Port of Acre


Siege of Acre, Third Crusade. Artwork by Graham Turner


Acre surrenders to Philip and Richard.

Even in 1184 Acre was a great port, and it would become greater still following a shower of new privileges for Italian and other European merchants from 1190 onwards. These privileges were offered as a reward for sending naval help during the great emergency that followed the capture of Jerusalem and of most of the crusader kingdom by Saladin in 1187. The Pisans were able to move their business from Jaffa, which was too far to the south to bring them the full benefits of the Levant trade, northwards to Acre, with its easy links to Damascus and the interior. It was not that Acre possessed a particularly good harbour. Ships anchored at the entrance to the harbour, which (as in most Mediterranean ports) could be closed off by a chain, and goods had to be ferried across from the shore: it ‘cannot take the large ships, which must anchor outside, small ships only being able to enter’. When the weather was bad ships would need to be beached. Good harbours were not a prerequisite when medieval merchants chose their trading station – witness also Barcelona, Pisa and Messina. Yet ibn Jubayr took the view that ‘in its greatness it resembles Constantinople’, referring not to the size of Acre but to the way in which Muslim and Christian merchants converged there, arriving by ship and caravan, so that ‘its roads and streets are choked by the press of men, and it is hard to put foot to ground’. As ever, ibn Jubayr was quick to mask his admiration for what he saw with imprecations: ‘unbelief and unpiousness there burn fiercely, and pigs and crosses abound’, the pigs being impure Christians as well as unclean animals. ‘It stinks and is filthy, being full of refuse and excrement.’ Naturally, he deplored the conversion of mosques into churches by the crusaders, but he did note that within the former Friday Mosque there was a corner Muslims were permitted to use. For the relationship between the Frankish settlers and the local population was less tense than either the Almohad ibn Jubayr or newly arrived crusaders may have wished. These new crusaders were perplexed by the easy attitudes they found. The elderly sheikh of Shayzar in northern Syria, Usamah ibn Munqidh (1095–1188), left a memoir of his times that reveals friendly relationships across the Christian–Muslim divide. He came to know well a Frankish knight of whom he wrote, ‘he was of my intimate fellowship and kept such constant company with me that he began to call me “my brother” ’. The Franks of the kingdom of Jerusalem borrowed little from Muslim culture, by comparison with the extensive cultural contacts taking place at this time in Spain and Sicily, and yet a practical convivencia was achieved. Ibn Jubayr was very uneasy at the presence of Muslims in this Christian kingdom. ‘There can,’ he wrote, ‘be no excuse in the eyes of God for a Muslim to stay in any infidel country save when passing through it, while the way lies clear in Muslim lands.’


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