On Living with a More Distant Past
Updated: Nov 17, 2020
Narrow alleys, climbing, twisting, sloping down towards the sea, steps rising out of long-buried houses, empty cul-de-sacs, weathered, crumbling sandstone walls, polished stone paving, patches of concrete, plastered domes, air conditioners, antennae, satellite dishes, bell towers, clock towers, minarets, irregular-shaped piazzas, odd little oriental ogee-arched niches of some unknown function, bins overflowing with garbage, sewage flowing in open drains, a courtyard with tombstones shaded by a fig tree, stairs rising up to a first and second storey, tall-masted white boats mirrored on the surface of the marina, a bride, her dress trailing in lapping water between piles of breakwater boulders, signs in Arabic and Hebrew, pointed stone arches, broken windows, plastic shutters, rusty pipes running obliquely across stone walls, walls that wear patches of plaster - evidence of half-hearted past improvements, fluttering laundry strung across a street, a once splendid nineteenth century merchant's house well past its heyday, its fine arched windows half built-over by a jerry-built outhouse, a crowded suq with stalls selling fruit, fish, olive oil-soap, porcelain plates and jugs, oriental spices, an empty warehouse, its dark medieval vaults hardly visible in the gloom of their interior, an abandoned hammam with its forgotten domes like sprouting mushrooms, and finally the bay - the bay viewed from between the houses, so radiant, stretching out like a great blue cloth.
In their importance as cities, Akko and medieval Acre are worlds apart. Acre was the most vibrant and cosmopolitan town in the Levant, its port rivalling those of Alexandria and Constantinople. Akko, by comparison, is a drowsy, picturesque tourist town, its tiny harbour no more substantial than that of any small fishing village. Akko's origins lie in the eighteenth century, in a harbour town established by the Bedouin chieftain Dahar al-Omar to serve as an outlet for his cotton. But its origins are even earlier - a seventeenth century illustration shows already masses of tiny houses clustered around the ruined monuments of the Franks, spreading among the ruined walls of palaces and churches. Akko has its own mansions, and its great Ottoman khans, but none of these compare to the monuments of Frankish Acre. The splendours of medieval Acre are long gone, burnt and demolished in the summer of 1291, the ruins left standing left to decay and weather away for several more centuries. And what had enabled Acre's greatness is long gone. When trade and pilgrimage eventually returned to this region they evolved elsewhere, in other towns further along the coast.
What is it like to live in a town like Akko, a town that has grown haphazard over its past? The city buried beneath its houses has shaped it. Akko' s hills are not really hills at all, but the ruins of Acre that have been built over. The streets, in places more noticeably than others, follow those earlier streets. And the Crusader city is not only beneath them. It finds its way up. It is incorporated in Akko's rooms, facades, courtyards, and its labyrinths are intermingled in Akko's labyrinths. At night, perhaps, the ghosts of Acre walk these streets.
Since the period of the British Mandate there have been plans to preserve the city's past, and in more recent times of turning Akko into a great centre for tourism. It certainly has the potential. It is a sort of medieval Pompeii. Under the modern houses are entire streets, ground floors, sewers, cisterns, basements and courtyards waiting to see daylight. Major efforts have been made over the past three decades to expose and develop the medieval city and to create a showcase of historical restoration, reconstruction and display. The results are indeed impressive. At great expense and much planning and labour, the rubble has been cleared, walls and roofs exposed, strengthened, resurfaced. Much of the compound of the Hospital of St John has undergone clearance and restoration, the so-called Templars' Tunnel has been cleared and opened to the public, work is advancing on exposing the main covered street, houses and defences of the Genoese quarter, and a host of other developments have been made or are in the planning. Studies have been carried out, displays introduced, entrance fees collected and tourists suitably impressed.
But most of the town remains as it has always been, somewhat Third World, run down, filthy. Efforts at cleaning it up have been sporadic and have had little overall effect, and the population remains by and large poverty-stricken and apathetic. And herein, I think, lies the problem. It seems to me that the people who live within the Ottoman walls of Akko have not entirely been taken into account. This may be the fault of the developers; whose eyes are mostly on potential tourist dollars, but in part it must lie with the inhabitants themselves. Perhaps they do not regard the town's medieval past, its Europeans with their palaces and ships, as part of their past. That is an unfortunate attitude that I have come across with other communities in other places - an inability to see beyond one's own ethnic roots, an inability to regard all of the past of this long-disputed land as the heritage of all its inhabitants. The people living in Akko are certainly not ignorant of the past for they have been constantly encountering ever since they began to settle over it in squalor. But they see it as something alongside them rather than something involving them. They have utilised it only for its most banal practical use. Their sewage seeps its way down and the ancient halls and passages have long served as convenient places to dispose of defunct refrigerators, old bedsteads and mattresses and shoulder high piles of cattle bones from a butcher shop selling its meat to the people in the street above.