The medieval structures were erected on the shoulders of Roman ruins, and on top of them in turn stand the Ottoman edifices that prevail aboveground today, many of which were constructed under the rule of the bloody-minded Ahmed al-Jezzar Pasha (known to his friends as “the Butcher”). Like so many places in Israel, its ground is striated with a variety of governments. A stroll through Akko is like walking through history—and provides a humbling lesson in the transitory nature of power and dominion.
Today, Akko is one of Israel’s more heterogeneously populated cities: a 70–30 percent mix of Jews to Arabs, and a true cultural hodgepodge. It is real, alive, and pulsing with energy. It is very much a place to experience now.