On the Enigmatic Templar Palace
Updated: Nov 17, 2020
I follow no guru, and while I have great admiration and respect for some people, I have no heroes. I did have a hero once, the protagonist of a popular Japanese television series that in the 1960s became something of a cult for children in Australia. Akikusa Shintarō was a samurai who was able with no effort whatsoever to jump onto the roofs of houses or the tops of trees, and who dodged star knives and swords with splendid ease. But when Koichi Ose, the actor who played the samurai, walked onto a Melbourne stage and his wig fell off I developed a streak of cynicism that has not left me since.
Scepticism comes in good stead when we are dealing with the Templars. The chief source of the fascination that they hold and that has led to endless books, documentaries and movies, lies in the mysterious manner in which this military order quite suddenly appeared out of nowhere, rapidly gained vast wealth and possessions, became a major military and political power, occupied one of the holiest locations on the face of the earth, and then was dissolved and vanished two centuries after it was founded, almost as suddenly as it had first appeared.
The mystery of the order's disappearance carried over to its possessions, some of the greatest of which seem to have vanished as entirely as the order itself, almost as if by the wave of a magician's wand - a problematic simile perhaps as my above-mentioned cynicism includes magic. The only magician I have ever admired was the Welshman, Tommy Cooper, and that was because of the delightful elegance with which he exposed the spurious art of magic by intentionally bungling his tricks. Most of the Templar buildings on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem were dismantled by Saladin, the enormous fortress of Saphet in the eastern Galilee disappeared to stone robbing and earthquake, leaving what appears to be an almost empty hilltop, most of the masonry from the smaller, but nonetheless impressive castle of Toron de Chevaliers (Latrun) seems to have done the same, probably ending up in lime kilns. But perhaps the most complete vanishing act was that of the Templar palace in Acre.
At the south-west corner of the Akko peninsula is a small, very shallow bay, on a rock shelf surrounded by much deeper water. Within it are the remains of a few foundation walls, preserved to a height of about 70 cm. They are entirely submerged today beneath the sea, which in the past eight centuries has risen nearly one a half metres above its level in the Middle Ages. They are all that remains of the most splendid, prominent, and probably the strongest building of Frankish Acre.
The Templar compound included not only the palace but also a church, two towers and various other buildings. The German pilgrim Theoderich referred to the palace in 1169 as “a house of huge and wonderful workmanship on the sea shore”,* but the most detailed description dates to about 120 years later in a text known simply as the Templar of Tyre, which describes it at the time of its fall in May 1291, referring to it as "the strongest place in the city”:
It occupied a large site on the sea, like a castle; it had at its entry a tall, strong tower, and the wall was thick, 28 feet wide. On each corner of the tower was a turret, and upon each turret was a gilded lion passant, as big as a donkey, ... and it was the most magnificent thing to see."**
The text goes on to describe a corner tower, the master's palace, and other buildings including a second tower located "so close to the sea that the waves broke against it". This tower dated from the brief period of Ayyubid rule in Acre between 1187 and 1191 and it was built supposedly by Saladin himself. The Templars used it as a stronghold for their treasury.
The strength of the Templars' main tower was enough to enable it to hold out for ten days after the rest of the city had capitulated to the Mamluks, falling only on 28 May 1291 after it had been undermined. In a dramatic description of this event the Templar of Tyre writes of how the Mamluks dug a mine under the tower and shored it up, upon which the defenders surrendered, but so many of the Mamluks had already entered that the supports gave way and the Mamluk attackers were killed together with the Franks as the tower crashed out into the adjacent street. There, he notes, no doubt with considerable exaggeration, an additional 2,000 mounted Mamluks were crushed.*** Its fall signalled the end of resistance, indeed, the end of Frankish Acre, and virtually the end of the kingdom of Jerusalem.
The remains of the Templar palace and other buildings (with the exception of the tunnel that gave the quarter access to the port) are so scanty that it is impossible today to get a good idea of what they looked like except by conjecture. Contemporary and near-contemporary illustrations appear on maps, but they are entirely unreliable, being symbolic rather than realistic renditions, and the Mamluk dismantling that followed the occupation of the city was thorough. But like other monuments in Acre, a considerable part of the remains appears to have continued standing for several hundred years. An illustration purportedly showing the ruins of the Templar palace and church as they appeared in 1748 was published by Ladislaus Mayr in 1781, its caption stating that the buildings had been completely demolished in 1752. It is rather disappointing, but, if indeed it does represent the Templar palace (for in spite of the caption this identification has recently been contested), it is the only visual representation we have of what was certainly one of the most remarkable architectural creations of the Crusader period.
* Theoderich, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 4, transl. Aubrey Stewart, London 1896, p. 59. ** Paul Crawford, The 'Templar of Tyre' Aldershot and Burlington, 2003, p. 114. ***Crawford, p. 117.