Akko's Old City was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.
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 Mediterranean coast.
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 Holy Land.
The Crusaders, who founded the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099, did not at first succeed in overcoming Akko’s 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 Flies.
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.
The Crusaders 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 Kingdom’s 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 Kingdom.
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.
Remains from the Crusader Period
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 Akko’s 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 today’s 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 city’s 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.
UNESCO World Heritage Designation
Criterion (ii): Acre is an exceptional historic town in that it preserves the substantial remains of its medieval Crusader buildings beneath the existing Moslem fortified town dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Criterion (iii): The remains of the Crusader town of Acre, both above and below the present-day street level, provide an exceptional picture of the layout and structures of the capital of the medieval Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Criterion (v): Present-day Acre is an important example of an Ottoman walled town, with typical urban components such as the citadel, mosques, khans, and baths well preserved, partly built on top of the underlying Crusader structures.