By Richard Varr
I hear muffled voices reverberating off the 900-year-old walls in one of the world’s oldest seaports. I’m walking amidst the subterranean stone facades of Akko’s Crusader City with its arches and grand knights’ halls connected by dimly-lit tunnels and passageways. I pass through the Magnificent Hall, the Hospital and the Dungeon – all appropriately named as part of this Crusaders stronghold on their quest to liberate the Holy Land.
“During the 11th and 12th century, you were not underground,” explains tour guide Roni Houbani. “This was the ground surface, so this was part of the city. So you were in a castle like a castle in Europe.” It’s where such orders as the Knights Templar and the Hospitaller Order of St. John set up camp, and where excavation work continues today after the Crusader City was eventually conquered by the Ottomans and left in ruins.
“You move one stone, you find something. You move another stone, you find something else,” Houbani tells me. “It takes a lot of detective work.”
My visit to Akko is just one stop on my three day tour of northern Israel with biblical and Roman ruins steeped in and around hilly and treed landscapes, deep valleys and along the wave-crashing shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea.
Haifa is Israel’s third-largest city, sitting at the foot of Mount Carmel. Perched atop the mountain is the Baha’i Shrine, the city’s symbol and centerpiece, with its golden dome and succession of “hanging” garden terraces adorning the mountainside. Both the shrine and gardens are classified by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. I also walk the streets of the restored Templar Colony built by German Templars in the 19th century. It’s now a hip neighborhood of boutiques and restaurants.
Along the Sea of Galilee, Yardenet on the Jordan River is a baptism site luring Christians worldwide. Nearby, I visit the ruins of the 4th century marble synagogue at Capernaum, home to Peter the Fisherman, and the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount.
Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee shore, has several hot springs that were key to the Romans establishing Tiberias as a resort town. It’s considered one of the four holy cities of Judaism because much of the Talmud was written there. The excavations of Beth Shean have revealed remnants of the Roman-Byzantine town that an earthquake leveled in the 8th century.
In Nazareth, home of Jesus, I visit the Basilica of the Annunciation, where the Angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to the Virgin Mary with word that she was to give birth to the son of God. Caesarea on the Mediterranean was once a vast Roman port with, remaining today, a well preserved Roman Theater and Crusader and Ottoman ruins as well.