April 12, 2022 70°F/19°C
We didn’t take any pictures of the actual port area of Ashdod yesterday, even though it is the largest port in Israel, because it was mostly just huge and industrial – nothing particularly memorable.
Today and tomorrow we’re docked in Haifa, which is also an industrial port, but small enough that the cruise ship area has a direct view into the city, which is full of interesting architecture, particularly the gleaming glass “rocket ship” building that houses administrative offices, including that of the Mayor.
Today’s included 5 hour tour took us on a panoramic drive through Haifa, which was lovely, but the highlight was definitely the hour or so we spent on a guided tour through the 12th century crusader castle in Acre (Akko).
We had one of the most outstanding guides yet on this cruise: Asaph, named after the biblical scribe who wrote down, and perhaps composed the music for, the Psalms of King David. Our driver’s name was David. Hmmm.
Asaph explained that Haifa is not a city with a port, but “a port with a city”. Acre was originally the important ancient port in this area, but was not suited for large vessels, so after WWI the much larger port in Haifa was completed (during the time of the British mandate) which was really the beginning of Haifa as a “city”.
An interesting aspect of Haifa is the socioeconomic organization of the city. In most places with waterfront and mountains/hills, the wealthy live on the water and the poor in the hills (think Chile, or Argentina, or cities on the Riviera), but here the working class live near the water, the middle class part way up the hill, and the wealthy along the ridge at the top of Mount Carmel. That is largely due to the way this part of Israel was settled in the 1950’s, with immigration actively encouraged and jobs available in the port. By the time “rich people” arrived, the waterfront was occupied.
The “lower” area along the waterfront is filled with industrial operations.
That said, the people living in the upper area can’t complain. The views from the mountaintop are spectacular.
One of the things for which Haifa is most famous is the Baháʼí Gardens. The remains of the Báb, founder of the Bábí Faith and forerunner of Baháʼu’lláh in the Baháʼí Faith, were moved from Acre to Haifa and interred in the shrine built on Mount Carmel. The shrine is the Baháʼí faith’s second holiest place on Earth after the Shrine of Baháʼu’lláh in nearby Acre. Baháʼí is the newest of the world’s major monotheistic religions to claim a place in Israel as significant to their beliefs.
Since the gardens are considered a place of pilgrimage, no one except Baháʼí are allowed into the gardens without a specific reservation for a guided tour, but Ted got some lovely pictures from the lookout point, and we walked back through the German Colony later in the afternoon for a few from the other perspective.
Then it was off to the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the walled city of Acre, a city which has been continuously inhabited since the early Bronze Age, 3000 years BC.
The most recent still standing late Ottoman era sandstone walls from the 1700’s are certainly impressive, but what was even more amazing was the 12th century Crusader “city” discovered in 1921 under what was being used as a prison and sanitarium.
I’d always wondered what inspired people to dig in a particular place. In this case, the repair of a burst pipe in the floor of the exercise yard required breaking the floor, revealing a 6 foot deep hole and the upper level of the Pillared Hall (dining room). In 1946, a group of Jewish prisoners (unsuccessfully) trying to tunnel their way out exposed a vault in the Northern Hall. From 1956 to 2005 the Israeli Department of Antiquities funded excavations to find out what lay underneath. What was cleared out was 6 centuries of rubble which had filled in a huge complex of rooms, on two levels, revealing the Venetian area of the Crusaders Citadel built sometime prior to 1149 AD, during the Second Crusades. That’s what we were able to tour today, although excavations are ongoing.
We stood on what was the main floor of the citadel, and could see the top step that was revealed by the pipe repair. As our guide said, there’s nothing more exciting for an archeologist than finding a step!
There is a fabulous website for the citadel that describes each area excavated to date. The Knights Halls – OLD AKKO
We tend to romanticize the Crusades, but as our guide reminded us, they were incredibly violent. Their stated motivation was to “reclaim” the areas in which Jesus lived and taught from the Muslims, but many of those who joined them were simply men who had no promise of fame or riches at home, and craved adventure.
We also descended into the dungeons (Crusaders were apparently all about justice and punishment).
At one location in the dungeon, a hole revealed Greek ruins. Asaph described Israel as a big tasty chocolate layer cake baked especially for archeologists, with something new to discover in each layer. Those who built a prison on top of the citadel cared no less about what was underneath than the Crusaders did about Greek ruins.
The gorgeous dining hall (below) boasts massive columns. We know that it was part of the Venetian Templars’ area because texts written by the templars survived and have been studied.
It is very likely that there is much more of the citadel to be revealed under Acre, but, having found the Venetian sections (which are likely the most impressive since the Venetians were the most powerful empire at that time) it does not seem worthwhile disturbing the entire city. There’s nothing to say some current residents aren’t digging up their basements though! There are almost definitely French, English, and German areas to discover.
Our guide created a great mental image for us of a hall filled with smoke from the fires under spits roasting boars and sheep, combined with the smells of hundreds of unwashed bodies. He also had an anecdote about dogs. Apparently many Crusaders travelled with dogs, used for hunting, for protection, as companions, and as NAPKINS! Greasy meaty fingers? Just wipe them on your dog! You’ll have “clean” hands, and your dog will enjoy licking the fat out of his hair. Yikes.
Another area we toured was the “hotel”, providing a place to sleep, food, and rudimentary hygiene (the Europeans were way behind the Islamic world in that regard) to crusaders and pilgrims.
The citadel museum has all kinds of features to make it engaging for children and tourists: murals, movies, holograms, and audio guides, but we were really pleased to have our own excellent group guide.
After leaving the citadel we had time to walk through Acre’s bazaar, where I succumbed to the temptation to buy a huge chunk of coffee halva. The spice aromas were intoxicating; the fresh fish hardly smelly at all!
We returned to the ship for a quick lunch, and then headed into Haifa’s German Colony for a walk in the sunshine. There were German Templars here from 1868 until their expulsion or internment by the British in 1941 due to their support of Germany in WWII.
Side note: In Ontario, we complain about raccoons getting into our garbage. In Haifa, it’s wild boars dumping trash cans inside the city, and boar crossing signs on the main road. Suddenly raccoons don’t seem so bad.
For the evening’s entertainment, Viking brought aboard the local Hallelujah Dance Troupe, for whom this was their first “live with an audience” performance in over two years!
Oh … and we saw mynah birds in Haifa! it was another great day all round.