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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Filthy Sea

14th century map of Acre by Pietro Vesconte [Public domain]

Maritime pollution has reached catastrophic proportions. At Catania, Sicily in 2003, a report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was released during the 13th meeting of the Barcelona Convention for the protection of the Mediterranean Sea. It recorded for the first time the vast quantities of pesticides, heavy metals and other pollutants that the surrounding countries have been dumping into the sea. These add to massive amounts of solid debris, mainly plastics. The Mediterranean is a more extreme case of what is going on world-wide. It has been estimated that 100 million tonnes of plastic have been dumped in the world's oceans, making up about 80 percent of the maritime debris that is turning our planet into a nightmare for future generations. Another claim that can drive home just how appalling this situation may be, is that by the year 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic than fish. The case of the Mediterranean, as a closed sea surrounded by major industrial nations, is particularly dire. It is estimated that it takes almost a full century for the water of the Mediterranean to be renewed.

The huge increase in population, the vast expansion in industry over the past two centuries and the insufficient measures taken in the disposal of waste have made the problem of maritime pollution a critical one today, threatening the continued survival of sea life and indeed of life in general. But if the scale of this disaster is comparatively recent, the phenomenon is not. In a study of various issues relating to Frankish Acre published in 1993, David Jacoby examined the occasional references in medieval sources to the term "Lordemer ", i.e. l'orde mer = filthy sea (alternatively Lordamer/Ordamer/Immundum) and identified it as used in reference to the city's port.* This fits in nicely with what we know of medieval Acre and the degree pollution it suffered from during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the later twelfth century the Greek pilgrim, Joannes Phocas described the crowded port city as suffering from "evil smells and corruption of the air" to the extent that "the misfortune of the city is beyond repair" and a contemporary Muslim visitor, Ibn Jubayr wrote that Acre "stinks and is filthy, being full of refuse and excrement."**

Most of this "refuse and excrement" no doubt ended up in the port. The slaughterhouse, butchers' stalls, and fish-sellers were located beside the port and they added to the waste that flowed from the city's sewers into the harbour, including the sewage carried by the remarkable system of vaulted channels draining the Hospitallers' latrine tower. Being walled-in with breakwaters and enclosing walls, the port retained this filth, churning around among the ships. The port of Acre was like a miniature version of the Mediterranean, an enclosed space into which filth was continually being dumped, and which, because of its comparatively small entrance, contained that filth, to the increasing detriment of those living in its vicinity. In the case of Acre, this only ended when the city was destroyed in 1291. One can only hope that the ominous condition of the Mediterranean will not be likewise resolved by the destruction of the human presence that surrounds it.

* David Jacoby, "Three Notes on Crusader Acre", Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 109, 1993, pp. 83-96, 1993, pp. 88-91. ** Joannes Phocas Descriptio Terrae Sanctae, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, transl. Aubrey Stewart, vol. 5, London, 1892, p. 11; Ibn Jubayr The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, transl. R.J.C. Broadhurst, London, 1952, p. 318.

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