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Acre: History & Overview

Acre is a coastal city in northern Israel situated on a promontory at the northern end of the Bay of Haifa, 14 mi. (23 km.) north of Haifa, in the Acre Coastal Plain.

Ancient Acre

Ancient Acre is first mentioned in the Egyptian Execration Texts (c. 1800 B.C.E.) and it appears after the battle of Megiddo in the list of cities conquered by Thutmose III (c. 1468 B.C.E.). In the El-Amarna letters, the king of Acre, Zurata, and later his son, Zutana, appear as rivals of Megiddo and together with the king of Achshaph, as allies of Jerusalem. Acre is also mentioned in the lists of Seti I and Rameses II. The Greeks later derived the name Acre – a Semitic word – from the Greek akē (“healing”) and connected it with the legend of Heracles. During the reign of Ptolemy II, the name of the city was changed to Ptolemais, by which it was known until the Arab conquest.

The geographic position of Acre made its occupation vital to every army waging campaign in Syria and Eretz Israel. It was allotted to the tribe of Asher which, however, could not subdue it (Judg. 1:31) and it remained an independent Phoenician city. It submitted to the Assyrian king Sennacherib (701 B.C.E.) but revolted against Ashurbanipal who took revenge on the city in about 650 B.C.E.

Under Persian rule Acre served as an important military and naval base in the campaigns against Egypt. Coinage of Tyrian staters began there in 350 B.C.E. Alexander’s conquest of Syria and the fall of Tyre in 332 B.C.E. enhanced Acre’s position as is evidenced by the gold and silver coins struck there.

In 312 B.C.E., Ptolemy I razed its fortifications during his retreat from Antigonus but he reoccupied the city 11 years later. An association of loyal “Antiochenes” was founded in Acre when the city became Seleucid. The city was hostile to the neighboring Jews in Galilee, and Simeon the Hasmonean had to beat off its attacks (164 B.C.E.). His brother Jonathan was treacherously taken prisoner in Acre by the usurper Tryphon in 143 B.C.E. After the overthrow of the latter five years later, the town was held by Antiochus VII Sidetes, who bestowed upon it the titles “holy and inviolable” and was in turn honored by it in inscriptions. After his death, Acre became virtually independent, although it acknowledged the nominal suzerainty of various Ptolemaic rulers. It resisted all attacks of Alexander Yannai (Jos., Ant. 13:2), although it lost the Carmel region to him.

From Cleopatra Selene, Acre passed to Tigranes, king of Armenia (until 71 B.C.E.) and became Roman with Pompey’s occupation of the country, Caesar landed there in 48–47 B.C.E. and his visit marked a new era for the city. Herod later made it his base for the conquest of his kingdom (39 B.C.E.).

At the outbreak of the Jewish War in 66 C.E., the inhabitants massacred 2,000 of the Jewish population. The following year Acre became Vespasian’s base of operations against Galilee. Nero then settled veterans of four legions (3rd, 5th, 10th, 12th) there and made it a Roman colony: Colonia Claudia Ptolemais Germanica. As a harbor, Acre was by now overshadowed by Herod’s new port of Caesarea . Its rights were augmented by the emperor Heliogabalus and its independent coinage continued until 268 C.E. A Christian community lived in Acre from the time of the apostle Paul (Acts 21:7).

The Roman city of Ptolemais which stretched far beyond the present Old City, extended around Tell al-Fukhar, which was the site of Phoenician Acre up to the Hellenistic period. Excavations were conducted at Tell al-Fukhar by M. Dothan between 1973 and 1979. Early Bronze I remains were found on bedrock and were fairly sparse, with wall remnants, floors, and several pits. It is possible that at the end of this period the sea level rose and the site was temporarily inundated. Substantial fortifications were uncovered dating from the Middle Bronze Age II A–B, including a 60 ft. (18 m.) stretch of rampart of solid clay and earth surmounted by a wall. Remains of a two-story brick citadel were also exposed. These defenses surrounded the mound on all sides, save the south where it was protected by the swamps of the nearby Naaman River. A gate was uncovered to the southwest, with three chambers and three pairs of asymmetrical pilasters.

The citadel was destroyed towards the end of the 18th century B.C.E. Large buildings and numerous finds (including bronze Reshef figurines) were discovered at the site dating from the Late Bronze I–II indicating that it was a well-planned city, even though it apparently lacked defenses. Although there are some signs of occupation at the site circa 1200 B.C.E., perhaps by some of the “Sea Peoples,” very little was found that could be associated with the subsequent 11th–9th centuries B.C.E. Based on the archaeological finds, the city evidently revived and flourished during the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., and evidence of public buildings built of ashlars was unearthed at the site. One of these buildings was destroyed apparently by Sennacherib towards the end of the eighth century B.C.E. A cache of small silver ingots belongs to this level. The Persian period was one of the most important phases in the development of Acre as an administrative and commercial center, probably from the time of Cambyses onwards. Subsequently, Acre became an important naval center of importance to both Egypt and Persia. Among the finds from this period on the tell were cultic figurines in a pit and two ostraca bearing Phoenician inscriptions, and many Greek artifacts including Attic wares, suggesting that Greek merchants and Phoenicians lived side by side in this specific part of Acre.

Acre had two harbors, one northwest of the present port, with the other south of it. The center of Hellenistic Akke/Ptolemais moved towards the harbors and away from the tell. Numerous buildings and fortifications have been unearthed. Finds include large quantities of stamped amphora handles, indicating that wine was imported from Rhodes, Cos, and Thasos. In later Roman times, the Jewish and Samaritan quarters were also situated near the Old Port.

Despite the fact that the town was considered as being strictly outside the halakhic boundaries of the Holy Land (cf. Git. 2a), the Jews re-established their community there after the war against Rome because it was the most convenient port for Galilee (although they buried their dead outside the city and within the halakhic boundaries of Eretz Israel at the foot of Mt. Carmel and later in Kefar Yasif up to the 19th century). It served as a port of embarkation for the Patriarchs (and other rabbis) traveling to Rome and as a home port for their commercial fleet.

Rabbi Gamaliel II visited a bath dedicated to Aphrodite in Acre (Av. Zar. 3:4). Its fair was one of the three most famous in Eretz Israel (TJ, Av. Zar. 1:4, 39d) and its fisheries gave rise to the saying “to bring fish to Acre” as an equivalent of the modern “bringing coals to Newcastle.” According to both Josephus and Pliny, glass was discovered in its vicinity, in the sands of the Belus River (Na’aman) which were used for glass manufacture throughout antiquity. In Byzantine times Acre was the seat of a bishopric in the archdiocese of Tyre and had a large Samaritan community. In 614 C.E. it was taken, according to one source, by Jews allied with the Persian invaders of the Byzantine Empire; the Persians evacuated it 14 years later and Byzantine rule was restored. Shortly thereafter, however, in 636 C.E., it fell to the Arabs and resumed its original name, which had been preserved by the Jews, as can be seen from Talmudic sources.

Medieval Period

Letters in the Cairo Genizah refer to kehal Akko (“the congregation of Acre”) and rasheha (“its leaders”). In the second half of the 11th century R. Moses ibn Kashkil, known as a scholar in many fields, arrived in Acre from Mahdiah, N. Africa. In 1104 Acre was captured by Baldwin I, Crusader king of Jerusalem. It was lost by the Crusaders in 1187 and recaptured in 1191 when the city became the Crusader capital.

In 1165, Maimonides had paid a short visit to the town and later corresponded with the local dayyan, Japheth b. Elijah. In 1170, Benjamin of Tudela found 200 Jews in Acre and lists the names of the leading scholars, R. Zadok, R. Japheth, and R. Jonah. Pethahiah of Regensburg (c. 1175) also mentions in a short sentence Jews in the town. During this period Acre served as the port of disembarkation for both pilgrims and immigrants to Palestine. The Jewish community presumably received an impetus with the arrival of 300 rabbis from France and England in 1211. Among those who settled in the town were the scholars Samuel b. Samson and his son, R. Jacob ha-Katan, Jonathan b. Jacob ha-Kohen of Lunel, and Samson b. Abraham of Sens.

Another event that stimulated both the quantitative and qualitative development of the community was the arrival in 1260 of R. Jehiel b. Joseph of Paris, his son, and 300 of his pupils. Upon their arrival he founded a yeshivah, known as Midrash ha-Gadol de Paris, where he taught many pupils. There is also information that at about this time the scholars of Eretz Israel and Babylon addressed their questions on religious matters to “the scholars of Acre.” The town became a center of study and attracted many scholars. R. Abraham Abulafia lived there for a while and Nachmanides, who first settled in Jerusalem, moved to Acre, where he died in 1270.

In the late 13th century, R. Solomon Petit taught in a yeshivah in Acre. In 1291, the town was conquered and destroyed by the Mamluks, led by al-Malik al-Ashraf who massacred Christian and Jewish inhabitants. Only a few managed to escape.

After the Ottoman conquest in 1516, Acre again regained its importance as a port, and Jews gradually began to return. However, the settlement in Acre in the mid-16th century was small and impoverished. It may be assumed that Acre Jewry served as a link between the Jews of Galilee and the Mediterranean countries, and traded with Sidon, Aleppo, and Jerusalem. A letter dated 1741 states that there were over 100 Jewish householders. Moses Hayyim Luzzatto died there of the plague in 1747.

The revival of Acre as an important administrative and economic center was connected with the activities of the pashas Ẓahir al-ʿAmr and Aḥmad al-Jazzār. In 1750, Acre fell into the hands of al-ʿAmr and, in 1775, it became the capital of the vilayet of Sidon under Aḥmad al-Jazzār. Simḥah of Zalozhtsy (1764–65) notes that the Jewish settlement was small and poor. Abbé Giovanni Mariti (1767) records that the Jews had a synagogue but were not allowed to enlarge it.

Al-Jazzār fortified the town, using large numbers of forced laborers, and built markets, inns (khān), and a water supply. He developed Acre into a political and military center strong enough to deter Napoleon, who in 1799 unsuccessfully besieged Acre. The British fleet under Sir Sidney Smith helped al-Jazzār to defend the city and Napoleon’s failure here marked the collapse of his Middle Eastern expeditions.

In 1816, the traveler J.S. Buckingham stated that the Jews of Acre constituted a quarter of the population, had two synagogues, and were led by Ḥayyim Farḥi. Farḥi was highly respected by the authorities; his influence was decisive in Acre, and extended down as far as the Jaffa region. He was killed by Abdallah, the ruler of Acre.

The census of 1839, requested by Sir Moses Montefiore, listed 233 Jews; and the 1849 census, 181 Jews. Most were poor and lived in the eastern and northern parts of the town. In 1856, there were only 120 Jews, and in 1886, 140. In the mid-19th century, the Jews of Acre worked as peddlers and artisans, but many were without means of support.

Modern Acre

Acre stagnated and its shallow harbor was unfit for modern shipping. In the first decade of the 20th century, however, the Turks lifted the prohibition on building outside the Old City walls, and a new city quarter came into being on the north side, laid out with straight, and sometimes broad, roads. Although its population reached its lowest ebb before World War I, the town slowly started growing after its occupation by British forces (September 1918). There was always a Jewish population in Acre, residing alongside the Arab-Muslim, Christian, and Bahai inhabitants.

The Jewish residents, who numbered 350 in 1936, abandoned the town when the Arab riots broke out that year. During the British Mandate the fortress of al-Jazzār served as a prison in which political prisoners were also held (members of the Jerusalem Haganah, with Vladimir Jabotinsky, in 1920; members of the Haganah and other underground organizations in 1936–39; a group of Haganah commanders, with Moshe Carmel and Moshe Dayan in 1939–41). Jewish underground fighters, among them Shelomo Ben-Yosef, and Arab rioters were executed there. This fortress was attacked by the Irgun Ẓeva’i Le’umi in 1947.

During the early months of the War of Independence (1948), Acre served as an Arab base for operations against Jewish settlements further north and for a planned attack on Haifa. On May 13, 1948, however, Acre was stormed by Haganah forces and was included in the State of Israel, together with all of Western Galilee. Those of its Arab inhabitants who remained were, from the end of 1948, joined by Jewish immigrants. Acre’s population grew from 12,000 between 1953 and 1955 to 32,800 (including 8,450 non-Jews) in 1967 and 45,800 in 2002 (76% Jews, 22% Muslims, 2% Christians).

At the beginning of the 21st century, most of the Arab residents lived in the Old City, while the Jewish population was concentrated to the north and east of it. The quarter east of the Old City (and of the Nahariya highway) was built shortly after 1948. The expansion to the north and northeast took place later, while an industrial zone took shape on the dunes south of Acre, with the installations of the industrial company called “Steel City” at its southern extremity on the Haifa Bay beach. Acre itself became an industrial center. The Steel City factories closed down during the 1990s but were replaced by others, including the Tambour paint factory and a pipe plant. The municipal area now extended over 4 sq. mi. (10 sq. km.).

Acre serves most of Western Galilee in trade and administration matters, being the center of the Acre sub-district as it had been during the British Mandate. Included in its municipal area are a government Experimental Agricultural Station (founded under the British Mandate) and the Berit Aḥim (Kefar Philadelphia) youth village. Acre is an important Muslim center, its al-Jazzār Mosque being the largest within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Together with Haifa, it is also the world center of the Bahai faith. There are churches of several denominations (Roman Catholic, Maronite, Melkite), and a considerable number of synagogues.

Efforts were made to preserve the Oriental character of the Old City and to excavate and repair its remains. The crypt of the citadel (the refectorium of the order of St. John) was cleared, and a municipal museum, with Crusader and Arab antiquities, was established in the old Turkish bath. Excavations outside the city wall have uncovered extensive Hellenistic and Roman cemeteries and the remains of a temple with a dedication to Antiochus VII. The ancient remains in the Old City date mainly from the Ottoman period. These include the double wall of the city, the citadel, two caravanserais – the Khān alʿUmdān and Khān al Firanji – and the mosque and bath built by al-Jazzār. A few remains of the Crusader period are still visible in the Burj al-Sultan and the sea wall. The Old City of Acre is a major tourist attraction, and in 2002 UNESCO declared it a world cultural preservation site. Since the 1980s a fringe theater festival has been held in the Old City every Sukkot.

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.


Abel, Land, 2 (1938), 235–7; Press, Ereẓ, 4 (1955), 725–9; L. Kadman, Coins of Akko-Ptolemais (1961); Avi-Yonah, in: IEJ, 9 (1959), 1–12; Applebaum, ibid., 9 (1959), 274; Landau, ibid., 11 (1961), 118–26; Prawer et al., Ma’aravo shel ha-Galil (1965); S. Klein (ed.), Sefer ha-Yishuv, 1 (1939), S.V.; Z. Vilnay, Akko (Heb., 1967), includes bibliography; A. Yaari, Masot Ereẓ-Yisrael (1946), 397; M. Ish-Shalom, Masei Noẓerim… (1965), index; Alḥarizi, Taḥkemoni, ed. by A. Kaminka (1899), 353–4; Prawer, Ẓalbanim, index; Ben Zvi, Ereẓ Yisrael, index; Moses of Trani, resp. 151; Mann, in: Tarbiz, 7 (1936), 92; M.N. Adler (ed.), Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela (1907), 21; Kook, in: Zion, 5 (1933), 97–107; Ashtor, Toledot, 1 (1944), 131–3; A. Aharonson Akko (Heb. 1925). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Dothan, “Accho” (short reports appearing at intervals in “Notes and News”), in: Israel Exploration Journal, 23–34 (1973–84); idem, “A Phoenician Inscription from ‘Akko,” in: Israel Exploration Journal, 35 (1985), 81–94.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.