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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Reality or Misinterpretation

Map of Acre and detail by Pietro Vesconte [Public Domain, British Library, Add. MS 27376, ff.189v-190]; Akko harbour Emmanuel G. Rey (from B. Dichter, Maps of Acre, Acre, 1973)

Ironically, it is often times of crisis, particularly those crises where people find themselves with little to do, that promote creativity, albeit not always of high standards. One thing the current situation has provided us with is a spike in the already endless quantity of humorous video clips that inundate the internet. One of these that I recently observed before it quickly and silently submerged into the virtual mire, was of a group of young boy scouts playing a game. They stood as teams in rows, each boy holding a plate on his head. The front boy of each team lifted a bowl of some powder (sugar, flour?) and, without being able to see what he was doing poured it into the bowl on the head of the boy behind, who then did likewise to the boy behind him. Each time some of the powder missed the bowl and at a certain stage the whole lot missed its objective and the game ended in a spate of giggles. It reminded me of that age-old game known as 'Broken Telephone', or 'Chinese Whispers', a game in which a player whispers a message to the person next to him or her and, the words gets passed on and progressively change as they are misheard, eventually becoming something quite different from the origin. It is rather like what some scholars have thought happened in the case of the inner port or inner basin of Acre.

After 1104 most merchants and pilgrims arriving in the Holy Land came ashore at the port of Acre. It was not a particularly large port and it had some serious problems, most notably its use as a place to dispose of the city's considerable quantities of sewage. It was nonetheless the best harbour in the southern Levant, and, after Constantinople and Alexandria, the busiest port in the eastern Mediterranean. During the passagia (bi-annual sailing seasons) it was port of call to hosts of ships, the German pilgrim, Theoderich, recording that "...on the Wednesday in Easter week we counted eighty ships in the port besides the ship called a 'buss', on board of which we sailed thither and returned."[1]

The small size of the enclosed harbour was made up for by the fact that it was nestled in the large sheltered bay that extends between Acre in the north and the town of Haifa (Caifas) in the south. The chronicler, William of Tyre described Acre's port as ‘infra moenia et exterius’[2] (within and beyond the walls) which is sometimes interpreted as meaning that that ships were harboured within the breakwaters, walls and chain of the port, but also outside in the open bay. That would certainly make it easier to see how eighty ships could anchor there on a single day.

An alternative suggestion comes from the maps of Frankish Acre. Fourteenth-century maps, such as that of Pietro Vesconte, one version of which appears above, seem to support the existence of a small, semi-circular basin extending into the city at the junction of the three Italian quarters. If this is the case, the meaning of William of Tyre's statement might be that the ships within the walls were harbouring in the small inner basin and those outside the walls were in the larger enclosed area. As, in the Middle Ages, even the larger ships were considerably smaller than what we regard as large ships today, this is not infeasible.

In opposition to the existence of an inner basin within the main harbour, came a study carried out in the 1960s by archaeologists who excavated inside the courtyard of the Khan al-Umdan, a large Turkish khan that, from its position at the southern end of the harbour near the breakwater, has generally been regarded as in the same location of the basin that appears on the medieval maps. Trenches excavated in khan revealed that it had been constructed directly on bedrock. They found no trace whatsoever of an inner basin.[5] Was this then an invention of the medieval cartographer? The archaeologists suggested that perhaps it was - and if not an invention, possibly an unintentional mistake, something along the line of the above-mentioned game.

Before the age of the printing press, illustrations in manuscripts, like the texts themselves, were copied by hand, usually my monks secreted away in the scriptoria of monasteries. They used as their sources for copying an earlier copy of the illustration. Without any personal acquaintance with the object illustrated, in this case the form of the city of Acre, they would copy what they understood, and if some detail was unclear they would draw what they believed they saw. They would also invent on occasion in order to make their versions appear more attractive or to give them a personal touch. As a result, we often find that when we have several versions of the same map, they are by and large similar, but vary, sometimes considerably, in detail. And, as in the children's game, the variations become ever greater. The archaeologists' explanation for the appearance of a harbour where there apparently was none was that this was a case of "Broken Telephone". What they suggested was that the basin shown on the maps is in fact the perpetuation on later copies of an accidental ink blot that appeared on the original, or one of the earlier versions of Vesconte’s map. A drop of green ink, falling from the pen of the illuminator at this spot, would have seemed to a later copier of the map as an intentional rendering of an actual feature.

The trouble with this proposal is that in more recent times, but before Turkish Akko was built on top of the medieval ruins, the inner basin was in fact there and was observed by a number of people. It appears in 1799 on maps drawn by Colonel Jaquotin of Napoleon’s army and on a number of subsequent French maps.[3] Indeed, even later in 1871 it could still be observed (shown here above), and was recorded by the French archaeologist, Emmanuel Rey, who noted that at that time it was filled with sand.[4]

So, there was indeed an inner harbour, and this was no misinterpretation of a blot of green ink that fell from Vesconte's pen. Why then did the archaeologists not find it? The solution I think, lies in the difficulty of interpreting the location of modern structures on a medieval map, with its obvious distortions and inaccuracies. The Khan al-Umdan appears to have been situated a little further to the north of the medieval basin than had previously been thought.

1. Aubrey Stewart, trans., Theoderich, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 4, London, 1896, p. 60.

2. William of Tyre, Chronicon, ed. R.B.C. Huygens, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Medievalis, vol. 63a, Turnholt, 1986, 10.26, p. 485.

3. Bernard Dichter, The Maps of Acre. An Historical Cartography, Acre, 1973, p. 141.

4. Ibid., pp. 64-5.

5. Elisha Linder and Avner Raban, "Underwater Survey in the Harbour of Acre (1964)", in Western Galilee and the Coast of Galilee, Jerusalem, 1965, p. 193.

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