• Adrian J. Boas

On the Darker Side of Acre

Web sites, advertisements and brochures present the coastal city of Akko, medieval Acre in the north of Israel, in the usual touristic hyperbole. The Unesco World Heritage city is described as "stacked with centuries of history, a city of ancient fortifications, minarets, and painted domes". It is indeed a colourful town and one of remarkable historical importance, and the potential for archaeological development is tremendous. But there is another, less attractive side to Akko. For all the efforts of town planners, archaeologists and investors over several decades, within its Turkish walls the town remains a large enclosed slum, with filthy streets, running sewage, crime and poverty. In some ways, Akko is not all that different from its crusader predecessor.

Had there been such a thing as a Frankish Minister of Tourism, he would probably not have been on the best of terms with James of Vitry. The bishop of Acre did a rather poor job in promoting his city, describing it as "like a monstrous dragon with nine heads engaged in mutual conflict.... a corrupt city... a second Babylon... full of innumerable crimes and iniquities". Murders took place in the open, night and day, husbands slit their wives’ throats, if they were expeditious enough to do so before their wives "in traditional fashion" dispatched of them with poison. There were drug traffickers, and people who concocted poisons from animal excrement. The city was full of brothels, and monks and priests happily hired out their lodgings to prostitutes.

We might be excused in thinking that the bishop, always very forthcoming in his criticism, was overdoing it a bit, but there are others who shared his opinion of the crusaders' largest and most cosmopolitan metropolis. The papal legate Odo of Châteauroux is quoted as saying "No one knows as well as I do of all the mean and treacherous sins committed in Acre". He was of the somewhat brutal opinion that the city needed to be "washed clean in the blood of its inhabitants". The Dominican friar, Burchard of Mount Sion gives an explanation for why Acre had descended to such depths of iniquity. According to Burchard, Acre had become the dumping ground for Western murderers, robbers, thieves and adulterers.

If Acre's morals were wanting, by the thirteenth century when these criticisms were made, it had evolved into an appropriate setting for a "new Sodom", as one observer had dubbed it. Even in the twelfth century it is described as crowded, noisy and filthy. The Greek pilgrim, Joannes Phocas, referred to the evil smells and the air "corrupted by the enormous influx of strangers", which was seen as the cause of diseases and frequent deaths, and the Andalusian traveller, Ibn Jubayr, wrote that the city "stinks and is filthy, being full of refuse and excrement". Historian, David Jacoby identified a place referred to as lordemer or in Latin "a mari quod dicitur immundum" (the sea called filthy) with the port which, being enclosed by walls, became the receptacle of all the city's waste. Among the most impressive of recent archaeological finds is a sophisticated sewage system running from beneath the Hospitaller compound, beautifully constructed, but, how appropriate for this city, emptying into the port. It seems almost as if the city's inhabitants were reluctant to be distanced from their own filth.

See James of Vitry see Malcolm Barber and Keith Bate, Letters from the East, Ashgate, 2013, Joannes Phocas, Descriptio Terrae Sanctae, trans. A. Stewart, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 5, London, 1892, p. 11. Ibn Jubayr, The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, trans. R.J.C. Broadhurst, London, 1952, p. 318.

See also Silvia Schein, "The Image of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in the Thirteenth Century", Revue belge de Philologie et d'Histoire Année 64-4, 1986, pp. 704-17, David Jacoby, "Three Notes on Frankish Acre",Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 109,1993, pp. 88-91.