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Crusader Shipwreck Tells a Golden Knights’ Tale

A sunken ship and its cargo discovered in Israel’s Bay of Haifa appears to provide evidence of a dramatic escape attempt during the fall of the Crusader city of Acre in 1291.

The ship that marine archaeologists recently discovered in the Bay of Haifa appears to have been damaged by the dredging that occurred when Acre’s modern harbor was constructed. All that’s left now are fragments of the wooden hull, the keel and some wooden planks covered with ballast. Carbon-14 testing of the ship’s remains dated the wreck to between 1062 and 1250 A.D., the era when Acre was the last remaining Crusader stronghold in the region.

But what the archaeologists found alongside the ship was even more amazing: A mother lode of some 30 gold coins, which a coin expert identified as Florentine “florins,” minted in the Italian republic of Florence beginning in 1252. The coins pinpoint the shipwreck to the last half of the 13th century-which means the ship and its cargo may have well gone down during the dramatic fall of Acre in 1291, when Egyptian forces toppled the city.


Gold coins, or “florins” found at the shipwreck site. (Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)

Let’s back up a bit.

Beginning with the First Crusade, Christian armies spent some two centuries traveling back and forth between Europe and the Middle East, where they vied with Muslims for control over the Holy Land. Jerusalem, of course, was central to the struggle: The Crusaders captured the city in 1099, but lost it again in 1187 to the Muslim forces of Saladin. At that point, the Crusaders moved the heart of their kingdom to Acre, located on Israel’s northern coast.

By the 13th century, Acre had become a major center of international trade. Key exports included goods such as spices, sugar, glass and textiles. In return, ships entered the city’s harbor loaded with the metal, weapons, horses and other supplies that were vital to the Crusaders’ defense of Christianity in the Holy Land.

With the Crusaders’ power in decline, a new dynasty known as the Mamluks (descendants of former slaves to the sultan) rose in Egypt. After crushing a Mongol invasion in 1281, the Mamluks turned their attention to the Crusaders, hoping to kick them out of the Holy Land for good. In the spring of 1291, the new Mamluk sultan al-Ashraf Khalil marched against Acre with a force of more than 100,000 calvary and foot soldiers.

As the Egyptian army stormed Acre’s fortress, desperate Christians fled in chaos to the harbor and the boats that offered their only chance at escape. According to the account of one eyewitness, known as the “Templar of Tyre,” some wealthy men and women offered bribes to ships’ captains to take them to safety, while many others drowned trying to get away. These may have included those aboard the recently discovered ship, which archaeologists believe may have sunk, along with its valuable cargo, during this chaotic flight.

Painting depicting Guillaume de Clermont defending the walls at the Siege of Acre, 1291.

Painting depicting Guillaume de Clermont defending the walls at the Siege of Acre, 1291. (Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, at the castle of the Knights Templar in the northwestern part of Acre, a group of barricaded knights made their last stand. As the Mamluks were digging tunnels to get inside, the castle’s foundation collapsed, burying the doomed Templars. When the dust finally cleared and the sultan’s flag flew over Acre, the Egyptian forces systematically dismantled the Crusader city, leaving its seaport in ruin for several centuries.

In the 16th century, forces of the Ottoman Empire captured Acre. They rebuilt the city entirely and constructed a wall around it. Archaeologists would uncover the surprisingly intact ruins of the Crusader-era city underneath the Ottoman-era buildings in 2011.

And as if one new Crusader-related discovery just wasn’t awesome enough, another team of archaeologists in Acre has uncovered the long-lost headquarters of the Teutonic Order, founded by German knights who joined the Crusaders from France and England circa 1190 A.D. In return, King Richard the Lionheart gave the Germans their own land in Acre after the Crusaders won control of the city. The Teutonic Knights became a military order in 1198, adopting the monastic customs of the Templars and Hospitallers and receiving money and other forms of support from the papacy.

When the Ottomans took control of Acre, they leveled everything outside the newly built walls of the city—including the Teutonic compound. Its exact location remained unknown, but after studying 17th-century maps of Acre archaeologists decided to search in the southwestern part of the city’s “wall-less” portion. And in their very first season of excavations, they found the ash-covered floor level of the Crusader-era buildings, which had been destroyed back in 1291 along with the rest of the city.

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