You Just Never Know What’s Down There –  the fascinating story of the Hospitaller citadel in Acco

You Just Never Know What’s Down There – the fascinating story of the Hospitaller citadel in Acco

There is a law in Israel that states that when you start digging (to build a house, to clear a field, to fix a plumbing problem) and you come upon strange looking artifacts or stones (which happens VERY often), you must contact the Antiquities Authority immediately. They arrive and start a salvage archaeological dig… because you NEVER know what’s down there!

First, a brief history…

The Crusades begin at the close of the 11th century,  and the Christian armies plunder, loot,  pillage and kill Jews in European villages along the way.  They arrive in the Holy Land in 1099 with the intention of expelling the Muslim “infidels” out of Jerusalem and reclaim it for Christendom. They manage to conquer the city, massacre its inhabitants (Muslims and Jews alike) and thus begins the 1st Kingdom of Jerusalem,  lasting almost one hundred years.

As part of the Crusader effort to take control of the rest of the Holy Land, they start conquering other cities, laying siege to Acco on the Mediterranean Coast and taking it in 1104. Acco becomes their main sea port. The Knights Hospitaller and Knights Templar Orders build their headquarters in Jerusalem and establish small quarters in Acco, as well.

On July 4th, 1187, the Muslim army under the command of Salah al-Din, massacre the Crusader army at Karnei Hittin and the Christians lose their foothold on the Holy Land. Four years later, Richard the Lionheart leads the 3rd Crusade back to the Holy Land and re-establishes them as the 2nd Kingdom of Jerusalem. However, they never regain Jerusalem from the Muslims and they must make do with Acco, which becomes their capital city and headquarters for the next one hundred years.

The Knights Hospitaller and the Knights Templar rebuild their headquarters in Acco, and here is where our story gets interesting.  The Hospitallers build a massive, magnificent citadel in the northwestern corner of the city which travelers and pilgrims  praise and describe in their journals.  The citadel includes a hospital, a sugar storage facility, dormitories, dining halls and churches, all the necessary requirements to make life easier for the Christian pilgrim.

In the end, the Mamluk Muslim army slowly drives the Crusaders out of the Holy Land and in 1291 allow the remnants to escape by sea from Acco.  To insure that the Crusaders never return, the Mamluks begin a systematic destruction of all Crusader citadels and in the process leave the city of Acco in ruins.

The magnificent city lays under rubble for over 400 years, until the arrival of Daher el-Omar (fascinating guy), who decides to rebuild it around 1750.  He and his successor, Ahmed al Jazzar resolve, and rightly so, to rebuild on top of the ruins instead of first clearing the rubble. They choose to build their palaces right on top of the Knights Hopitaller remains.

de Bruin sketch 1679

Look at the sketch above. It was drawn by Dutch artist Cornelis de Bruijn, who traveled in the Holy Land in 1679 and sketched the Hospitaller citadel ruins. Notice the stairway and the arches underneath, and the second and third stories destroyed by the Mamluks. This is the ruin that Daher el-Omar and al Jazzar filled in and built their palace over.

One hundred years later, the Ottomans convert the palace into a government center and a large prison, to which they send their choicest  prisoners.  The British, who replace the Ottomans, also use the prison to house agitators, both Arabs and Jews (and oh, the stories we can tell of this prison…)

After the creation of the State of Israel, the prison area is turned into a museum, commemorating the  imprisonment of many underground Jewish fighters and their daring escapes. In the late 1960’s, a tunnel was dug under one of the prison cells, a chamber where the visitor stood suspended on dirt and debris, almost able to touch the immense vaulted ceiling of what was believed to be the Hospitaller crypt, an underground burial site.  Many Israelis remember entering the dark, underground chamber as children on class field trips in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Archaeologists and historians knew that there was SOMETHING down there, but what?!?

citadel courtyard 2In 1992, the Antiquities Authority began the monumental task of excavating the Ottoman/British prison compound. Very slowly, the prison recreational yard, where  prisoners relaxed, played soccer and plotted escapes for over a century was dug up.

As the excavations progressed the archaeologists were becoming more and more  puzzled by the finds. They uncovered  a plethora of artifacts from the most unexpected historical eras; Early Bronze Age lying next to Crusader, Hellenistic and Persian! It didn’t make any sense.

It took a while for the story to become clear, the reason as to why all this mishmash of artifacts was being uncovered under the prison compound.  It turns out that in their effort to build the infrastructure for their palaces, Daher el-Omar and al Jazzar, in the 18th century, decided to flatten out the area by filling it with dirt and debris so as to create a stable foundation for their buildings. And where can their workers haul tons of dirt from? The nearby Tel Acco, of course, the hill where the urbanization of ancient Acco started almost 5,000 years ago!

Ancient Acco began on a hill just a few kilometers to the east of the Crusader compound, where it remained throughout the Bronze Age, Iron Age, right through to the 4th century BCE. It was only then, during Persian and Greek times,  that the inhabitants came down from the ‘tel’ and settled the small peninsula where the Old City sits today.

citadel courtyard

As the excavations proceeded, archaeologists discovered they were right in the center of the Knights Hospitaller compound, in the courtyard as a matter of fact, with a well and water reservoir, public latrines, (remember the stairway from de Bruijn’s sketch above?) magnificent stairway to the second story and some of the most beautiful Crusader architecture ever found. Restoration and conservation work began in the early 2000’s and is still going on today.

The Knights Hospitaller citadel courtyard sits today as it did 800 years ago

The Knights Hospitaller citadel courtyard sits today as it did 800 years ago

This is only one story from the Knights Hospitaller citadel compound. I haven’t even mentioned the magnificent Knights Halls, or the sugar production, or the crypt that turned out to be a refectory or the prison dungeon… and what about the Baha’is, the Rambam, the Ramban and the Ramchal, and Napoleon for goodness sake’s! And where does the name Acre come from, and the Turkish baths, and Zeev Jabotinsky, and why was Paul Newman here?

There are so many more stories and places to see and enjoy.   

Come to Acco. Its fabulous.

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The Jewel in the Negev Crown

The Jewel in the Negev Crown

As I mentioned before,  Lonely Planet, the world famous travel magazine, picked the Negev as the second most desirable world region to visit for 2013, not only for its sheer beauty, but also for the variety of interesting places, fascinating history, diverse people and the many adventures and quiet meditative moments one can experience here.

And now, after we’ve peeked into the awe inspiring Small Makhtesh, toured Mamsheet‘s ancient streets and Nabatean Market, collected colorful sands in the Large Makhtesh, we come to the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the beautiful Negev Desert, Makhtesh Ramon.

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First and foremost, Makhtesh Ramon is the Grand Canyon of Israel.  Created by erosion of sandstone and limestone layers over millions of years, this makhtesh is the largest such geological formation in Israel, stretching about 40 km from end to end and 2-10 km wide.  The makhtesh has been a thriving habitat for many species of animals and plants and a crossroads for nomadic people for millennia.

For tourism, activities and accommodation purposes, the town overlooking the makhtesh is Mitzpe Ramon, a small community with a lot to offer.

I wasn’t sure how to approach this post due to the great number of options and adventures available in the area.  I finally decided to create a list, a mere sample of the many wonderful things to do near Makhtesh Ramon…

What would YOU like to do?

  • Hike in the gorgeous desert with your family?
  • Sleep in a Bedouin tent and enjoy Bedouin hospitality?
  • Hunt for fossils?
  • Ride a camel along the ancient Nabatean Incense Route?
  • Take a jeep tour through millions of years of the geological timeline?
  • Learn how Israel leads the world in anti-desertification techniques?
  • Study the stars in the pitch black night of the desert?
  • Taste the delicious produce grown here and exported to the world?
  • Stay at a 5-Star hotel with the most amazing view from your personal, outdoor pool?
  • Get cozy with alpacas (?!?) who happen to thrive in the desert climate?
  • Go wine tasting at award winning boutique wineries?
  • Learn about David Ben Gurion’s dream, visit his home and his graveside?
  • Rest and relax in one of the many B&Bs in the area?

Now lets make a partial list of great experiences to be had in the Mitzpe Ramon area, not in any particular order:

1.  (hiking, archaeology) Khan Saharonim– In the heart of Makhtesh Ramon lay the ruins of one of the Nabatean caravansaries (khan) on the ancient Incense Route from Yemen to Gaza. The Nabateans were THE expert desert travelers 2000 years ago, building an empire based on the trade of incense, spices and perfumes, and here they rested their camels and their weary bodies on their months long journey.

IMG_2367(fossils, hiking) Ammonite Wall – Ammonites were large mollusks that lived in the ancient seas and became extinct 65 million years ago.   They moved around by filling their shells with air and then releasing it. When the Ammonites died, they floated and were carried toward shallower waters  close to shore. Thus, great numbers of Ammonite shells collected in one place. One of these Ammonite graveyards can be seen right outside Makhtesh Ramon.

IMG_23353. (modern Israeli history, museum) Ilan Ramon Center – Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, loved the Makhtesh Ramon area so much, that as a young pilot, he changed his family name to Ramon, in honor of this spectacular geological formation. He was one of Israel’s heroes but his life was tragically cut short when he perished with the crew of the Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003. A museum honoring his legacy was just opened, overlooking the spectacular makhtesh . Definitely worth the visit.

4.  (luxury, location location location)  The Beresheet Hotel –  Situated on the edge of the towering cliffs of the makhtesh and blessed with a breathtaking view, this exceptional hotel is pure luxury. 

room with a pool5. (entrepreneurship, animals, family fun)  The Alpaca Farm – One of the strangest experiences one encounters near Mitzpeh Ramon is at this farm, where one can get up close and personal with a herd of alpacas and llamas … yes, you heard it right.  IMG_2356Straight from the Andes Mountains, these camel relatives are thriving in the Negev Highlands, where the air is cold and crisp at night and the altitude is just right.  Sheep, horses and other critters make for a fun day for the whole family.

6. (astronomy)  Star gazing, anyone? – My friend Ira Machevsky leads guided, customized tours of the starry desert night, the clearest sky in the country.  No astronomy experience is necessary… just bring a warm jacket and enjoy!

DSC_0326-300x2007. (entrepreneurship, wine tasting, food) Rujum Winery – When the Nabateans converted to Christianity in the 3rd century CE, they turned their agricultural efforts to the growing of vineyards in the desert in order to supply wine during the Byzantine Era.  The high desert plain actually produces excellent grapes  due to the loose soil, bright sunshine and extreme temperature differences between night and day and the seasons of the year.

gallery_20-300x2008. (eco-tourism)  Eco Desert Lodge – “We are not a 5-Stars, we are a million stars” is their motto. I love that!  Check out this amazing lodge with different desert accommodation options. Romantic  🙂

camels9. (culture, Bedouins, food)  Bedouin Encounters – If you are interested in the REAL thing, an authentic encounter with Israeli Bedouins, this is the place.  Stay at a Bedouin village, sleep communally in a Bedouin tent, enjoy a delicious dinner prepared in front of you, ride camels, chat with Sheikh Salman, leader of this Bedouin clan.  Spartan conditions, unforgettable experience!

And we haven’t even made a dent in the myriad activities and experiences to be had in the central Negev, let alone in the Arava Valley to the west or the magnificent Eilat Mountains and beaches to the south.

Lonely Planet is right. The Negev is THE destination of choice for the travel aficionado!