Hamam al-Basha, i.e., The Old Turkish Bathhouse Museum, Acre, Israel

If you’re ever in the historic town of Acre, Israel (it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited ones on the planet), I strongly suggest a visit to Turkish Bathhouse Museum. Granted this museum dedicated to the Ottoman Bathhouse tradition (which they inherited from the Romans) is incredibly touristy, but that said, it’s multimedia presentation designed to bring history to life, is in my opinion what makes the Hamam Al-Basha one of the most entertaining and educational tourist attractions in the whole city, and worth at least a full hour’s worth of your time.

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When I first told my Israeli friends I was planning to spend a full 29 days in Acre’s old city, one of them literally blurted out, “WHY?! There’s NOTHING to DO there!” IF what you’re looking for is things like night clubs and theater, then they’re right… however, IF you’re a fan of all things historic… which I am… then they’re entirely wrong.

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The city of Acre is located on the western edge of the Northern district of Israel, just above the modern city of Haifa, and importantly (from the historic perspective) is one the only natural ports along the Holy land’s Mediterranean coastline. That is why it was one of most important port cities in the world during crusader period, when it served as the foothold for the almost all of the Christian Knight’s into the birthplace of their religion during that period. It’s important to remember that while the first Crusade, an attempt to take back the area from Islamic rule, came over land via Turkey, the second and third ones both came over sea, and utilized their heavily defended fortress port city of Acre — which they were able to keep control of the whole time —  as their base).

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As a result of its historically changing ownership, Acre (english)has many different names, in Hebrew it is Akko, while in Arabic it is Akka, and there are a few other names besides. Like I already said, this city is often overlooked by Jewish tourists to the country, because its past is predominantly Muslim and Christian. However, that said, it is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited human settlements on the planet, with most of its pre-crusader heritage still buried under a thousand years of other historically important buildings — and yet to be discovered (although you CAN see some of it if you know where to look).

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That said, the Turkish Bath Museum, also known as Hamam (sweat bath) El Basha (sort of like “The Prince”) in Arabic… (or The Prince’s sweat baths) … can be a bit hard to find in the twisty alley ways of Acre, although you’ll see signs all over town pointing out the way to it.

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The next thing to be aware of is that buying tickets for Acre’s attractions is kind of tricky.

As shown in the photo above, the multi-site ticket includes :
Hospitaller Castle/Knights’ Halls    – the city’s main attraction.
Templar Tunnel – and another, smaller tunnel.
Pasha’s Turkish Bath/Hamam al-BashaOkashi Museum -a small art museum.
Treasures in the Walls Museum
Rosh Hanikra

While these tickets may be purchased at multiple locations, but the main one is the visitor’s center, and if you do it there you get to see a short 15 minute movie on the history of the town.

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Ticket booth at the visitor’s center

The #1 attraction in town is the The Hospitallers‘ Fortress (Aka the Knights’ Halls)… but you can NOT buy a ticket for that which does not includes a mess of other things, the Templar’s tunnel (which it totally worth seeing), the Treasures in the Walls Museum (which is part of the tickets but not mentioned on ANY of the description signs for said tickets… IF you’ve seen everything else and still have time go see it, but if you skip it you won’t have missed out on anything special) … and a pathetic excuse for an art museum displaying all of the lesser pieces of Avshalom Okashi which is a complete waste of time (I graduated from one of the top Art schools in the world, and WHY the city demands you see this collection I don’t know).

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Basically it’s a collection of his works that no museums or collectors wanted (you’re not allowed to take photos while inside the museum, probably because they don’t want word getting out about how bad this collection sucks). Okashi was a painter so influential that while he’s often mentioned alongside other better respected artists, poor Avshalom doesn’t even merit his own Wikipedia page — even though he somehow DID manage to get his own museum. He was a very lessor part of the Ofakim Hadashim or New Horizons art movement in Israel, which helped to develop a distinctively abstract Israeli sensibility to art, which is still highly influential today (Israeli art doesn’t look quite like any other art style, but there is a cohesive feel to most of it). And he chose to live his final years in Acre, so I’m guessing when he died his family were stuck with a bunch of paintings no one wanted, not even them, and they left them to the city.

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To the combined Fortress ticket you can add one to the Baths…. or you can buy a ticket for the baths and the tunnels that does NOT include the #1 attraction… the Fortress… You can NOT however buy a ticket JUST for the #1 attraction, which is Fortress
or a ticket to the #2 attraction: the Templar Tunnels,
Or one for the Baths…
SO, you will HAVE to buy a combo ticket of some sort to see any of those —
And the tickets to the Fortress all include the aforementioned hideous art collection and the Treasures in the Walls Museum (which isn’t bad, but shouldn’t be considered any sort of priority if you’re on a limited schedule).

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With the ticket to the baths comes an audio guide, available in 8 languages

… the good news is it’s good for all of that year (if you buy it Jan 2019 it’s good through Dec 2019… If you buy it at the in Dec 2019 it expires at the end of that month), and it’s fully transferable — you can hand it off to friends or relatives who live in Israel to use whatever bits you haven’t. As such, your best bet is just to buy the either the combined ticket WITH the baths, or IF you intend to go up to Rosh Hanikra anyway (its at the Lebanese border and they do NOT provide transportation to get up there) [However, keep in mind that the ONLY historical attraction in Acre NOT included in any of the combined tickets (which include all the Arab controlled attractions), is the one to the old English Prison, which is controlled by the Israeli military.]

The package of tickets that I had initially bought, to my chagrin as I had SPECIFICALLY told the woman at the counter of the visitor’s center (where the Knight’s hall is) that I wanted to see the baths…

only to find when I arrived to the baths that what she had sold me did not include it!! (Be sure to double check your tickets.) So, when I got there… this guy said as far as he was concerned it wasn’t worth the extra price, and offered to quickly first walk me through the whole thing while explaining to me what was going since they couldn’t give me the headset because I didn’t have a ticket.

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He was more than bit annoyed when after he was done, I decided I wanted go ahead and pay for a combined tunnel and bathhouse ticket… which meant seeing the tunnels a second time.

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After you buy your ticket and get your headphones, you’re led into a outdoor courtyard area, where sit and wait for the next introductory overview film to begin — each film lasts about 15 minute, with a few minutes between to allow the room to clear and for the next group to enter

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While there (I had about 14 minutes to wait upon entering) I met and got friendly with one of the local cats, who seemed a great deal more domesticated than most of the cats of Acre …. the place is TEAMING with feral cats. This guy was following me around and demanding more scratches….

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The above picture is the entry room, just as you enter from the patio area …  Here you take a seat and enjoy a 15 minute movie that is projected onto the one empty wall to the right, which you listen to with your headphones…

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The movie focuses on the history of Acre and the building of bathhouse during the Ottoman empire, and the audio tracks come in eight different languages: Hebrew, Arabic, English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Russian. (The Chinese and Japanese tourists don’t seem to come here much.)

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In addition to explaining its history, it also explains the cultural importance of the bathhouse to the community (it was much more than just a place to take a bath) up through modern times, when it was it fell into disuse because of the advent of modern plumbing.

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Note the image top right and compare to the tableau below

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After the movie you’re led into a long hallway lined with lithographs that narrate the sorts of things that would take place here…. and if you pay attention you’ll notice that many of the statues arranged throughout the bathhouse (so as to bring the place to life) were based on these drawings.

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After that hallway you turn into what had been another one lined with a series on rooms on either side, but when they converted it into a museum they removed the interior walls  (the ones that would lined the hallway) so that they now serve as the stages for a series of tableaus of what would have occurred within those areas.

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And as you approach some of the rooms, films with dialogue are played on their back walls in order to make the tableaus even more lifelikeUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2c2c.jpg

Notice how this photo (with me in it) is the same room as the one above, only the movie which had triggered upon my first having entered had played out. That said, if you didn’t get to see the little movies, or the sound track was off, I found if you leave the room heading back towards the main film room… and then WAIT for that film to finish for the next group and then reenter this section, you’ll get a second chance to see it all…if you have that time to do that…  the soundtracks and such seem to be timed on how much time they designers believe it will take for people to move through, rather than being triggered by actual movement.

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After you pass through the hallway of small tableaus, you will pass through a doorway into a very large room circular, where the steam bath was located… 7w25W1pASp+%3949t40pgw_thumb_ebae.jpg

… and it has actual steam which is kind of cool. Again in this room there is a sound track that coordinates with a film played on one of the walls, and also from ONE of the statues which a moving face projected onto it, just like the tech you see at Disney world in the Haunted Mansion.

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This larger central room is circular, but sits in a square building… as such at the corners of the square are a series of smaller rooms that you can sort of peer into. I suppose the center of the room was the hottest location, too hot for some, and the side rooms while still steamy brought the temperatures down a bit. All in all I found my visit here highly enjoyable and other people I talked to also said they really enjoyed this museum.

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The Templar’s Tunnel, Acre, Israel

In the historic city of Acre, Israel, is a 350 meters/985 feet long tunnel. It is known as the Templar Tunnel, because it is believed to have been built by the Knights Templar during the crusader period (1095 A.D. – 1492), and though lost for over 700 years, it was rediscovered in 1994, and is now one of the city’s major historic tourist attractions.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_e6ee.jpgThe city of Acre  is located on the western edge of the Northern district of Israel, just above the modern city of Haifa, and importantly along her Mediterranean coastline. She has many different names, in Hebrew it is Akko, while in Arabic it is Akka, and with a few other names besides. Often overlooked by Jewish tourists to the country, because its past is predominantly Muslim and Christian, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited human settlements on the planet.

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While her history is long and varied, for the purposes of this blog I’m interested in the Acre’s role during the Medieval period; when because of its location on one of the very few natural ports in The Holy Land, and hence was of great strategic importance to anyone wishing to take part in a Christian pilgrimage to the area, she served as the capital city of the Crusader states.

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The tunnel had been essentially lost for 700 years, but it’s import had been “rediscovered” in 1994 because a woman living in one of the homes built above it. When they dug down to figure out the problem, they stumbled upon the tunnel, which had been converted into part of the towns sewage system.

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Evidence of its sewage system past is still there

As the saying goes, you can’t dig a hole anywhere in Israel and NOT find something of historical importance. Although converting the tunnel to a sewage pipe probably happened after the time of the Mamluks — slave soldiers, not unlike the unsullied in the Game of Thrones— who during the Mamluk Sultanate kicked the crusaders out of the area, at which point not only had its import probably been already forgotten, but history is written, and as often erased, by the victors.

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A public bathroom located directly across from the eastern entrance to the tunnel, and above the tunnel (kind of funny if you think about it)

Between 1291 when the Mamluks kicked out the crusaders and 1920, when the British were granted the mandate by the League of Nations to take over control of Palestine from the Turks’ collapsing Ottoman Empire, the fact is no one in the area cared about Templars, let alone their tunnel.  All the glory was to the Muslim empire that had taken it back from invading Christians… so turning their tunnel into a sewage pipe was probably seen at the time as fitting and appropriate.

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Once re-discovered The Acre development company, in co-ordination with Israel’s Antiquities Authority, cleared away the dirt and excrement filling the tunnel, and found whatever of historical value there was within it; all the while preparing it to serve as a local tourist attraction whose doors initially opened to the public in 1999… although repairs, rehabilitation, and extension of the tunnel continued through 2007. Today, the water that once carried you-know-what out into the ocean still runs (you can even see where it enters into the now destroyed Templar castle), but now people throw coins into it instead, supposedly for good luck.

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The Knights Templar, or Templars, were a catholic monastic military order that have long served as a focus of fascination and urban myths, both good and bad.  They were founded in 1119 to protect pilgrims who came to see the holy lands from Muslims and highwaymen (being a pilgrim during that period was a very dangerous activity, with dead bodies littered along the paths); initially WILDLY popular with the faithful, once the Crusades were over and the holy land was lost support for them faded, at which point their size and wealth made them a convenient target for a deeply in debt King Philip IV of France, who was deeply in debt to them financially. They were then completely disbanded by Pope Clement V.  If you want to learn more about them I found this GREAT pod cast about them by the guest host Dan Jones, who is an internationally best-selling historian/author of non-fiction works.

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The tunnel runs from what is believed to be the destroyed Templar palace on the western part of the city, on the Mediterranean’s edge, whose remaining walls are now shallowly submerged beneath the water (but still visible)

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The tunnel, according to one of the multiple short movies shown in the tunnel (this one is just towards the eastern end), is thought to have been built to go under another the Pisan quarter (a quarter within the city of Acre that was controlled by people from the Republic of Pisa) who were not friendly with the Templars and tended to charge them taxes to pass through their area…

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and, in addition to that would try to stop the Templars from taking “sacred relics” related to the story of Christ out of the city. [I say sacred relics in quotation marks because one sort of has to, like the 16th century Dutch humanist Erasmus, question their authenticity. To quote his commentary on just how many places claimed to own pieces of the true cross… “if all the fragments were collected together, they would appear to form a fair cargo for a merchant ship.”] The Templars, didn’t take kindly to the Pisan’s interference in their business, and in response built this tunnel…traveling UNDER the Pisan quarter, from their castle to the port

Location map of Akko Port; A) The sea-front of the Pisan quarter (insert Fig.6); B) The Western Basin, (insert Fig. 2b) 
[source of the photo, “New insights on Maritime Acre revealed by Underwater and Coastal Archaeological Research”]
In the image above, the destroyed Templar’s Palace is the Green roundish thing at the bottom left of the town, the Templars tunnel is shown as a line of red dots, the sea-front of the Pisan quarter is marked as A, while the port that the Templars were trying to get to is in the Western Basin, marked B (I’m not sure WHY they couldn’t just park boats alongside their castle, but apparently they couldn’t.

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So of course there are TWO entrances to the tunnel… the EASY one to find is adjacent to the destroyed palace directly adjacent to the big parking lot and the world-renowned Uri Buri restaurant (considered one of the three restaurants in all of Israel, and the country’s best location for seafood). At the bottom of the stairs at this entrance is a set of two buttons, either of which will initiate an audio narration describing the tunnel (no video). However, if a large group is coming through, I strongly suggest waiting till they’ve passed to push it as you won’t hear it otherwise.

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The tunnel’s “Eastern Entrance” is now marked on Google (Feel free to send me chocolate in thanks)

The hard one to find is buried in the alleyways of Acre across the alley from that public bathroom I showed earlier … in fact when I first arrived in town Google maps did NOT have EITHER of the two doors marked!!! (As in all manner of folks can be found wandering around trying to find the bathroom! Not to mention the Eastern entrance to the tunnels) While I was there I submitted a request to Google that they fix that, marking for them exactly where it was located… and if you’re wandering around the town trying to find that entrance using Google maps, you can thank me for the fact that

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Eastern Entrance

By comparison to the easy to find entrance (which is kind of plain and squished) the eastern entrance is actually quite fancy looking on the inside, even though it’s really easy to miss on the outside (especially when the doors are not open for business). And the squishiness is not just at the entrance… At that east end of the tunnel, the ceiling is very low…. [well either that, or (much more likely) the walkway for tourists is placed very high up within the tunnel because that end is close to the Mediterranean, and probably dips down lower than the other side does, and as such is deeply flooded with water.]

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At this end are two narrow tunnels, one in each direction, with ceilings that become progressively taller (or shorter if you’re coming from the other end). That said, from the perspective of the average tourist, it starts out with you having to bend down very low in order to pass (the ceiling was at about the height of my arm pits), and then the further into the tunnel you go (heading east) the higher the ceiling moves (the bottom picture I was JUST able to stand full height to 5’4″ — my travel buddy that day was a few inches taller than I).UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2be6.jpg

At this point in the tunnel (picture upper left) she was just getting to where she could stand tall… and the walkway — which is you look is clearly elevated (there was the equivalent of a little river running under it) is lit up, and had little glass windows embedded into it showing where various archeological finds were discovered — the originals are in a museum, these were just pictures of the objects found. And the ceiling gets taller the further east you go (which supports my elevated walkway theory), until you get to this point in the tunnel, where the ceiling gets REALLY tall and vaulted… and they seem to have found a 2nd layer to it or some such

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all photos of the same location, but from different angles

The above photos are taken of the same location but looking both directions — double tunnels at one side that join at this point into one huge tunnel. As you can see at this point in the tunnel (on the left side of the photo above) there’s yet another movie screen showing more about the history of the place, that once again comes with narration in either Hebrew or English. The movie doesn’t restart, the track being played just switches languages based one which button you press, even if its mid film.

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From that point on, instead of two narrow tunnels it’s one wide one…  but still with the windows in the walkway where they found things…. and the blue wall is where the easter exit/stairwell is located.

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As you can probably tell from the photos (no I did not change my T-shirts while in there) I actually traversed the tunnel twice. The first time was on a temperate day (high of 68 — 70 F) with a new friend who I had met the night before at the Airbnb I was staying at (an American girl doing her post doctoral studies at Tel Aviv University). The 2nd time I went on a hot day (closer to 85 F), and I decided to go there thinking that in the tunnels it would be cooler… I was wrong… while it wasn’t as hot as outdoors it was HUMID down there, because of all the water running under the walkway, and therefore the even less comfortable the outdoor heat which was dry.

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In order to go into the tunnel you’re going to need a ticket… and this is where things get a bit complicated (see above). You COULD buy a ticket to go to the tunnel which includes the Turkish baths (you can’t get one to just the tunnel) … but … The MAIN attraction in Acre is the Hospitallers‘ Fortress (aka Knight’s Halls)… and in order to see it you HAVE to buy the combined ticket. As such, if you have ANY interest in seeing that you’ll want to buy the combo ticket… I strongly suggest including the Turkish Bath… but if you’re in town with no car, do not get the Rosh Hanikra ticket as that is very far away and does not include any sort of shuttle bus to get you there.

In fact the ONLY attraction NOT included in a combined ticket combination (which includes all the Arab controlled attractions), is the ticket to the old English Prison, which is controlled by the Israeli military