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The Two Towers: Crusader Acre and its Defences

By Michael S. Fulton

The Accursed Tower and Tower of the Flies were the infamous defences of the city of Acre. Strange legends surround both towers, and they would prove to be formidable challenges to besieging armies during the Crusades.

The Mediterranean port of Acre has captivated the imaginations of medievalists for centuries. Although it dates back to at least the Bronze Age, Acre is most often associated with the crusaders who ruled there from 1104 to 1187, from its first capture to its loss to Saladin after the Battle of Hattin, and then again from 1191 to 1291, between its recapture during the Third Crusade and final loss to the Mamluks, which effectively ended the period of Latin rule in the Levant. Immediately after taking the city, the Mamluks destroyed it. Acre remained relatively abandoned until it was redeveloped by the Ottomans in the eighteenth century. Although much of the old city dates from this later period, some earlier structures have survived, including a number of churches and the famous Hospitaller compound; many Ottoman buildings also sit on earlier foundations, preserving the general layout and medieval feel of the town.

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Much of Acre’s fame, at least in the context of the crusades, is associated with its fortifications. Most notorious among these are the so-called Accursed Tower (turris maledicta) and the Tower of the Flies (turris muscarum). But almost all of Acre’s medieval defences were levelled when the Mamluks destroyed the city, fearing the possibility that such a defensible port might once more fall into the hands of a crusader army from Europe – the landward artillery defences that can be visited today date to the Ottoman period. While no trace of the Accursed Tower has been seen in centuries, the Tower of the Flies is viewed by thousands of tourists each year.

An ancient city

Acre, as it was known to the crusaders, has had many names. While many outside of the Middle East still use this Eurocentric name, locals instead prefer Akka (Arabic) or Akko (Hebrew); all three stem from a common ancestor that can be traced back more than three thousand years. During the Hellenistic period, Acre fell under the control of the Ptolemies, the dynasty of Egyptian rulers whose eponymous founder, Ptolemy, had been one of Alexander the Great’s closest followers. It was at this time that the city was renamed Ptolemais. Although the Romans used this name, it was acknowledged that this was not the city’s original name, nor apparently the one it was known by when the crusaders arrived in the Near East, leading to some confusion.

The early crusaders knew Acre as Acra, or formally in Latin as Accon, which they correctly associated with Ptolemais. William of Tyre, Archbishop of Tyre in the late twelfth century and author of the most influential history of the crusades up to the 1180s, explained that Acre had two names because it had been founded by two brothers, Ptolemais and Acco, who had then divided the city, each half being named after one of the brothers.

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The author of the later Itinerarium peregrinorum et gesta regis Ricardi, an account of the Third Crusade composed by one of its participants, similarly recorded that there had once been two cities. He believed the older, Ptolemais, had been established on the nearby tell (al-Fukhkhar, later known as Toron de Saladin and later still as Tell Napoleon), where the oldest Bronze Age settlement had indeed been. The second, which he called Acre, was identified with the current location of the city, where archaeological evidence suggests the focus of settlement shifted around the fourth century BC. Looking to find Acre in the Bible, some mistakenly associated it with the Philistine city of Acharon (Ekron), more than 100km to the south. This error, which many medieval figures would continue to make, was astutely noticed by Fulcher of Chartres, a participant of the First Crusade and author of one of the most valuable histories of the initial Latin presence in the Levant.

A crusader base

Acre enters the history of the crusades in 1099, when the army of the First Crusade marched past while making its way down the Palestinian coast. Later that year, the crusaders would capture Jerusalem and ultimately establish the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, with Godfrey of Bouillon, who declined the title of king, as its ruler. Godfrey died about a year later and he was succeeded by his brother, Baldwin I, who was quite happy to take the title of king. It was Baldwin who first besieged Acre, doing so unsuccessfully in 1103. Undeterred, Baldwin returned the following year and, with the assistance of a Genoese fleet, Acre was captured.

From this point, Acre replaced Jaffa as the kingdom’s main port, serving as a vital link between Europe and the crusader kingdom, and it quickly developed into a lucrative commercial centre, connecting European and Asian trade routes. Interestingly, none of the sources mention either of Acre’s famous towers around this time, nor do they describe structures that might be associated with them. When the towers are first mentioned, around the time of the Third Crusade (1189-1192), it is clear that contemporaries believed they had been built long ago, many suggesting both dated back to the Biblical period.

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Although it is not mentioned in accounts of Baldwin I’s attempts to take the city, the Accursed Tower features prominently in both the contest of 1189-91, when Acre was besieged by the Third Crusade, and the Mamluk siege of 1291. During both epic sieges, efforts to storm the city were concentrated around this tower. The Accursed Tower was situated at the most exposed corner of the city’s defences, where the eastern wall, running northward from the bay of Acre, met the long northern wall of the city, which ran east from the Mediterranean coast. By the time of the Third Crusade, an outer wall had been added to strengthen the city’s defences. In the early thirteenth century, a new line of walls was also built around the triangular Montmusard suburb, which extended up the coast beyond the western section of the city’s northern walls. These new walls joined the existing northern defences of the city at the St Anthony Gate, about midway along the main northern wall. To the east, a number of new towers were added or rebuilt around the Accursed Tower in the late thirteenth century, as this was still regarded as the most approachable and exposed section of the city’s defences.

Map of acre by Pietro Vesconte – British Library – Add.MS 27376

By the time of the Mamluk siege of Acre in 1291, a new tower, the King’s Tower, so called because it had been commissioned by King Henry II of Cyprus, had been added at the northeast corner of the outer wall, directly in front of the Accursed Tower. Due to the greater fame of the Accursed Tower, a number of medieval map makers mistakenly placed the Accursed Tower along Acre’s outer line of defences, rather than the main inner line of walls behind.

How exactly the Accursed Tower received its name is not clear. Around the start of the thirteenth century, there appear to have been at least three explanations, though none was believed to be definitive. In the accounts of Ambroise and the anonymous author of the Itinerarium, both of whom were attached to the army of Richard I of England and were present at the siege of Acre during the Third Crusade, the tower was associated with the betrayal of Jesus. Here, they contend, is where the silver coins had been struck that were paid to Judas Iscariot. Others, however, claim that these coins were minted in Haifa or slightly further along the coast to the south.

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Two other explanations are found in the travel account of Wilbrand of Oldenburg, who visited the Near East in the early thirteenth century. According to the first, Jesus cursed the tower while walking along the coast. Wilbrand, a sceptic it seems, favoured a different explanation, which held that the tower’s designation dated instead to the time of the Third Crusade: because the Muslim defenders of the tower offered such stiff resistance, despite being at the centre of the crusaders’ siege efforts, the besiegers named it the Accursed Tower. The problem with Wilbrand’s preferred explanation is that the Accursed Tower is mentioned in another pilgrim account that appears to have been composed before 1187, which, if correctly dated, reveals that the tower had received its name before the time of the Third Crusade.

Defending the harbour

Whereas the Accursed Tower stood at the most exposed section of Acre’s landward defences, the Tower of the Flies guarded the city from maritime threats. The tower stands at the southern end of a mole, which defined the eastern limit of the city’s harbour during the Middle Ages. Now entirely submerged, this rampart helped to block the build-up of silt deposited by the nearby Belus (Na‘aman) River, sheltered ships in the harbour from extreme weather, and blocked unwelcomed vessels from sailing into the port. The entrance to the harbour was located between the Tower of the Flies and another tower at the eastern end of the southern breakwater. Access was controlled by a chain, almost certainly supported by floating rafts, which ran between the two towers.

Like the Accursed Tower, the Tower of the Flies is also positioned incorrectly on some medieval maps. This is partly because Acre had a second, inner and older harbour, which appears to have been silted up or was otherwise too small for the large European ships that frequented the city while it was under Latin rule. This caused confusion and led some illustrators to place the chain across the entrance to the smaller inner harbour. Another common mistake was to draw the harbour’s eastern rampart as an extension of the city’s eastern wall. Archaeological excavations, however, have revealed that the line of Acre’s eastern wall was much further east, reaching the bay at its southern end as far as 500m beyond the rampart.

Commanding access to Acre’s harbour, the Tower of the Flies was the lynchpin of the city’s defence against maritime assaults. The tower was tested in September 1190, during the protracted siege of the city during the Third Crusade. Despite having occupied the city for only three years, the Muslim garrison successfully fought off the crusaders, who employed a floating siege tower of sorts and two robust siege ladders in their attempt to capture the tower and gain possession of the city from the sea. The tower, and the harbour that it guarded, remained under Muslim control until the city was surrendered to the crusaders in July 1191.

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The Tower of Flies as seen from the old walls of Acre. Photo by DYKT Mohigan / WIkimedia Commons

In the second half of the thirteenth century, the Tower of the Flies once more figured into Acre’s defence. As the rivalry between the Italian communities of Genoa, Venice and Pisa for control of the lucrative trade that moved through the kingdom of Jerusalem increased, open fighting broke out on more than one occasion. As each was primarily a naval power, it was they, not the Mamluks, who most often tested Acre’s seaward defences. In one instance, in 1267, the Genoese, who were opposed by the Venetians and Pisans, were able to gain control of Acre’s harbour, planting a standard on the Tower of the Flies to demonstrate this victory. This success, however, did not last long; less than two weeks later a larger Venetian fleet arrived and forced the Genoese to flee.

The origin of the Tower of the Flies’ name, like that of the Accursed Tower, is veiled in mystery, though most crusaders appear to have believed that it was associated with ancient sacrificial rituals, and the flies that this attracted. The pilgrim Thietmar, for example, wrote that these sacrifices were carried out to honour the god Baalzebub, who is noted in the Bible [2 Kings 1.1-6] as being worshipped in Ekron – he mistakenly associates Accan with (a second) biblical Accaron. Wilbrand of Oldenburg took this a step further, suggesting that the Biblical Baalzebub, whom he calls the god of the flies, was himself known as Akaron in antiquity, thus giving his name to the city.

Despite the fame of these towers, which medieval commentators believed stretched back to the days of the Bible, we still know very little about them. Underwater excavations indicate that the foundations of the Tower of the Flies date back to the Hellenistic period, suggesting it was originally commissioned while Acre was under Ptolemaic rule. The remains of the structure above, the product of subsequent building campaigns, has not yet been the subject of close analysis.

The Accursed Tower is even more elusive. Destroyed after the Mamluks captured Acre in 1291, the tower has since been built over. Although historians have determined the course of Acre’s medieval walls, the foundations of the tower are still buried below modern structures, not soon to be uncovered. Until that point, we are left with little more than conflicting illustrations and vague descriptions of what this once great structure might have looked like.

Michael S Fulton is a historian and archaeologist of the crusade period. He is a History Instructor at Langara College and the author of Siege Warfare during the Crusades. To learn more about Michael, please visit his Academia.edu page.

To learn more about Acre and the Siege of 1189-91, please check out the new issue of Medieval Warfare magazine

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