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By Mariam Shahin
“When he raised his head, something appeared in front of him. Through the pale blue mist were the domes and rooftops of Acre.” Ghassan Kanafani, from the short story, “Dr. Qassim Talks to Eva about Mansour Who Arrived in Safad.”
Acre was first mentioned in historical records almost 4,000 years ago. It was a Canaanite city specialised in glass manufacturing and a major producer and exporter of purple dye. Coveted by the Egyptians, it was often either an ally or enemy of its western neighbour. Aka, meaning “hot sand” in ancient Canaanite, was again mentioned in the Tel el Amarna tablets in the 14th century BC when rulers loyal to Egypt documented events in Palestine for the central powers. Since then, this fabulous port city, which has a natural bay and is situated at the mouth of the river Na’amen (also known in ancient times as Belus), has been a favourite of the many who have conquered it, only to have to let it go again, usually after a long arduous battle.
On the shores of Acre, specimens of the Murex, from which the early Phoenicians first extracted the colour purple, can still be found.
To the Greeks, Acre was Aka; to Ptolemy II Philadelphus, it was Ptolemais; and to Emperor Claudius, it was Colonia Claudia Felix; the Arabs emulated the Canaanites and the Greeks and called it Akka, whereas the Crusaders called it Saint Jean d’Acre. And although under the UN partition plan of Palestine in 1947, Acre was to be a city in the Arab state of Palestine, the Israelis seized it in war and named it Akko.
Since earliest times it has been important for trade, lying on two important routes, the Via Maris (the coastal highway) and a lateral road that leads to the Mediterranean Sea from Syria and modern Jordan. As a result Acre was one of the country’s principal ports and, for a time, in the same league as Alexandria and Constantinople.
But intrigue and jealousies between the merchant communities and the various military orders weakened European rule, and at least one civil war occurred. The city became the last Crusader city in Palestine to fall to Egyptian forces in 1291.
The Cairo-based Sultan El-Malik El-Ashraf Salahedin al Khalil, who arrived at the city gates with 200,000 men, carried thousands of Europeans off as slaves; some 30,000 fled to Cyprus and the rest were killed.
The Ottoman ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent reintroduced European merchants, especially French traders, to the city by inviting them to work and reside in Acre. Most of the churches and mosques that still exist in Acre date back to the Ottoman Era. Ahmad Pasha Al Jazzar (1775-1804), an Ottoman Bosnian, continued the work done by his two predecessors and had an elaborate aqueduct built to supply the city with water. He also ordered the construction of a mosque, a bathhouse, and a citadel to be built over the convent of the Hospitaliers.
The British and Israeli eras
At the beginning of the 20th century, local lore had it that once the water of the Na’aman would reach the eastern gate of the city, Acre would fall into the hands of the English. In 1910 the river came close to the gates of the city. Practicing an ancient pagan rite of sacrifice, the people of Acre killed hundreds of sheep to appease the gods and avert the rising of the river and the rule of the English. That winter the direction of the river changed. But fate could not be avoided, and after WWI, Acre and all of Palestine became part of the British war booty. The British turned the city’s Citadel (once the Castle of the Knights of Saint John) into a prison. Despite the economic decline of Acre, the population doubled during the British Mandate, and by 1944, there were 12,300 living within the city walls. Although the majority was Muslim, about 15 percent were Christian.
The British imprisoned up to 10,000 Palestinians from all over the country in the Citadel during the first major show of resistance to their rule during the 1936-1939 uprising. Three prisoners were killed while allegedly trying to escape. The names Fou’ad Hijazi, Mohammad Jamjoum, and Ali Al-Zir, became battle cries for the resistance and remain icons of the Palestinian struggle against the British.
Today a plaque placed in the Citadel by the Israeli government mentions only the Jewish victims of the British rule of Acre. The Arabs are not mentioned.
On 17 May 1948, the militant Jewish Underground, Haganah, wrested the city from its Arab inhabitants and expelled all but one-quarter of the population, despite the fact that the UN division of Palestine had placed Acre in the Palestinian state. The fait accompli made it Israeli.
Today Arabs make up about a quarter of Acre’s population of more than 40,000. (Within the walls of the Old City, however, the population is almost 100 percent Arab.) The underlying resentment towards Israeli rule by Acre’s Arab residents has been smoldering for years. Just recently this resentment erupted into several days of protest.
Excerpted from Palestine: A Guide by Mariam Shahin, photography by George Azar, Chastleton Travel, 2007.
This Week in Palestine