Monday, July 27, 2015

The Ancient City of Acre

The city of Acre plays an important part in the history of the crusades and particularly in the history of the Commemorative Order of St. Thomas of Acon as it was in Acre where the order was founded. Acre is unique as it has existed since the time of the Phoenicians; has been influenced by the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Bahai religions; and many of its ancient structures have been preserved over time.

Acre is located in the northern section of Haifa Bay in Israel and is one the oldest continuously inhabited sites in the world. Acre sits in an important location as it was an important trade port connecting the Levant to the maritime trade that occurred in the Mediterranean.

Acre is thought to have been founded sometime during the early Bronze Age (circa 3000 B.C.). There is an early reference to a city named Aak, which appeared on a list of cities paying tribute to Thutmose III. The name "Acre" used was derived by the Greeks from the root word "ake" meaning healing, which goes back to the Greek mythological story of Heracles finding healing herbs there for his wounds. The original city was fortified by a high earthen wall where access was through brick gateways. It is also thought to have been referred to as Akko or Akka which city is found in Judges 1:31 and refers to a city where Israelites could not drive out Canaanites; the Jewish historian Josephus referred to the city as Akre. The city would eventually become a part of the territory belonging to the tribe of Asher, one of the 12 tribes of Israel, and ruled by a provincial governor under King Solomon, though some argue that it remained an independent city. As it was on the northern edge of the Israeli kingdom and being a seaport town, Acre was exposed to other cultures and in the 8th century BC, took part in a revolt, along with Tyre and Sidon, against Shalmaneser V, an Assyrian king.

After Acre was conquered by Alexander the Great, the city was renamed 'Antiochia Ptolemais', named after Ptolemy II Philadelphus, King of Ptolemaic Egypt (a Hellenistic kingdom that existed after the death of Alexander the Great and ended with the death of Cleopatra VII).

Around 153 BC, Alexander I Balas, son of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, contesting with Demetrius I Soter over the crown of the Syrian Kingdom of the Seleucidae, took over Acre, or Antiochia Ptolemais. 

The city was captured by Alexander Jannaeus (King of Judea), Cleopatra VII (Queen of Egypt), and Tigranes II (King of Armenia) in the 1st Century BC. For Alexander Jannaeus this was a strategic move as the Seleucid Empire was too weak to intervene and prevent the takeover.

During the control of Judea under the Roman Empire (starting around 48 BC), Acre was a staging point for legions to quell the Jewish rebellion (sometimes referred to as the Great Revolt). After the Roman Empire was split into two halves, Acre was administered by the Eastern Roman Empire (what would become the Byzantine Empire). The Byzantines would control it until 614 AD when the Persians took control of it for a short period.

In August of 636 AD, the Byzantines were defeated by the Islamic Army led by Khalid ibn al-Walid, a general of Abu Bakr, and is considered one of Khalid's greatest military victories. Following the battle, Acre fell under the rule of the Rashidun Caliphate. The Rashidun Caliphate ruled from 632 to 661 until it was replaced by the Umayyad Caliphate and then by the Abbasids. Through the caliphates, Acre was revived as it was used as one of the main ports and naval bases, and due to this importance, the caliphates strengthened the fortifications.

The city would remain in the hands of Muslims until 1104 when, after 4-years of siege, Acre was finally captured by the armies commanded by King Baldwin I of the newly established Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Crusaders needed Acre for their chief port for both supplies and new troops required for maintaining their holdings and further conquest in the Holy Land. Acre also gave them access to the trade that had made the city so prosperous and was matched only in size by the city of Jerusalem. Acre made Jerusalem, and the crusader kingdom, very wealthy providing more than all the revenues of the King of England. Acre symbolized the exchange of western and eastern cultures better than any other city during the Crusades.

In 1187, Acre fell into the hands of the Ayyubid Sultan, Saladin, after his victory against the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin. This was not the only city lost to the Crusaders as a result of the Battle of Hattin; several other cities of great importance were lost such as Jerusalem. In 1189 Acre was besieged by the Crusaders, but it would take two years before they would capture the city from the Muslims.

The Siege of Acre was the start of the Third Crusade and lasted nearly 2-years. Guy de Lusignan, King of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, led the Crusading army to besiege the port city. After the Battle of Hattin, many of the strategic holdings such as Acre and Tyre were captured by Saladin's forces. This news shocked Europe and a call for a Third Crusade occurred. King Guy had been released after his capture at Hattin and with the refusal of Conrad to let him enter Tyre, headed towards Acre to capture the city and establish a new base of operations for his kingdom; his authority was tied solely to his wife and many rejected his claim as ruler of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Unable to take the city by surprise the Crusaders set up camp around the city and wait for reinforcements, this came in the form of Danish, French, German, Italians, and English. Upon hearing this news, Saladin moved his army towards Acre where the first battle occurred on September 15, 1189, and the Muslim forces were repelled, but small battles and skirmishes over the next several months. The Crusader force was in a precarious position as it had a Muslim garrison within Acre on one side and Saladin's forces located east of the city in a semicircle formation.

The Siege of Acre was plagued with stalemates and neither side could obtain a large enough victory to secure the complete defeat of their enemy. The Crusaders attempted to destroy the walls using siege machines, but when they attempt to breach the walls, Saladin would attack from the rear causing them to stop the infiltration of Acre and repel the Islamic forces which would give the garrison within Acre an opportunity to repair the damage. On July 4, 1191, the city had taken enough damage that it offered terms of surrender to King Richard, but he rejected the conditions. A week later, after a final battle, the Crusaders accepted the terms of surrender offered by the Muslims holding the city of Acre.

It was during the Siege of Acre that William, the Chaplain to the Dean of St. Pauls, arrived in the Holy Land and came to see the devastation of the siege and all the dead Crusader bodies that were not buried. With some assistance, he began to bury the dead Crusaders and help with the wounded. His movement gained traction and popularity so William formed an order with Acre being incorporated to its name as a memorial of its founding location. He started out by raising the monies needed to ransom the captives of the Muslim forces. Being successful at fundraising, William then proceeded to build a church and churchyard dedicated to St. Thomas `a Becket whereupon the order became known as "Commemorative Order of St. Thomas of Acon" (Acon being the anglicized version of Acre). This order was truly unique as it was the only order composed of Englishmen. This order, out of necessity, would become militarized and fight alongside the other military orders found in Acre.

Once captured in 1191, Acre served as the de facto capital of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem as Jerusalem was still under the control of Saladin's forces as well as the headquarters of the military orders such as the Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller, and German Teutonic Knights. The city expanded with new neighborhoods, palaces, churches, and public buildings which required new defenses built in the form of a double city wall.

Acre would remain in control of the Crusaders until 1291 when the Mamluk Sultan Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil captured the city in a bloody siege and razed the city so it could not be used against him or his successors in the future. Acre was the last stronghold of the Crusaders on the Levantine mainland and many, such as the Knights Templar, fled to islands such as Cyprus.

The Mamluks had been capturing small portions of what remained of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, but when the Tripoli fell, the leaders in Acre started to prepare and fortify Acre in hopes of keeping it and repelling the Mamluk army headings its way. The Mamluk army was strengthened by troops from Damascus, Hama, Tripoli, and al-Kark which arrived at Acre on April 5, 1291. Over the next 2-weeks, the Mamluks launched barrages against the towers and walls of Acre and engaged in small skirmishes with the Crusading forces. On May 5, Acre attempted to settle the matter with a plea for mercy, but this failed. On May 8, the towers began to cave in from the immense damage dealt with them by the Mamluks. The days following were seen with attacks into the city, but a complete victory wasn't accomplished until the 18th of May, and by that time many rulers were able to escape. Not everyone was willing to surrender to the Mamluks; the Knights Templar held out until May 28 when their fortress finally collapsed killing them and most of the attacking Mamluks. The Fall of Acre signaled the end of the Crusader's control of the Holy Land.

While much of the city was in ruin, it was still used as a port, even during the Mamluk era which lasted until 1517 AD when Acre was taken over by the Ottomans. Under the Ottomans, it seems Acre was neglected as it fell into disuse and decay. By the end of the 17th century, there were just a few buildings, some cottages, some religious sites, and a few French merchants.

Tribal leaders or sheiks were able to take it over. At the end of the 18th century Acre was revived and made the seat of power under the rule of Dhaher al-Omar, sometimes known as Zahir al-Umar al-Zaydani, whose domain included Galilee, Tiberias (near the Hills of Hattin), Arraba, Nazareth, and Deir Hanna. It was during this sheikhdom that Acre's fortifications were rebuilt. Such were the fortifications that not even Napoleon was able to capture the city in 1799, but was destroyed by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt in 1831. During the Egyptian-Ottoman War, naval forces from England, Turkey, and Austria shelled Acre causing Ibrahim Pasha to flee the city. After this war, Acre served as the capital of the northern region of the Land of Israel in the Ottoman Empire.

During the British Mandate of Palestine after World War I, Acre was reconstructed. In the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, Acre was originally designated to be a part of a future Arab state, but was besieged and captured by the Israeli's during the 1948 War. The port of Acre fell into disuse as it was supplanted by the port of Haifa, located along the south side of the Bay of Haifa (opposite of Acre).

Today Acre is a city with mixed demography with Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Acre is considered the holiest city for the Bahá'í Faith, a monotheistic religion emphasizing the spiritual unity of all humankind and was founded in Persia during the 19th century. Throughout its history, this city has been under Phoenician, Assyrian, Roman, Byzantine, Hellenistic, Persian, Islamic, Crusader, British, and Israeli control. Even with its destruction, Acre has many well-preserved remains which show off its unique history and the styles of architecture seen in the urban life of Acre throughout the years; recent excavations have uncovered Hellenistic and Roman cemeteries as well as a temple dedicated to Antiochus VII Euergetes (sometimes referred to as Sidetes), a ruler of the Seleucid Empire. In 2002, the oldest part of the city of Acre was declared a world cultural preservation site by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and serves as a major tourist attraction. Acre, today, serves much of Western Galilee in trade and administration matters.


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2. Czech, Kenneth P. Third Crusade: Siege of Acre. August 2001. 

3. Hickman, Kennedy. Crusades: Siege of Acre. n.d.

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6. Alexander Jannaeus. n.d. 

7. Bahai Faith. n.d. 

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14. The British Mandate Period. n.d.

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