On Remarkable Urban Growth
When I first came to Israel a half century ago it was very different from today, and the city of Tel Aviv, while certainly not a backwater and even then the most dynamic city in the country, was very far from what it has become. There was one quite lively "hip" street - Dizengoff, some pleasant neighbourhoods, and some rather fine tree-lined boulevards, but much of the city was stagnating. The older buildings dating from the original boom town that grew up on the sands north of Jaffa in the 1920s and 30s were crumbling and peeling away, and most of the new building lacked any positive architectural qualities whatsoever (the quite credible jest of visitors and new immigrants was that there was only one architect in Israel). The modern towers that over the last decades have completely changed the skyline, and with it the entire atmosphere of the city, and that have given Tel Aviv the ambiance of a dynamic cosmopolitan metropolis, were then a distant dream. With the typical lack of inventiveness that characterises people who are given the job of street-naming, Tel Aviv's original main street was named, like almost every other main street in the country, Herzl Street. It was there that stood the single building that was worthy of the title "sky-scraper", the 34-storey "Shalom Meir Tower". That unimaginative structure had been criminally built in the place of the Herzliya Gymnasia, perhaps Tel-Aviv's most remarkable and architecturally worth early building, an eye-catching creation that attempted to give the first Jewish city an appropriate, if somewhat Hollywoodish, Orientalism. Tel Aviv, once a place that was exciting and progressive, a city of fresh clean Bauhaus whiteness, had descended into monotony and deterioration. It was a city in limbo. Only with the boost in Israel's economy that came in the post-October War period, was it able to shake itself out of decades of torpidity and to evolve into what it has since become.
More than any other city in the Latin East, and more indeed than most other medieval cities, Acre went through a period of growth and expansion in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that took it from a minor Fatimid port involved mainly in regional commerce and with a small and fairly homogeneous population, into a major medieval metropolis with a large and diverse population and a role in international trade that overshadowed almost every other port in the eastern Mediterranean. It became a city of tall buildings, Gothic churches, crowded streets, colourful markets, grand palaces, tall towers, powerful fortifications and, most importantly perhaps, a bustling, crowded harbour. It developed into a centre of trade and industry, its markets filled with goods from the East and West and its narrow streets and squares with pilgrims and merchants. The extent of Acre's growth in the Crusader period is hard to estimate with precision because the dimensions of the Fatimid town that was occupied in 1104 remain unknown. But it was clearly tremendous. From the lack of archaeological evidence in most parts of the city it would seem that Fatimid Akko had been quite limited in size and restricted to the area close to the shoreline of the harbour. By comparison, as we know today, by the early thirteenth century the city had, at the very least, tripled in size. If we cannot know the starting point, we do today have a fairly good idea of the size it grew into, a city considerably larger than the walled town of Akko that was built over its ruins in the late eighteenth and nineteen the centuries.* What enabled this extraordinary growth was primarily the role taken on by the Italian merchant communes with the encouragement and support and of the Frankish leadership. The advantages given the merchants, in the form of large autonomous quarters accompanied by extensive financial and judicial privileges, established them as the most powerful presence in Acre and it was primarily through their presence that this city evolved into the Tel Aviv of the medieval Holy Land.
*Until the end of the last century we were as much in the dark with regard to the ultimate size of Frankish Acre as we were with the dimensions of its beginnings. This was rectified by a ground-breaking study based on archaeological, cartographic and historical evidence by Benjamin Kedar, "The Outer Walls of Frankish Acre"('Atiqot 31, 1997, pp. 157-180), which effectively established the position of the city's northern and eastern walls.