Akko: The crusaders’ last stand

By Bob Schulman

Fortified city of Akko was a major trading port. Photo courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism.Memo to visitors to Israel: If you get a chance, don’t miss the crusader fort at Akko, a ride of about an hour and a half from Jerusalem. You’ll spot it on the map (it’s sometimes called Acre) a little north of Haifa on the Mediterranean coast. To understand what you’ll see there, here’s a little history of the port – starting with a meeting thousands of miles away in the 11th century.

Nov. 27, 1095, was a red letter day in medieval history. Actually, it was a red cross day, that symbol having been proclaimed by Pope Urban II as the icon of a planned crusade to retake the Holy Land from its Muslim invaders.

Speaking at the Council of Clermont -- a meeting of some 300 clerics and many more onlookers in southern France -- the Pope hoped to recruit fighters with this pitch: “Here (you) are poor and miserable sinners; there, (you) will be rich and happy. Let none hesitate; (you) must march next summer. God wills it.”

So in the fall of 1096 a crusader army of tens of thousands of knights, serfs and peasants went charging off to the Holy Land using “God wills it” as their battle cry. Three years later, after slashing their way across Europe, Constantinople and the Mediterranean coast of the Holy Land, the Christian forces not only took the city of Jerusalem but went on to create the Kingdom of Jerusalem – a 360-mile-long strip of land stretching from Lebanon south through modern-day Israel and western Jordan down to the Gulf of Aqaba.

Fast-forward two centuries, through seven more major crusades (and a lot of smaller ones) and many more battles, and the conquest of the Holy Land has pretty much fizzled out. The caped knights have been booted out of Jerusalem and just about every place else they took, and now they’re down to their last “God wills it” stronghold -- at the Mediterranean port of Akko, where the red cross of the crusaders had been flying since 1104.

Under the city is a maze of colorful knight halls, dining rooms and tunnels. Photo by Bob Schulman.The crusaders’ last big holdout crumbled in 1291 when the flag of the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt was raised over Akko. Later on, the Ottomans captured the port and held on to it until the onset of World War I, when the Brits took over. Their Union Jack flew over the port until the state of Israel was created in 1948.

Visitors to Akko will see the remains of all these cultures – and before them those of the Romans, Greeks and Canaanites, among others – in what’s left of their walls, churches, mosques, battlements, baths, courtyards, knight halls and the like. A tip: There’s plenty more to see in a maze of domed halls and tunnels under the city.

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