For 2 centuries in the Middle Ages, armies of Christian knights from Europe streamed eastward to “free” the Holy Land from Muslim rule. Fueled by a strange mix of religious faith, chauvinism, and military aggression, these knights traveled impossibly far from their home countries for years at a time; they needed a safe town of their own in the eastern Mediterranean. Washing up in the ancient seaport of Acre, they transformed it into Crusade City.
Acre had been ruled by everybody at one time or another—the Phoenicians, King David, Alexander the Great, the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt. When the first Crusaders arrived in 1104, they renamed it Saint Jean d’Acre, built a great sandstone fortress, and founded what would become the greatest Crusader city of the Holy Land, eventually reaching a population of 40,000. Acre was a strategic prize, and it fell into Saladin’s hands for 4 years, until Richard the Lion-Hearted of England heroically took it back in 1191. The Crusaders hung on until 1291, when they were driven out by the Mamelukes, the final blow that crushed their hopes of ruling the Holy Land. During the Ottoman empire, the Turks built a entire new city on top of the Crusader city, wiping it from view.
Modern Acre is an industrial town, just down the coast from Haifa; it does boast a fine walled Old City, but it looks totally Arab, with romantic minarets and palm trees against the sky. You’ll want to stroll around its Arab bazaar and visit its beautiful mosques. But the ghost of that Crusader past is still there—you just have to go underground to find it. Since the 1950s, the knights’ city has been gradually excavated from beneath the walls of Acre Citadel, a former Ottoman prison. A replica of the Crusaders’ Enchanted Garden blooms beside the visitor center for this Subterranean Crusader City, the old Hospitallers’ Fortress, headquarters of the powerful Crusader order, the Knights Hospitallers. Four wings surround a central courtyard; the first hall is a clear example of the double construction—the bottom shows the Crusaders’ arches, the top the Ottomans’. Two wings have vaulted Gothic ceremonial halls with pointed arches and massive banded columns (picture them hung with banners and coats of arms), while others have smaller rooms that were probably barracks and storerooms—a medieval toilet was even uncovered.
Kids always love secret passageways, so don’t miss the Templars’ Tunnel, in the southeastern part of the Old City, on Haganah Street, a 350m-long (1,148-ft.) tunnel carved out of rock from the fortress to the port. Once you’ve meandered around these echoing chambers, climb up into the broad city walls—built on the base of the old Crusader fortress—for a sweeping view of the bay. Imagine ancient Crusaders standing here, gazing back toward Europe and the homes they’d left behind, so long ago.