Post-classical history

Acre

Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) was the main port of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem after its capture by King Baldwin I in 1104. After four years of Muslim occupation (1187-1191), the city was the capital of the kingdom until its fall to the Mamlūks in 1291. Acre formed part of the royal demesne, although from 1231 to 1242 it experienced self-government when it was ruled by a body including both noblemen and burgesses opposed to Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and regent of the kingdom of Jerusalem.

Capture of Acre by Richard I of England and Philip II of France. (Library of Congress)

Capture of Acre by Richard I of England and Philip II of France. (Library of Congress)

Acre’s Muslim population was massacred soon after the crusader conquest, and there was no permanent Muslim community throughout the Frankish period, although a few Muslims resided there for some years. Most of the city’s Eastern Christians and Jews apparently remained in the city after the conquest, but Frankish settlers rapidly became the dominant group within the population. By the second decade of the twelfth century, the city was the major Levantine destination of crusaders, Western immigrants, and merchants, and the exclusive port for pilgrims. The city’s multiple economic functions as market and transit station offering logistical support to these groups fostered its economic and demographic growth.

Castle and moat of Acre. (Library of Congress)

Castle and moat of Acre. (Library of Congress)

The urban configuration inherited from the Fātimid period was largely maintained, despite some large-scale construction in the Frankish period. The city had an irregular layout within the wall protecting it on its northern and eastern flanks and lacked a center. Its artificial harbor, protected by two breakwaters, opened to the south into the Bay of Acre. The harbor remained unchanged during the Frankish period, despite the constant increase in maritime traffic. It could accommodate many ships, yet by the late twelfth century large vessels had to anchor in the bay, from which barks conveyed passengers and goods to the shore. By 1169 the Hospitallers had apparently built a large structure along the northern city wall, and the Templars had an even larger one in the southeastern corner of the city. The two military orders enlarged their possessions in Acre by acquisitions and exchanges of real estate. However, their property lacked a quasi-extraterritorial status, in contrast to that granted by successive kings to the quarters belonging to Genoa (1104), Venice (1110), and Pisa (1168). The citizens of these maritime powers resident in Acre tended to live in their respective national quarters, which also offered accommodation to merchants and pilgrims.

Acre reached the peak of its development between 1191, when it was recaptured by the Christian forces of the Third Crusade (1189-1192), and 1291, when it fell to the Mamlûks. During that century it replaced Jerusalem as the political, ecclesiastical, cultural, and artistic center of the kingdom, taking advantage of the growing Mediterranean trade. At the time of Saladin’s conquest in 1187, there was still vacant space within the urban wall, yet this was no longer sufficient after 1191. The large-scale relocation of population from territories remaining under Muslim rule generated the rapid growth of a new suburb, called Montmusard, to the north of the Old City. The arrival of further individual refugees, the royal court and administration, and the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem and other ecclesiastical institutions, along with Western immigration, furthered the expansion of construction in the suburb. Between 1198 and 1212, Montmusard was enclosed along its northern and eastern flanks by two walls separated by a barbican, and the outer wall was extended in order to reinforce the defense of the Old City. After 1191 Marseilles obtained a quarter of its own, while the Teutonic Order, established in 1198, also acquired property in that urban region. The Order of Thomas of Canterbury was transferred in 1227-1228 to Montmusard, and new ecclesiastical and charitable institutions were established there. The Hospitallers, who enlarged their compound by massive construction until around 1235, were compelled by lack of space (around 1250 or somewhat later) to erect a large building in Montmusard to house the conventual brothers. Eventually the Old City became densely built up, yet the distribution of population within its walls was uneven. Close to the harbor, the royal quarter of the Chain, named after the chain that protected the harbor, had the heaviest concentration of inhabitants. By contrast, Montmusard was never completely built up and retained a semirural character. Two sets of maps, the models of which were drawn around 1320, reflect the urban configuration of Acre shortly before 1291.

Commercial life was concentrated in the Old City. The large-scale privileges and autonomy enjoyed by the maritime powers did not exempt their citizens and their goods from the regular inspections carried out upon arrival or departure at the royal customs. The land toll station (Fr. fonde) was situated on the eastern side of the city. It controlled the passage of goods between the city, its rural hinterland, and emporia under Muslim rule such as Damascus. The maritime toll station was located within the royal quarter of the Chain. Eastern Christians served in both these offices. Especially in the fonde, they contributed in large measure to the continuity of the Fātimid commercial taxation system, although the latter underwent changes in the Frankish period. The main urban arteries joined the harbor to the royal fonde, and these installations to the Italian quarters.

The influx of immigrants from the West after 1191 enhanced the multi-ethnic and multilingual character of Acre’s society. The Frankish population included speakers of French and Occitan(Provençal), in addition to a mercantile component of overwhelmingly Italian origin, mainly concentrated in the Genoese, Venetian, and Pisan quarters. These maritime powers established and consolidated permanent governmental institutions in their respective quarters after 1191. They strongly resisted the attempts of Acre’s bishops to extend their authority over ecclesiastical bodies in their respective quarters. Their governmental and ecclesiastical institutions enhanced “national” attitudes. In addition, numerous ecclesiastical and charitable institutions acted as focuses of collective identity based on common origin or language for other settlers and pilgrims. Thus the Teutonic Order, established in the Old City, presumably attracted German speakers, while the northern tip of Mont- musard was known as the English neighborhood. The Eastern Christians (called Syrians by the Franks) were divided among several religious communities, each of which retained its own churches and monasteries. The number of these institutions was small compared with the Latin ones, yet the location of several of them in Montmusard implies an influx of Eastern Christians after 1191. Some of them were attracted by economic opportunities, while others were presumably refugees, mostly from Frankish territories conquered by the Muslims in 1187 or in the thirteenth century, or else from Syrian cities threatened or attacked by the Mongols around 1260. Contrary to past claims, there was no official residential segregation between Franks and other inhabitants in Acre.

In the thirteenth century, the rivalry in the Mediterranean between the three major Italian maritime powers several times led to warfare in Acre. Pisa and Venice built walls surrounding their respective quarters, and Genoa fortified the entrances to its own. In addition, the compounds of the Hospitallers and the Templars became self-contained urban entities clearly separated from their surroundings. As a result the Old City witnessed the physical partitioning of its space in the course of the thirteenth century. The so-called War of St. Sabas (1256-1258), the most severe clash between the Italian maritime powers, inflicted heavy damage upon Acre. The victory of Venice and Pisa over Genoa put an end to the existence of the Genoese quarter and community in the city.

Walls of Acre, probably of Mamlûk or Ottoman construction. (Courtesy Alfred Andrea)

Walls of Acre, probably of Mamlûk or Ottoman construction. (Courtesy Alfred Andrea)

The heterogeneous composition of Acre’s population was mirrored by its hybrid material culture. Frankish buildings in Acre displayed the major trends in Western contemporary architecture and monumental sculpture and the passage from Romanesque to Gothic, as evidenced by the various stages of construction in the Hospitaller compound. The presence of a Frankish clientele in the Levant and the constant stream of Western visitors called for commercial book production and the copying of popular historical and fictional works. The contribution of Eastern ecclesiastical institutions and communities in Acre to painting, the minor arts, and crafts has been underestimated so far. Icons, painted panels, and other devotional objects were certainly important, yet also many artifacts and mementos reflected Eastern culture and the artistic traditions of the Levant and regions further east. Their production, a major branch of the urban economy, was especially geared toward the numerous pilgrims, who were mostly from the West but also included Eastern Christians visiting Acre. Everyday life in the city was continuously reshaped by the dynamic interaction between its various communities, with their respective attitudes, culture, and artistic traditions, and by their collective encounter with a large transient population.

The geopolitical conditions resulting from the First Crusade (1096-1099) and the Christian conquest of Acre created a unique conjunction of favorable factors, which account for the city’s development in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These factors were abruptly eliminated by the fall of the Frankish states in 1291, after which the city lay in ruins for several centuries.

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