After the Knights Templar and the crusaders lost control of Jerusalem to Saladin and his Saracen armies, they shifted their base of operations in the Holy Land to the city of Acre. Now I’ve been to Acre (Akko as it’s now called in Hebrew) and yet still didn’t appreciate its massive importance and sheer wealth.
This wasn’t some sleepy backwater. In many ways, Acre was more important than Jerusalem. It was a playground for the medieval super rich. Had a great port. Busy markets. And a surprising degree of trade and contact between Christians and Muslims. Acre was a sinful, thriving, cosmopolitan fleshpot on the Mediterranean.
The latest edition of History Today carries an eye opening article on just how amazing Acre was. This wasn’t just a Templar fortress with some knights milling around waiting for the enemy to turn up. It was almost like Las Vegas, London and Cairo rolled into one. It was deemed to be so licentious that a church official called Jacques de Vitry was sent by the Pope to become the city’s bishop (and later cardinal) and sort out the dubious morals of the place.
He was appalled by Acre. Describing it in apocalyptic terms as “like a monster or a beast, having nine heads each fighting the other’. Every vice was present. Prostitution was rampant plus black magic and murder. Worse, in his view, the Christian community in this crusader city had gone very native. They spoke Arabic, wore beards and veiled their wives.
Templar Acre was truly cosmopolitan
What poor old Jacques was finding difficult to handle was the blend of different types of Christianity in the east. In western Europe, there was just the Roman Catholic church headed by the Pope. But in the east, there were Christian churches that went right back to the decades after Christ’s death headed by patriarchs in Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Antioch. They were Armenians and Syrians with their own rites and interpretations of scripture totally at odds with Rome.
It’s often been conjectured by the conspiracy theory end of Templar thought to what degree the knights were influenced by these heretical forms of Christianity. The kinds of strange looking Christian that shocked and horrified Jacques De Vitry. Because not only eastern Christians but Muslim traders all mixed together in the markets. The crusades going on outside the walls had no bearing on this at all. Life, love, making money and having fun continued while holy war was being waged down the road.
An Arab traveller, Ibn Jubayr, was astonished by what he saw in the year 1184:
The soldiers engage themselves in their war, while the people are at peace and the world goes to him who conquers.
The impression I got from the History Today article was that it almost didn’t matter that Jerusalem had fallen. Because Acre was the bustling and super-wealthy hub of the whole region. It rivalled Constantinople for the amount of money pouring through its ports and warehouses. It was dotted with the mansions of the crusader super-wealthy. And most shocking – right under the noses of the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller – commerce with neighbouring Muslims boomed.
Contrary to what you might imagine happened in that era, Christian merchants would even pop over to Muslim-controlled Damascus to shop for ivory from India, musk from Tibet and….I kid you not…rhubarb from China. And this is the most incredible revelation for me. The crusaders even bought their own weapons from Muslim traders in Damascus. In the same way that modern wars often involve arms trading on the black market between people you might assume should be enemies.
Templar and Hospitaller rivalry in Acre
Both the Knights Templar and Hospitaller built impressive fortresses and a network of tunnels underneath the city. Decades before Acre eventually fell to Muslim control, the rival Christian military orders fought each other when Venetian and Genoese merchants clashed over trading rights. This grubby episode wrecked a large part of the city.
FIND OUT MORE: The Siege of Acre
The Knights Templar had their own commercial interests that included refining sugar – a luxury product right down to modern times. And they conducted their trade with a coinage minted in the city that mimicked the Saracen coinage. This horrified the pope who demanded they remove the Arabic script on their coins – which they didn’t.