Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Day two, Crusader Akko (Acre)

Our first day in Akko was to be something out of the ordinary for ‘Re-evaluating the Art of the Crusades’ so far: for a whole day we would not be seeing our trusty tour bus! This is because, as one of the best-preserved Crusader cities in the Mediterranean, Akko has more than enough fill a single day. As Eliezer Stern of the Israeli Antiquities Authority explained to us, Acre was rendered indefensible by the Mamluks in 1291 and then virtually abandoned until Ottoman occupation began in the 1750s. The Ottomans found most of the crusader ruins already covered over and so, for the most part, built their own city directly on top of them. Some prominent and visible structures, such as the Templar fortress on the sea front, were dismantled for building material but most of the Crusader landscape had already vanished underground. This is where, from the 1980s onwards it began to be discovered, in a programme of excavation and restoration which is astonishing in its scale.


The courtyard of the Hospitaller Compound

Our morning began with two talks, by Danny Syon and Edna Stern, both about the archaeology of Crusader Acre. Danny Syon talked about the site lying under our hostel. It is one of the few residential areas of a Crusader city ever to be extensively excavated, and revealed evidence for metal working, cooking and home life. Its eventual interment beneath a youth hostel and plaza however, demonstrated the tensions between archaeology and a living city which must perpetually be negotiated in spaces such as Akko. Edna Stern’s paper then took the focus from Akko to the whole Mediterranean, using the ceramic assemblages from the city to explore Mediterranean networks of trade and stylistic influence in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Both papers provided an excellent foundation for the day’s explorations.

On our way through the Hospitaller compound to the Church of St John
From the hostel we made straight for the Crusader church of St John, a complex, multi-phase building explained to us by Vardit Shoten-Hallel of the IAA, who has worked extensively on the site.  Examining the church gave us our first indication of the incredible Crusader heritage of Akko, as we descended through the Hospitaller Complex to enter from the original Frankish street level. Inside, the church, which had been part of the compound of the Knights Hospitaller, though not directly connected to it, revealed numerous instances of modification and rebuilding, including a bridge between the church and the monastic compound, constructed between 1242 and 1252, designed to enable the monks of St John to reach their church without having to go our into the streets. 

Examining arches in the crypt of the Church of St John
From here we returned to the main Hospitaller Compound Museum for a tour of the rest of the site museum by Eliezer Stern. As one of the pioneer excavators of this site, his perspective not only on the site interpretation and Crusader history, but also on the ways in which the site has grown, developed and how it may evolve in future provided much food for thought. Especially impressive were the Hospitaller store rooms, refectory and the extremely advanced latrines and sewerage system of the complex. As Dr Stern explained, at least three major tunnels, of around 600m length carried waste from the centre of the city down to the harbour. The effect on visitors arriving into medieval Acre by sea was not very pleasant, but it was invaluable for keeping going a city of such size and population density, and a hospital complex which could admit several hundred patients a week, often suffering from digestive problems. 

Cannon balls from the British bombardment ofAcre in 1840,
still in situ in the wall of the Hospitaller Compound
Lunch took us to the Conservation Centre of Akko, were catering was provided as part of a link-up project bringing local residents and businesses into closer contact with the conservation process in Akko. From there our walking tour continued to the Templar Tunnel, a subterranean vaulted tunnel leading from the port of Akko (where structures from the Hellenistic period onwards remain visible) to the now-demolished Templar fortress. There we had an opportunity to divert briefly into a discussion of the importance of Akko in the development of Baha’ism, and the progress being made in restoring the Ottoman appearance of the Akko sea front, before heading for through the Genoese and Pisan quarters of the Crusader city to visit the building site next to the Hospitaller complex. This site, which has historically been inaccessible due to religious use, is currently being renovated and we were kindly allowed access to examine the remains of the living quarters of the Master of the Hospitaller order, visible in the form of a series of decorated corbels. Iron shells in the wall from the English bombardment of Acre in 1840 also explained some apparently hasty and obvious Ottoman rebuilding of wall sections.

Going underground...


A very short walk took us back to the residential areas of the Crusader city, and our hostel for a much-needed hour of reflection before dinner on the sea front, and a walk back past the lighthouse, though for some, the day was still not over!

Bob Ousterhout and Scott Redford on the steps of the hostel,
demonstrating that the work of the scholar is never over,
even when the book is published.

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