December 5, 2023
December 5, 2023

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The History of the City of Acco

Someone in our family in Israel was in Acco recently. This led my wife Sharon to suggest to me that I write about Acco. Acco was always a big blank in my mind, so I thought it would be a good idea. It is only mentioned one time in Tanach so I thought the topic would be easy. But was I wrong! It turns out that Acco is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the earth! Also, due to its excellent anchorage area for ships, it has been constantly fought over by armies of the world. To write the history of Acco is to write the history of the Mideast from 2000 BCE and forward! (Acco is like Forrest Gump. It constantly appears in important moments!)

Acco is at the northern end of the Bay of Haifa, 14 miles north of Haifa. In Biblical times it furnished the best anchorage for ships of all the harbors in the region. (The other ancient harbors in the region were Joffa, Dor, and Ashkelon.)

In its one occurrence in Tanach (Judges 1:31) we are told that the tribe of Asher was not able to drive out the inhabitants of עכו and Tzidon and a few other cities.

But what about prior to Tanach? About 1 mile east of the modern city of Acco there is archaeological evidence of a site from around 3000 B.C.E. This seems to have been a farming community that perhaps endured for a few centuries before it was abandoned. But Acco was resettled during the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1550 BCE) and has been continuously inhabited since then.

It is first mentioned (as “Akka”) in Egyptian Execration texts from 1800 B.C.E. These are texts that list enemies of Egypt. A symbolic damaging ritual would be performed on the writing with the intent to cause harm to the enemy. Acco is mentioned in writings from Ugarit as well.

Thereafter, it appears as one of the cities conquered by the Egyptian king Thutmose III in the mid-15th century B.C.E.

It appears thereafter (as “Acca”) in the Tell el-Amarna letters (14th century BCE; on these letters, see Encyclopaedia Judaica 15:933). In one of these letters, its governor wrote to his suzerain in Egypt professing loyalty. But Egyptian rule over Acco was lost later in this century. It was regained under Seti I and his son Rameses II, to be again lost in the 12th century BCE.

Although the Tanach states that the Israelites could not conquer the city in the period of the Judges, there is a passage in Josephus (first century C.E.) that mentions Acco being ruled in a later period by one of Solomon’s governors.

Yohanan Aharoni, a scholar of the geography of ancient Israel, wrote that Acco was under Israelite control in David’s reign (citing 2 Sam. 24:7, which does not mention Acco). But he notes that 1 Kings 9:11 states that Solomon gave 20 cities in the Galilee to King Hyram of Tyre, and he believes that Acco was one of them. See his “The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography,” pp. 17-18. (But 1 Kings 9:12, in a very odd passage, reports that Hyram did not like this gift! This seriously undermines Aharoni’s suggestion. Surely Hyram would have been happy to receive the port city of Acco.)

Around 725 BCE, Acco joined Sidon and Tyre in a revolt against the Assyrian ruler Shalmaneser V. Later, it submitted to Sancheriv but it revolted against Ashurbanipal. He took revenge on the city with a massacre in about 650 BCE.

Persian rule in Eretz Yisrael began in the sixth century BCE. Ancient historians record that Cambyses (son of Cyrus) attacked Egypt after amassing his army on the plains near the city of Acco. (In 2018, archaeologists unearthed remains of what might have been this site.) Cambyses was the first Persian king to conquer Egypt.

Alexander the Great conquered ancient Israel from the Persians. After his death, his generals divided his empire among themselves. At first, Acco came under the jurisdiction of the Egyptian Ptolemies. Ptolemy II renamed the city “Ptolemais” in the 260s BCE. The city was mainly known by this name until the Arab conquest in the early seventh century C.E. This is how Josephus, I and II Maccabees, and Greek and Roman writers refer to it. (The Talmud refers to our city as תלבוש See, e.g., Sotah 34b and Yoma 10a. The Wikipedia entry does not understand why. But the answer is easily seen. This is a rough equivalent of “Ptolemais.” B/M switches are common.)

Antiochus III conquered the city for the Syrian Seleucids around 219 BCE, taking it from the Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty. His son, the one who persecuted the Jews, founded a Greek colony in the city. It was called “Antioch in Ptolemais.”

(Forgive me for now skipping the Roman and Byzantine periods.)

The Arabs conquered the city in the early seventh century C.E. But in 1104 it was captured by the Crusaders from the Arabs following the First Crusade. It remained in their hands until 1187 when it was taken from them by Saladin.

But a few years later, in 1191, the Christians were able to recapture it, with the forces of the Third Crusade led by King Richard I of England (the Lion Hearted) and King Philip II of France. (This was at a cost of 100,000 men.)

After the victory, the city was given over to a certain order of Knights (“the Order of Saint John”) by whom it was held for 100 years and it was given the name “Saint Jean d’Acre.” (“Acre” seems to be the French way of writing Acco.)

In 1291 the city was conquered by the Mamluks, who massacred most of its Christian and Jewish inhabitants. This was the last city that the Crusaders had held in Eretz Yisrael.

Let us talk now about the original name of the city. The meaning of the name is uncertain, but legends have arisen about it. A legend in Hebrew is that when the ocean was created it expanded until Acco and then stopped: ad koh (=until here), giving the city its name. A Greek legend is based on the Greek word akē that means “healing.” Their legend is that Hercules found curative herbs at the site.

Today Acco’s old city is a UNESCO-recognized heritage site.

As to Acco’s connections to Maimonides and Nachmanides, and to the aliyah of rabbis from Europe in the 13th century, and its connection to R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (18th century), and Napoleon’s failure to defeat the Ottomans there in 1799 and the battles in the 1948 War of Independence—all of this will have to wait for another article. (Also, the explanation of why it is the holiest city to the Bahai, a religion that commenced in the 19th century.)

P.S. The reason my relative was in Acco recently? COVID-19. Israel has designated it as an area for COVID-19 quarantines! This is consistent with my original point: Acco is like Forrest Gump. It constantly appears in major events in our history!

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Last week I wrote about what last name I would adopt if I made aliyah. I suggested “Rishon-First.” But Judy Heicklen came up with a much better suggestion: “Rishon-LeTziyon”!

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