Acre is a city that since 1948 belongs to Israel, specifically to the Western Galilee which was declared as UNESCO World Heritage City in 2011.
A city with 4000 years of history behind; since the Egyptians and then with the Greeks, it was one of the main harbours in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, for a long time considered as the “Key to Palestine”, thanks to its dominant position between the coast and the Jezrael valley, the easiest entry to the region.
Below: Acre city. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
In 1104 King Baldwin I of Jerusalem managed to seize it from the Arabs thanks to the help of the Genoese people too and the city started to bloom: Genoa, Pisa, and Marseille picked it up as a base for their trades without mixing them up as each city founded a different district.
In the Liber Secretorum Fidelium Crucis (Venice, 14th century) it was contained one of the first representations of Acre with the fortifications, the destinations inside the city and the single districts with the borders well defined.
Below: map of Acre in the Liber Secretorum Crucis. Picture shared thanks to Biblioteca Riccardiana di Firenze
It was conquered again by the Muslim King Saladin in 1187, attacked by Guido di Lusignano in 1189 during the Siege of Acre and finally conquered by Richard I of England in 1191. It was by then nominated as capital of what remained of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.
In 1229 the Knights Hospitaller, knightly religious order born around the 1st half of the 11th century in Jerusalem, took over after several battles amongst Christians and Muslims. A peaceful deal was found on the 11th of February 1229 between the Ayyubid sultan al-Malik al-Kāmil and Frederick II Holy Roman Emperor, and thanks to it the Holy City, apart from the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, came back under the rule of the Christians.
Acre remained the last stronghold of the Crusader State, called Outremer, the “lands beyond the sea”, until its fall occurred in 1291 after the bloody siege led by the Mamluks of the sultan al-Malik al-Ashraf Khalīl.
Below: Ancient Acre. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Under the control of the Knights Templar at the time of the Third Crusade (1189-1192) Acre reached the peak of visibility, with the construction of its majestic defensive walls. The Knight Templars were a Catholic military order of warrior monks formed in 1119. They were fighting in the name of the Pope and would help the crusaders and the pilgrims arriving from Europe in Israel, protecting them from the attacks of the Muslim ravagers.
At the beginning the order was based in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount, and they were named after this place. After the conquest of Jerusalem at the hands of Saladin in 1187, the Knights moved their headquarters to Acri and started rebuilding their district in the South West area of the city.
The city appeared with a Medieval layout, with its narrow and curvy streets, with not many open spaces. The Florentine academic Giovanni Mariti, at the end of the 18th century used to describe it this way:
“the streets of Acre are all very narrow and when on the wide ones an elephant passes by, no other animal fits any longer”.
There were buildings with a square or rectangular plan with an airy inner yard though, often developed on two floors where shops and public offices were set as well as areas intended to welcome pilgrims and travellers.
Part of the archeological heritage of Acre remains to this day in awful condition but some important buildings have been restored and has become interesting tourist destinations.
Below: the old wall on the left with a bell tower, the new one and the fort (central). Picture by MathKnight and Zachi Evenor via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Amongst them there was the complex of the Hospitaller with its 3 main buildings: the Church of Saint John and the Hospital (where no archeological excavation has been carried on yet) as well as the Headquarter, with its great Knights rooms facing a large open yard.
“The Templar fort was the most important building in the city and, for the most part of its extension it used to run along the coast. The structure was sturdy: the entrance was protected by two mighty towers, whose walls were 8.5 m thick (28 feet). On the sides of the towers they built two smaller towers, both holding a golden lion as big as a bull”. These were the words of a Templar Knight who attended the siege of Acre in 1291.
Many of such structures still hide some mystery: only at the end of the 20th century it was discovered the fascinating Templar Tunnel inside a packed net of secret galleries which loosen silently underneath the city. It used to join the Palace of the Order to the harbour through the Pisan district. That was a rapid getaway with easy access for all the inhabitants in case of siege as well as a secret channel for supplies.
Below: cartography of the excavation in the archeological complex. Picture shared by Israel Antiquities Authority
It was on the 1994 that in the archeological expedition led by the explorer Albert Lin, the man made a sensational discovery: a guardhouse with the remains of the respective tower, perhaps the famous tower where the knights stored the gold, transporting it through the secret tunnels. The guardhouse of the Knights Templar is buried under meters of soil and debris, unsure whether anyone will ever start the excavation work to bring everything back to light.
Below: the towers of the Acre walls. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Doctor Lin and his colleagues discovered the tower thanks to a technique of remote sensing called “LIDAR”: by laser impulses it allows to see through the soil without having to dig.
Below: interior view of the Templar Tunnel. Picture by Geagea shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
The scientists guided by doctor Lin used the data collected to reconstruct in a 3D technology the net of galleries underground. The Templar Tunnel is 350 m long (1150 feet), 4 m (13 feet) wide and 2.5 m (8 feet) high. The lower part was digged on natural stone while the upper part was made out of blocks of rock cut and standing above barrel vaults.
But Acre is not just that. The archeological recovery as well as the research on the many areas of the city leave space for a better understanding. It was possible to discover about the way of constructing, the type of functional urban installation, the trade-based economy, in a harbour city amongst the most important ones in the Mediterranean Sea between the 12th and the end of the 13th century as a connection between Western and Eastern cultures .
Below: the walls of Acre photographed in 1951
Below: Saint John’s Church on the sea wall and the harbour in foreground. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Today Acre can represent the starting point for a trip towards the discovery of an extraordinary architectural heritage, as well as the one of the cultural and social relationship between different tribes and religions, which saw its start with the Crusaders in the 12th century.