As the young members of my group grew attentive, I took advantage of the moment to launch into my monologue on the Mamelukes, the Muslim conquest, and a the highlights of medieval history in the Mediterranean.
It was important to establish the historical context before the kids needed to be released and then restrained.
I was guiding a three-generation family tour from Australia.
The grandparents, first-generation Holocaust survivors, had brought their children (and spouses) and grandchildren to Israel on a 10-day tour. We were standing in the upstairs courtyard of the old Acre prison – which was formerly the prisoner’s exercise yard.
Toward the end of the 13th century, the Muslim forces had grown more powerful under their Mameluke leaders and had succeeded in erasing the coastal defenses of the Crusaders. The Crusader kingdom was collapsing, and they were abandoning their forts and settlements in the face of the onslaught and advance of the Muslim armies.
In their retreat, the Crusaders sought refuge within the fortifications of the port city of Acre, the last stronghold of what had been the main commercial trading and population center of the eastern Mediterranean kingdom.
The population of the city swelled with the influx of émigrés. With the inevitable end of the kingdom in sight, the city teemed with an uneasy euphoria – a feverish excitement that descended into licentious debauchery – a decadent need for gratification to satisfy the uncertainty and rumors of their impending fate. Thus recorded the chroniclers, as the Muslim forces gathered.
“What is licentious debauchery and decadent ….?” asked one of the kids.
“Ask your parents later,” I replied.
The Crusader period spanned almost 200 years. It was inspired by a religious passion that had spread across Europe at the end of the 11th century to restore control of the Christian religious sites in the Holy Land, and later developed as a form of economic colonization.
When the Mamelukes finally defeated and banished the Crusaders, they demolished Crusader buildings and destroyed fortifications as a deterrent to any further aspirations that the vanquished might have to re-establish a foothold in the Levant.
The flame was now extinguished. For the next 450 years, Acre became a backwater fishing village with a small anchorage, and the name Acco was adopted by its local Arab residents.
Toward the end of the 18th century, Acre regained some of its previous significance as an Ottoman (Turkish) trading port ruled by renegade warlords, who re-established part of the city, and over time rebuilt the city walls. A citadel was constructed and resurrected above the Crusader ruins, later used as a fortress for Turkish troops. Following the defeat of the Turkish Army after the First World War, it was converted into a prison during the British Mandate period to accommodate Arab offenders and Jewish political “dissidents.”
The children seemed interested to be inside a prison, and they absorbed the magical view provided by the location. This vantage point offered an expansive observation over the old city. The foreground was dominated by the exotic, large green dome of the Al-Jazzar Mosque, a pinnacle-crowned minaret towering over it, surrounded by a garland of white-domed roofs. The markets and neighborhood compounds with flat roof tops and old sandstone-colored houses formed another ring of buildings. The low skyline was interrupted by isolated towers and minarets projecting into the sky, and all this masonry was encompassed by the wall of the old port fortifications. Beyond the formidable wall lies a deep blue body of water, stretching across the Bay of Haifa to the Carmel Range, with the Galilee mountains to the north – all of which combine to define a narrow coastal strip, the Plains of Acre.
Adjacent to the exercise yard, one of the prison administrative buildings is put to use screening a historical film about the site. The plot concerns a young Israeli who has discovered his grandfather’s memoirs, which describe his experiences while an inmate in the Acre prison. The former inmate recalls the historic events related to the end of the British Mandate period in Palestine, when Jewish freedom fighters opposed to British rule struggled against the occupation in order to hasten the recall of British forces back to Britain.
The movie highlights the audacious escape from Acre prison orchestrated by the Irgun, under the leadership of Menachem Begin. The purpose of the escape was to forcibly release leading activists of the Jewish para-military leadership who had been imprisoned. Precise planning included coordination inside and outside of the prison.
Explosives smuggled in were to be detonated at the same instant that an outside team exploded part of the prison wall to allow the mass escape of the prisoners. Getaway vehicles awaited to hasten and facilitate their departure.
The escape routes, and contingencies were all meticulously planned.
However, when fate intervenes, the frailty of mortal planning becomes evident. Unforeseen circumstances resulted in numerous casualties. Some of the escaped prisoners were recaptured. Nevertheless the operation – the escape – was a strategic political success. It clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of British power in Palestine, and a gave sharp reminder to the British that their days were numbered.
A dramatic re-enactment of the Acre prison escape on May 4, 1947 is featured in the highly emotional 1960 movie, Exodus, with Paul Newman, who was outstanding in his role.
The modest production that we viewed mentioned consideration of an escape through tunneling. The initial plan of escape had been to dig a tunnel underneath the fortress. The inmates actually discovered a labyrinth of subterranean passages under their cells, dating back to Crusader times, but the maze had no apparent exit, thwarting their attempt. Consequently, the tunnel plan was rejected.
Based upon this information, the Antiquities Department, after the creation of the State of Israel, initiated excavations underneath the prison courtyard and uncovered a large complex of well-preserved Crusader buildings – known as the Knight’s Halls. These are cavernous structures spanned by massive arches and supported by thick walls and stalwart columns. These Crusader buildings had been used to provide the foundations for the later Ottoman structures.
DEPARTING FROM the prison complex, we descended along passageways into the Crusader buildings. Our first stop was the dungeon, accompanied by a convincing description of the conditions of incarceration. I suggested that the kids “check-in” to the dungeon, and then as we strolled through enormous vaulted halls we were awed by the sheer vastness of scope and by the skill of the masons as we continued our discussion of Crusader history.
The Crusader period in Acre extended from around 1101 to 1291. Acre essentially developed as the gateway and main trading port in what was known as the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The initial conquest of Acre was based on the need for the kingdom to have a commercial port for the transaction and merchandising of goods between Europe and the East via the Holy Land.
Crusader control of Acre was interrupted following their defeat and devastation at the hand of Muslim forces led by Saladin. A key turning point was the battle at the Horns of Hattin, in the lower Galilee near Tiberias, in 1187. The reason for the battle was related to a misguided act of chivalry to save the virtues of the Queen under siege in Tiberias. After the massacre, King Guy surrendered and was allowed to withdraw from the battlefield under an honorable surrender. These events are recounted in the movie Kingdom of Heaven, a historic drama based on the events that led to the collapse of the Crusader kingdom.
Fortunately, the kids had seen the movie, and pressed me for more background details about the Queen’s virtues – and for more gruesome battlefield details. So, much to their satisfaction, I related a tale that managed to sound like a scene from somewhere between Princess Bride and Apocalypse Now, and I was rewarded by a pleased and surprised faces.
However, this decisive battle did not deter the Crusaders.
Another wave of armies, led by King Guy and King Richard the Lionheart, returned and laid siege to Acre. An unusual situation developed: while they laid siege to Acre, they were themselves under siege from behind, surrounded by Saladin and his troops, who were stationed in the mountains above. Eventually the Genoese and Venetian navy barricaded and starved out the port by naval blockade from the sea. The port surrendered after a two-year siege, and the residents were massacred by the Crusaders.
“Any questions?” I asked.
After the recapture, Acre became the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem for the next century – although Jerusalem was never recovered during that period.
Eventually the Crusaders were banished altogether from the shores of the Holy Land by the Mamelukes – a warlord mercenary class that had risen out of enslavement to their Muslim masters.
IN RECENT times, the magnitude, the state of preservation and the historical significance of the Crusader ruins established Acre as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. The massive buildings are known as the Knight’s Halls, and include the well-preserved and restored Hospitaller’s Compound. Enormous columns rise to a height of three-story buildings, supporting the impressive vaulted arches and roofs of the pillared halls. The support walls are several meters thick, built from large blocks of kurkar sandstone.
The Crusader structure became the foundation for the citadel fortress, which was built above later, during Turkish times, and was subsequently converted into the prison during the British Mandate period.
A secret tunnel underneath one of the halls leads our adventurous group into the Turkish market area and the neighborhoods of old Acre. The contrast between the historical gargantuan underworld structures and the contemporary bustling street-level commerce that we emerge into is quite dramatic.
The Hospitalers were initially a religious monastic order and progressively developed into a military organization that became a significant force within the Crusader kingdom. Within Acre there were a number of Crusader communities, including the Knight Templars, who were a military order based on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem but subsequently had to relocate to Acre after the fall of Jerusalem. There were also other communities, including the maritime Italian states, who were constantly feuding amongst themselves, and the turmoil caused by recurring conflict and friction would undermine the strength of Acre until its eventual demise.
Acre was left devastated for 450 years, until warlords began resurrecting the port and encouraging a feudal agricultural economy in the area with grain, cotton and sugar cane. The infamous Ahmed Al-Jazzar (known as The Butcher, because of his passionate display for cruelty with the artistry of his knife) rose to power. He built the citadel palace, reinforced the walls of Acre, and was responsible for the famous mosque that is named after him. His reinforcement of the walls of Acre was completed in time to repulse the assault launched by Napoleon Bonaparte, and with the aid of a British fleet, he succeeded in forcing Napoleon to retreat down the coast and back to Europe. Interestingly, he had a powerful Jewish advisor, Haim Farki, but that did not prevent Al-Jazzar from blinding him in one eye and chopping off his ear after a disagreement.
The youngsters in my audience were grimacing, but their appetite to taste the famous humous of Acre was unabated. We wandered through the colorful market, past the old trading inns and the enchanting marina, to see the fishermen displaying their catch and mending their nets. We sat down at a restaurant overlooking the waterfront, and while enjoying the surrounding activity, we ordered a delicious meal of fish and Arab salads.
“Could you tell us again about that queen with virtues and what happened in that battle scene,” one of the kids inquired through a mouth half-full with humous and pita.
That evening we dined at another restaurant, overlooking the Bay of Haifa surrounded by city lights, with Mt. Carmel hovering majestically in the distance.
After dinner, we wandered into the night along narrow cobbled streets, inhaling the sea air, with the gentle sound of water lapping against the walls. The coffee shops were crowded with men with nargilehs, engulfed in cloudlets of belching smoke.
With the clattering in the background of backgammon pieces being arrayed and the sweet oozing smell of baklaveh, I could imagine Saladin proposing to King Richard that they sit down and indulge in a game.
During Hol Hamoed Succot, the streets of Acre come alive with a week-long fringe theater and music festival, which are highly recommended – along with the ample historical, archaeological and culinary delights.Graeme Stone is a licensed Israeli Tour Guide firstname.lastname@example.org