The week long Passover holiday is an excellent opportunity to do some off the track touring in many parts of Israel. The Carmel mountain region is an area where many unusual places can be visited in the time space of only a few hours.
Taking advantage of excellent spring weather, my wife and I, along with another couple, began our tour by driving though the pastoral region on the eastern side of the Carmel range, which contains a number of forests, including a large one called Yaarot Menashe. Continuing north, we drove to a region containing several Druze villages and arrived at the quaint village of Julis, located east of Akko (Acre).
Julis is known as the long time place of residence of the Israeli Druze community’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Amin Tarif, whose tomb is located there. Shiek Tarif, who lived to the ripe old age of 95, was well known among Israeli political leaders, many of whom attended his funeral in 1993.
Asking where the tomb was located, a young Druze man took us there, even though it was out of his way. Arriving at the tomb, which one must normally coordinate permission to visit in advance, we were amazed that one can just walk in to the shrine, which is composed of two rooms, one containing the Sheik’s grave, and the other a shrine containing scores of photos of the Sheik with various Israeli notables, including several prime ministers. There were also a number of awards given to the Sheik by the Israeli Defense Forces, where Druze soldiers have served with honor since the creation of the state. The contribution that this minority population of 120,000 has made to Israel is evident; especially considering how the Druze community has been treated of successive Israeli governments over the years.
We also visited a very special private garden, known as Gan Yunis which turned out to be a real pleasure to see. The garden is owned and managed by one family who allow visitors to wander through it if arranged in advance. The garden contains several pools of water with small waterfalls flowing into them. There is also an abundance of native trees, plants and flowers as well as several varieties of birds in large aviaries. Part of the garden (more like a park) contains a small section of railroad track which is said to part of the original Turkish rail line that ran from Damascus and Lebanon through Palestine to Egypt. The owner of the garden is planning to open a restaurant there; and already many Druze weddings are held in this beautiful retreat.
After our visit to Julis, we drove to Akko to visit the old city, which was alive with visitors, from a number of countries, as well as locals who were shopping in the city’s “Kasbah” market. Akko is one of Israel’s oldest cities, whose origins go back more than 4,000 years. Our first site visited was a large Ottoman “Khan” hostel which originally hosted pilgrims and other travelers who arrived at Akko en rout to other locations in the Holy Land. In the center of the Kahn’s large court yard is the 400 year old Ahmad Basha El Jazzar Mosque which is open for prayer to local and visiting Muslims.
We next toured several of Old City’s many winding streets and arrived at one of the city’s largest churches the St. George Greek Orthodox Church, which was closed, even though it was Orthodox Palm Sunday. Not far from St. George’s Church is the only synagogue in Akko’s Old City, the Ramhal Synagogue. It was also closed when we arrived, but prayer hours are noted on a placard at it’s entrance. When we asked a middle-aged Arab women, who watches over the place, who actually prays there, she said in Hebrew “anashim me hutz le-Aretz (people from abroad)”.
The city’s Kasbah market is reminiscent of the Suk in Jerusalem’s Old City, although a bit smaller. Many local Arabs still shop there though, preferring its dark and crowded passageways to modern shopping malls located in the newer, Jewish section of Akko. Many Arabs still live in the Old City, and their presence there adds an oriental flavor to the city.
The city’s Crusader past is still evident, and two of the most popular Crusader sites there are the subterranean Knights of Hospitallers halls have been partially restored. Following the defeat of the Crusader forces at Hittin (near Tiberas) by Salah a’Din in July, 1187, Akko became the last major Crusader stronghold in the Holy Land, until finally being evicted 150 years later. In addition the Knight’s Halls, we also saw the subterranean tunnel built by the Templars during the 12th Century. The tunnel begins under what was once the Templar’s fortress, which was destroyed by the Ottomans for stones to be used in the city walls, and runs to the sea. It was believed to have been used as an escape route by the Templars in the event of being overrun by Moslem invaders. The tunnel is open for visitors for the price of 7 Shekels and special pumps prevent sea water from flooding the passageway, which in places is so low that we had to crouch to pass through. The Templar fortress is said to have been the strongest in Akko and was the last to fall to the “Saracens”. The Old City still has much of its original fortress walls, which held off the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte for several months, and ended his dreams of “conquering the world” in the early 1800’s. Visitors can walk on top some of these walls, parts of which are up to 3 meters thick. The Port of Akko still contains a number of fishing boats whose owners try to eke our a living by fishing despite a drastic decline in marine life due to increasing pollution form nearby Haifa and the ecologically dead Kishon River.
We also visited the Kahn al-Omadan which though vacant still retains its impressive columns and gives visitors an idea of the commercial importance of the city during the Ottoman Period. Although we did not visit the large (former) Turkish bathhouse of Haman al Basha, the guard at the entrance explained the bathhouse’s importance as a meeting place for Akko residents who would spend many hours in the spa’s warm waters as well as undergoing relaxing, genuine Turkish massages.
Dining out in the Old City is a bit of a problem during Pesach, unless one is acceptable to being served both matzos and pitas at the same time.
Akko and surrounding areas, including sights of Haifa are definitely worth visiting during week long festivals like Pesach and Sukkot.