Akko: The Maritime Capital
of the Crusader Kingdom
The port city of Akko
(also known as Acre) is located on a promontory at the northern end
of Haifa Bay. The earliest city was founded during the Bronze Age at
Tel Akko (in Arabic Tel el-Fukhar – mound of the potsherds), just east
of the present-day city. Akko is mentioned in ancient written sources
as an important city on the northern coast of the Land of Israel. The
wealth of finds, including remains of fortifications uncovered in the
excavations at Tel Akko, attest to the long and uninterrupted occupation
of the site during biblical times.
The ancient site of Akko was abandoned during the Hellenistic period. A new city named
Ptolemais, surrounded by a fortified wall, was built on the site of
present-day Akko. The Romans improved
and enlarged the natural harbor in the southern part of the city, and
constructed a breakwater, thus making it one of the main ports on the eastern
The importance of Akko – a well protected, fortified
city with a deepwater port – is reflected in its eventful history during
the period of Crusader rule in the
who founded the Latin Kingdom
of Jerusalem in 1099, did not at first succeed in overcoming Akkos
fortifications. On 26 May 1104, after months of heavy siege and with the
help of the Genoese fleet, the city surrendered and was handed over to King
Baldwin I. Aware of the significance of the city and its port for the
security of their kingdom, the Crusaders
immediately began to construct a sophisticated system of fortifications
composed of walls and towers, unlike any built previously. These
fortifications were built along the sea to the west and south of the city,
while in the east and north a mighty wall (probably a double wall) with a
broad, deep moat separated the city from the mainland. The port was also
rebuilt and, according to literary sources and maps, included an outer and
an inner harbor (the latter now silted). A new breakwater was built,
protected by a tower at its far end; it is today known as the Tower of
The fortifications of Akko, in which the Crusaders had placed their trust, fell
relatively easily to the Muslims. Shortly after their victory at the Battle
of the Horns of Hattin, on 9 July 1187, the city surrendered to Salah
al-Din (Saladin) and its Christian inhabitants were evacuated.
returned and laid siege to Akko in 1188, yet did not succeed in penetrating
the massive fortifications, which they themselves had built. But the
Muslims surrendered to Richard the Lion Heart, King of England and Philip
Augustus, King of France (leaders of the Third Crusade) on 12 July 1191.
For the following 100 years, the Crusaders
ruled Akko. Jerusalem remained
(but for a short period) under Muslim
rule, thus immeasurably increasing the importance of Akko, which, during
the 13th century, served as the political and administrative capital of the
Latin Kingdom. Akko was the Crusaders foothold in the Holy Land,
a mighty fortress facing constant Muslim
threat. Its port served as the Crusader Kingdoms link with Christian
Europe, and also for trans-shipment westward of valuable cargoes
originating in the east.
The palace (castrum) of the Crusader kings was located in the
northern part of the urban area of Akko, enclosed by massive
fortifications. Near the harbor, merchant quarters known as communes were
established by the Italian maritime cities of Venice, Pisa and Genoa. Each
quarter had a marketplace with warehouses and shops, and dwellings for the
merchant families. There were also centers for the various military orders
– the Hospitalers, the Templars and others, who were responsible for
defense of the Latin Kingdom.
Throughout the city, a number of public buildings, such as churches and
hospices, were constructed.
At the beginning of the 13th century, a new residential
quarter called Montmusard founded north of the city. It was surrounded by
its own wall (probably also a double wall). In the middle of the century,
sponsored by Louis IX of France, Akko expanded and became prosperous. With
a population of about 40,000, it was the largest city of the Crusader
The last battle between the Crusaders and the Muslims for control of Akko began in
1290. After a long siege by the Mamluks
under al-Ashraf Khalil, a portion of the northern wall was penetrated; the
city was conquered on 18 May 1291. The date marks the end of the Crusader presence in the Holy Land.
Buildings from the Crusader
period, including the city walls, were partially or completely buried
beneath buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries, when the city was part of
the Ottoman Empire.
Remains from the Crusader
Significant remains from the Crusader period were first uncovered in
Akko during the 1950s and 1960s when portions of building complexes, below
ground level but almost completely preserved, were cleared of debris.
During the 1990s, within the framework of the development of Akko,
excavations were undertaken both outside and inside the present-day Old
City walls, bringing to light fascinating remains of Akkos illustrious
medieval history, previously known mainly from pilgrims accounts.
The Hospitalers Compound
The most important of the subterranean remains of Akko
of the Crusaders is located in the
northern part of todays Old City. It is the structure that was the
headquarters of the Order of the Hospitalers (the Knights of St. John). It
is an extensive building complex (ca. 4,500 sq. m.) with halls and many
rooms built around a broad, open central courtyard. The thick walls were
built of well-trimmed kurkar (local sandstone), and the complex was
fortified with corner towers. When the Ottoman ruler of Akko, Ahmed al-Jazzar
decided to build a citadel and a palace on the site, he had the Hospitalers
building filled in with earth.
In recent years, the 3-4 m. high earth fill blocking the
central courtyard of the Hospitalers compound was removed, revealing the
1200 sq. m. courtyard.
There are broad openings in the walls of the courtyard
leading to the halls and rooms surrounding it. To support the upper storey,
pointed arches issuing from broad pilasters that project from the walls
were built. A 4.5 m. wide staircase supported by arches provided access
from the eastern side of the courtyard to the second storey. An extensive
network of drainage channels carried rainwater from the courtyard to a main
sewer. In the southwestern corner of the courtyard was a stone-built well
that guaranteed the residents water supply.
South of the courtyard is a hall, which was misnamed the
Crypt of St. John. This is a rectangular hall in Gothic style, 30 x 15 m.
with a 10 m. high groin-vaulted ceiling supported by three round central
piers, each 3 m. in diameter. Chimneys indicate that it served as a kitchen
and refectory (dining hall). Fleurs-de-lis (symbol of the French
royal family), are carved in stone in two corners of the hall.
South of the hall lies a building complex known as al-Bosta.
It is composed of a large hall with several enormous piers supporting a
groin-vaulted ceiling. This subterranean building is in fact the crypt of
St. John, over which the church itself was built. Portions of the church
and its decorations were uncovered in the excavation.
North of the central courtyard is a row of long,
parallel underground vaulted halls, 10 m. high, known as the Knights
Halls. On one side are gates opening onto the courtyard; on the other,
windows and a gate facing one of the main streets of the Crusader city. These were the barracks
of the members of the Order of Hospitalers.
To the east of the courtyard, the 45 x 30 m. Hall of the
Pillars was exposed, which had served as a hospital. Its 8 m. high ceiling
is supported by three rows of five square piers. Above this hall of columns
probably stood the four-storey Crusader
palace depicted in contemporary drawings.
Most of the buildings on the western side of the
courtyard remain unexcavated. Several ornate capitals, illustrative of the
elaborate architecture of this wing, were found. In its northern part was a
public toilet with 30 toilet cubicles on each of its two floors. A network
of channels drained the toilets into the central sewer of the city.
An advanced underground sewage system was found beneath
the group of buildings of the Hospitalers. This network drained rainwater
and wastewater into the citys central sewer. It was one meter in
diameter and 1.8 m. high and runs from north to south.
Portions of Crusader
period streets were uncovered: in the Genoese quarter in the center of the
present old city of Akko, a 40 m.-long portion of a roofed street was
exposed. It runs from east to west and is 5 m. wide. On both sides were
buildings with courtyards and rooms facing the street serving as shops. In
the Templar quarter in the southwestern part of the city, another portion
of a main street leading to the harbor was uncovered. Some 200 m. of the
street were exposed and along it, several Crusader buildings which had been
buried beneath Ottoman structures.
The Crusader City Walls
The location of the Crusader
city walls is well known from detailed contemporary maps that have
survived, but few traces have been found in excavations. Parts of the walls
lie beneath the Ottoman fortifications; others were damaged when modern
neighborhoods were built.
Near the northeastern corner of the Ottoman
fortifications, a 60 m. long segment of the northern Crusader wall was found; it is some 3
m. thick, and was built of local kurkar sandstone.
A short distance eastward, parts of the corner of a
tower built of large kurkar stones were preserved to a height of 6 m. The
tower was fronted by a deep moat, 13 m. wide, and protected on its other
side by a counterscarp wall. This section of wall belongs to the outer,
northern fortifications, which were constructed in the 13th century to
protect the then new Montmusard quarter. It is probably the Venetian Tower
depicted in Crusader period maps. On
the seashore some 750 m. north of the Old City are remains of the
foundation trenches of a circular tower with a wall extending eastward from
it, today covered by seawater. In the view of researchers, this is the
round corner tower that stood at the western end of the wall surrounding
the Montmusard quarter.
The renewed excavations at Akko were conducted by A.
Druks, M. Avissar, E. Stern, M. Hartal and D. Syon on behalf of the
Israel Antiquities Authority. The excavations at the Hospitalerscompound
were directed by E. Stern on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.