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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Apollonia, fortress with a view

So if you’re a Roman or a Crusader or a Mamluk, deciding to conquer some Apollonia real estate is a no brainer.  Not necessarily for the access to the sea or its strategic location on the coast, but mainly for the gorgeous front row view of the Mediterranean in all its glory.  Beach property at its best!

The gorgeous view north from the Crusader castle. The city of Natanya is visible in the distance

The first settlers on this site were the Phoenicians  (c. 600 bce) who named it Arsuf, after Reshef, their god of war and storms.  Their main occupation was fishing for that strange marine mollusk from which they produced purple dye.  Who comes up with these things? Can you imagine that first Phoenician who crushed a poor snail’s shell to little, tiny, itsy bitsy bits to make a dye? What was he thinking?

That little murex snail made the Pheonicians a lot of money and financed much, much travel. They were superb navigators and used Arsuf as one of their many posts on the coast of the Mediterranean.

Remnants of a fancy Roman villa in town. Talk about a view!

When the Greeks arrived (400-100 bce) they renamed the town Apollonia, after  Apollo and in keeping with the theme of gods of sky and storms.  The Hasmoneans followed and then the Romans and the Byzantines. By now, Apollonia was the main port city of the Sharon Plain.

However, the most magnificent archeology left at Apollonia today is that of the Crusaders, who conquered the area in the spring of 1101 ce. They renamed the city Arsour, (a mispronunciation of the Phoenician/Arabic name Arsouf.

A reconstruction of the Crusader Fortress at its best

In 1241 ce the Crusaders began construction of a a fortress in the northern part of town, a magnificent structure with moats and double defense walls and the works.  For 24 years it stood tall, until the Mameluk Sultan Bibars decided he wanted this real estate for himself.

He lay a 40 day siege on the town before it fell.  Bibars then ordered his forces to fill the fortress moat with wooden logs, brought a ramming machine up to the walls, and constantly bombarded the fortress with cannon balls.

A pile of some of the ballistic cannonballs found in the ruins of the fortress

This ballistic diversion gave the Mamluk soldiers time to sit under the covered ramming machine and carve out the stones at the bottom of the fortress walls.  When the stones were removed, the Mamluks lit fires in the wall openings and smoked the Crusaders out.

They had lasted 3 days. So much for a fortified, double walled fortress  😦

The Mamluks took prisoners, destroyed the fortress and it was never used again for military purposes.

Someone should have thought of putting an ancient bed and breakfast here…

Its so lovely. Certainly a beautiful place to visit and enjoy.

The view south from the fortress, with Herzliya, then Tel Aviv in the distance.

Banias (Hermon Spring) Nature Preserve

Pan's Cave and the flowing Banias Spring

Pan’s Cave and the flowing Banias Spring

As our Israel studies begin, we concentrate on geology and water, the source of life.  The Banias Spring at the foot of Mount Hermon is the perfect place to start our study of Israel’s water resources. It flows over 9 km from its source at Mount Hermon to meet the Dan River and together they become the largest and most important source of the Jordan River.

The Banias Spring forms a beautifully carved karstic cave (karst=openings and underground fissures created when mildly acidic water dissolves limestone), which was venerated and used as a sacrificial site in prehistoric times.

Pagan temples carved into limestone rock

Pagan temples carved into limestone rock

The Seleucids, (a Greek empire from the Turkey/Syria area, home of that nasty Antiochus – we defeated him and got Hannuka) carved a rock temple to the god Pan (half goat-half man, god of shepherds and nature) whom they believed helped them win a great battle here in 200 bce, against their nemesis, the Ptolomaic army.

The Temple of Pan gave  the spring its name – Paneas (Banias in Arabic). The origins of words and place names is fascinating and I see that the lack of the sound /p/ in Arabic and their replacing it with the sound /b/  has created some very interesting twists.  More later…

Several other pagan temples are carved into the limestone facade, including one built to sacrifice sacred goats 🙂

Herod the Great, another one of those nice guys in history 😦 built a temple here in honor of Caesar Augustus.  Not to be outdone, Herod’s son Phillip inherited this area and in 2 bce built his capital Caesarea Phillippi near the spring.  This polis (city) has yet to be fully excavated but the Cardo (main street, north/south axis) is visible.  This allows the imagination of a lover of history to wander… how far does the city extend under your feet? what IS under all that soil?

Caesarea Phillippi has become an important Christian pilgrimage destination as the site mentioned in the Christian Bible, where Jesus awarded Simon Bar Yonah (Peter) his role as leader of the disciples. Jesus is quoted as saying,  “You are Peter (Petrus=rock), and on this rock I will build my church…) (Matt 16:16-19)

Who else hung around the Banias Springs, you may ask?

The Romans, the Byzantines, the Crusaders and of course, the Jews and the Druze, and they all added to the architectural richness of this area.

On a lovely leisurely walk from the temples to the beautiful Banias waterfall, visitors pass a Roman bridge, an ancient flour mill,  ruins of Phillip’s capital city,

Entrance to the palace of Agrippas II

Entrance to the palace of Agrippas II

the gorgeous underground walkways of the palace of Agrippas II, an ancient synagogue and a Byzantine church.

Flowing, gushing springs, abundant greenery, a beautiful waterfall,  remnants of temples and buildings ranging from the prehistoric to the Byzantine, what a wonderful place for a hike and a picnic.