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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

Crusaders in the Holy Land
January 12, 2000


One of the drawbacks of traveling around the world is that you miss the new movies that come out. Oh well. So I didn't get to see the new Joan of Arc flick. Instead, I got to visit the old crusader city named after her here in Israel: Acre. My visit may not have been as action-packed as the movie, but it was in technicolor, surround sound, non-virtual reality, and I can't go rent it later from Blockbuster.

Acre, now known as Akko, sits on the Mediterranean coast of northern Israel, near the Lebanese border. Like the rest of the towns on this coast, listing the names of the different kingdoms and empires that have conquered this place sounds like a "Mickey Mouse roll call" of ancient history--minus those famous hats. "Hi! We're the Canaanites!" "Hi, we're the Egyptian pharaohs!" "Hi! We're the Phoenicians!" "Hi, I'm the Roman Empire!" and on and on.

Akko's first written history was found at the temple of Luxor in Egypt, in the Book of Curses, written around 2000 BCE! This book listed all of the Pharaoh's enemies, Akko included, and then put a curse on them. Bummer of a beginning, eh?

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for larger view
After slaughtering innocent Muslims throughout Asia Minor, the Crusaders came to pray for forgiveness
in this old church.
But I didn't come here for all that ancient stuff. I came here to explore the most fascinating part of this city--the underground Crusader fortress. I spent the day with friends I met at the youth hostel, wandering the great halls and the eerie tunnels and caverns. These were built after the armies of the First Crusade took the city in 1104, five years after they captured Jerusalem. These European warrior-monks came to the Holy Land with the intention of protecting Christian pilgrims from the onslaught of zealous Seljuk Turk Muslims, who had captured the land from the more tolerant Arab Muslims.

Julieta and I rest in the same place where the "warrior-monks" may have rested after a long day of healing the sick or slaughtering heathens.

indulgence - the Catholic church's practice of forgiving sins in exchange for good deeds (sacking the Holy Land, for example).
mamluks - "property" in Arabic. The class of warrior slaves that ruled Egypt for almost 300 years.
mongols - a race of nomadic Asians, famous for their skill at fighting. At one point, the Mongols ruled much of China, Central Asia and the Near East, and even threatened to overrun Europe. Genghis Kahn was a famous Mongol.

The concept of "warrior-monks" seems a little weird, doesn't it? Imagine a knock on your door from one of these 11th century evangelists. Standing in front of you is a man in a black robe and a red overcoat with a white cross on it, pointing a lance at you and growling in Italian through his knight's helmet.

"Buon giorno! I am Brother Michael from the Hospitallers Society," he might say. "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?" Considering the death and destruction the Crusaders left behind them while crossing from Europe to the Holy Land, I guess many people either didn't accept Jesus or else they didn't understand Italian (or French or German etc.)!

Read a little history on the Hospitallers, the Knights of Malta.

To find out more on Acre's namesake, Joan of Arc, click here.

Fascinated by those pillaging, looting Mongols? Learn all about them.

By the year 1112, all of the Holy Land, from Eilat to Beirut, (except the port town of Ashqelon, which fell in 1153) was part of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Acre became THE port where boatloads of pilgrims landed, and it was a major commercial center. Like Jerusalem, it was a fortified, walled city, divided into quarters pertaining to four different Italian city-states: Pisa, Genoa, Venice and Amalfi.

In those days, Acre was heavily guarded by knights of the different crusader orders. Today, you just have to pay the guy at the tourist office to get in. Then, you can descend into the depths of the crusader fortress.

But wait, I don't remember any underground fortresses when I learned about the Crusades from Monty Python's movie "The Holy Grail." Why did they build the fortress underground?

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for larger view
Believing it had been
built underground, archaeologists originally thought the Hospitallers' dining room was a crypt.
The first archeologists, who in the 1960's uncovered this amazing walled city full of great halls and winding tunnels, asked the same question. What they eventually figured out was that this city wasn't built underground after all. When the Egyptian Mamluks took over in 1291, they decided to fill in the old city with dirt and rocks and then build on top of it.

Most of the excavated part of the crusader city is in the Amalfi quarter, where a group of monks set up a hospice and "hospital" for sick and injured pilgrims. Huge empty stone halls sit empty and cold, but I can close my eyes and imagine the religious and military pomp and debauchery that once occurred there.

In addition to caring for the sick and injured, these Italian crusaders, who were known as the "Hospitallers," also became some of the best warriors. Like the Templars, this order of crusader knights still exists today--only now they're called the Knights of Malta, since they eventually had to relocate to Malta when the crusaders were driven from Palestine. Acre, their last stronghold, fell in 1291.

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Even the Crusaders had to use the toilet.
This row of latrines emptied into a drainage system that ran out to sea.

During the rule of the Crusaders, Palestine was not a peaceful land. Not only was there constant fighting between the Crusaders and the Muslims over control of the land, but there was also fighting between the different merchant communities and the many religious orders.

In 1259, for example, while the Mongol army was at the walls of Acre, ready to attack, a Venetian fleet and a Genoese fleet were too preoccupied in a battle between themselves to fight the Asian army.

The Crusaders managed to repel the Mongols anyway, without the quarreling sailors. How embarrassing would that have been to explain to the Pope? They might have had their "indulgences" revoked. (All crusaders who fought in the Holy Land out of "pure devotion" were given " indulgence," or "remission" by the Pope...kind of like a " Get into Heaven Free" card--do not pass the Day of Judgement, do not collect 200 Hail Marys.)

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Haim seems happy to be in this drainage tunnel...I guess he's forgotten about the latrines above!

"Hey, check this out!" I called my friends over to the set of stairs I found going downward from the Hospitallers' dining room. The sign explained that these were the drainage tunnels that went under the city, taking water and waste out to the sea. I bet they also made good escape routes and an excellent way to sneak into the city. Now this is adventure! This is the REAL underground stuff!

We wandered through the long, thin tunnels, lit by a few light bulbs along the way. In places, salt from the seawater seeping in had formed thick crystallized layers on the walls. "Wow, if there were a huge wave right now, we'd all drown in here," I reminded everyone. They told me to shut up.

After about 70 or 80 meters, the tunnel was blocked off by a gate, and a modern looking set of stairs led us back up to the higher level--still a bit underground, but definitely not as cool as the tunnels. There we found the ancient church and, up more stairs, the gift shop. "This must be where the crusaders bought their souvenirs to take back to Europe. Look, one of those little plastic paperweights! When you shake it, it snows on the castles and the camels! "


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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