Keeping out Napoleon

The Fortress-City of Acre
contribution by Annie Greene
[1] Old Walls of Acre. Felix Bonfils, 1878. NYPL Digital Collections

[2] Khan al-Umdan, constructed late 18th
century by Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar. 

Photo from
The walls of Acre (‘Akko/‘Akka), prominently jutting out into the Bay of Haifa, have in many ways come to define this small Mediterranean coastal town. [Fig. 1] Once Acre's main line of defense, the fortifications now serve as a time machine, of sorts, that separates the Old City and its labyrinthine streets from the “new” one that has developed outside the historic walls. Every year, visitors flock to Acre to explore the city’s main tourist attractions, such as the Al-Anwar Mosque and the Khan al-‘Umdan, as well as the Crusader-era tunnels, refectory, and church. [Fig. 2] Yet the walls that surround Old Acre—the walls that make it a walled city, even today—deserve consideration as well. In 1799, the fortified city held off Napoleon and the French army, a most feared revolutionary power, and reversed the tide of the Napoleonic Wars in the Middle East. 

[3] Satellite view of the Old City of Acre. Google Earth Pro, accessed October 5, 2015.

Acre was a fortress-city long before the Ottomans rolled in and incorporated the region into the empire. The location and shape of the site makes for a strategic military position as well as a bustling port town. [Fig. 3]  The story of the city’s fortifications really begin during the First Crusade, when Acre was attacked,   and, in 1104, capitulated to King Baldwin of Jerusalem. The Crusaders rebuilt the city, fortifying it with walls. Acre thus became the Crusader Kingdom’s main port to the rest of the Levant, with access to the spice trade. During the Third Crusade (1189-1192), Acre was the seat of the Knights Hospitaller order and even served as the de facto capital of the remnant Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, following the fighting and its subsequent capture by the Ayyubid Sultan Salah al-Din in 1187. In order to prevent the return of the Crusaders, Acre was razed to the ground with the Mamluk conquest in 1291. The city then diminished in importance and, in the early modern period, was nothing more than a small port and fishing outpost. 

Acre came back in a big way in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and the historic fabric as it is seen on the ground today was largely shaped under the leadership of two Ottoman governors [vali], Zahir al-‘Umar (d. 1775, r. 1768-1775), and Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar (d.1804, r. 1775-1804). The growth of the city’s influence within the Western Galilee region greatly affected the re-development of the city. During the course of the eighteenth century, Acre and its hinterland eclipsed the nearby port town  of Sidon. 

[4] Map of Acre in 1820. From Thomas Phillip,
Acre: The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian City, p. 231.
[5] Walls of Acre. Photo by Author, 2015.
Because the city sits on a peninsula, the fortification walls of Acre face the sea on three sides, with the Bay of Acre to the east and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. To the north are the land walls, defended by an elaborate three-layer system. The inner land wall was built in the time of Zahir al-‘Umar, while the outer land wall was added only a few decades later by  Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar. The third element of the defense system, a nineteenth-century earthen rampart, was added on the order of the vali ‘Abdullah Pasha (r. 1820-1832). [Fig. 4]  These fortifications, especially when compared with the Crusader-period walls, incorporated several modifications that point to the ever-increasing usage of firearms, such as gun-slits placed within the walls’ deep embrasures; low, thick bastions with rounded corners in order to deflect canon and artillery fire; and complex symmetrical layouts. [Fig. 5]

[6] Wall constructed by Zahir al-‘Umar at Acre. Photo by Author, 2015.

After having the former mültezim [tax farmer] of Acre killed while sending his troops to march on the city, Zahir al-‘Umar declared himself the mültezim of Acre in 1746. This declaration made him the political, military, and commercial ruler of the city. He first fortified the city around this time, which displayed the visual rhetoric of his possession and rule. [Fig. 6]  Zahir al-‘Umar first strengthened the city’s walls by adding square towers:  three on the eastern wall, four on the north, and one on the north-eastern corner. The wall to the north-east of the citadel still remains today, and it can be distinguished from later developments in the small size of the blocks, and the embrasure design of narrow slits set in arched casemates. These features are consistent with Zahir al-‘Umar’s other known and identified fortification projects in the Galilee region, such as the walls of Tiberias, Qal‘at Jiddin, and Dayr Hanna. [Fig. 7] 

[7] Tiberias from the Lake. Photograph Lewis Larsson, 1898-1914G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
[8] Skyline of of Acre. Photo by Author, 2015.
Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar, previously appointed as vali of Sidon, took over rule of Acre after the death of Zahir al-‘Umar in 1775. Even today, it is hard to escape from al-Jazzar in Acre. A main street is named for him. His mosque, built 1781, dominates the skyline when standing on the walls, which he fortified, and from which he fought. [Fig. 8]  An incredibly intriguing figure, born as a Christian in Bosnia, Ahmad went to Istanbul as a youth, worked as a barber, and befriended one of the Egyptian Mamluk elites there. He followed him back to Cairo, converted to Islam and trained among the Mamluk military elite, and, according to popular tradition, killed seventy Bedouins to avenge the murder of his master. His nickname al-Jazzar, “the butcher” in Arabic, is said to have been inspired by his cruelty and vengeful spirit. 

[9] Eastern (outer) walls of Acre, Photo by Author, 2015. 

[10] The moat of Acre on the north side. 
Photograph 1920-1933, G. Eric and Edith
 Matson Photograph Collection, Library
 of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt was the impetus for another fortification of Acre’s walls under Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar. In this period, the British offered their assistance in strengthening the walls of both Jaffa and Acre in the hopes of curbing French presence in the region. The innovative design allowed for maximum defensive artillery fire while minimizing enemy attacks. Al-Jazzar’s new defensive line was 30m outside the walls of Zahir al-‘Umar, which were dismantled in some places for the purpose of constructing the new walls and the moat that ran outside it. [Figs. 9 & and 10] The new walls were thicker, and this improvement had the dual effect of absorbing the impact from canon fire, in addition to providing a wide-enough platform from which Ahmad Pasha’s men could respond by shooting their own artillery in safety. The British also provided the Ottomans with canons.  

Acre’s land and sea walls that were re-fortified during the eighteenth century therefore reveal a local story of military innovation, and point to interaction with Europe beyond invasion. Britain’s help with the provision of canons, as well as British and Russian naval presence alongside the Ottoman forces to fight Napoleon’s men, illustrates the end of an isolated local power structure. The following decades saw considerably more European involvement in terms of politics and trade.  
Just as the walls circled Acre, so too did Ahmad Pasha surround his realm with armies. He considered Acre his base, and he had to protect it and subdue the outlying areas for reasons of political and economic security. These measures incited on-again off-again conflict with the Druze, and led him to assert control over Jaffa when the French began their campaign, as control over both Jaffa and Acre would be a decisive foothold for an invader to continue into the hinterland of the Levant. 

[11] Statue of one of Napoleon’s
men in the Old City of Jaffa, pro-
claiming it a Historical Site:
One of the ironies of tourism in
the present day. Photo by
author, 2015.
Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, and from there turned eastward toward Jaffa in 1799,  proving again the defensive link between Egypt and the Levant. He knew that if war with the Ottomans were on the horizon, he would rather strike first and secure his position. [Fig. 11] When the threat of the French turned into a reality, Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar sent his troops to create a military buffer between Acre and Napoleon’s advances. He added his men to the Egyptian Mamluks stationed at El-‘Arish, in Egyptian territory, and annexed Gaza, which had not previously been a part of Damascus’ administrative district. He also made alliances with influential families in the Galilee region, and the Druze between Dayr al-Qamar and Baalbek, creating effective political support for Acre. 

Napoleon cited the presence of Ahmad Pasha’s troops in Egyptian territory as a provocation of sorts, and one of the reasons behind the Levantine campaign. Napoleon and his forces managed to enter El-‘Arish on February 7, 1799 and besieged the citadel. Gaza fell on the 25th of February, and then the French conducted a four-day siege of Jaffa starting on March 3, destroying the city and massacring its inhabitants. After sacking Jaffa, the French army continued the march northward toward Acre. Where Jaffa’s walls had failed, Acre’s did not. Al-Jazzar had also surrounded the city with more walls of armies. From the sea, English, Russian, and Ottoman troops fired on the French, and Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar’s own men bombarded Napoleon’s army from the land walls. [Fig. 12]  The siege of Acre lasted exactly two months, from March 19, 1799 until May 20, when Napoleon had to retreat due to plague and shortage of supplies. The walls of Acre had held him off.

[12] Citadel of Acre, Ottoman fortification. Photo by author, 2015.

Much is made of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. Alongside the military operations, he and his men also conducted a cultural campaign that resulted in the Description de l’Égypte. More emphasis could be placed, however, on the reversal of Napoleon’s campaign plans at Acre--not only when taken from the perspective of a retreating revolutionary European army, but also from the vital perspective of 18th-century architectural and military innovation outside of Istanbul. Acre, as a walled city, enforced its boundaries against the invading French army and maintained its sovereignty and authority. Its identity as a successful fortress-city shines through to today. Though Acre may have a street named after Napoleon (Rechov Napolyon Bonapart), it remains outside the walls, just like the man himself. 

ANNIE GREENE is a PhD student at the University of Chicago, specializing in the cultural and intellectual production of Ottoman Iraq in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

**For more on Acre, see another stambouline post: The Lights of Ahmad

BRUMMETT, Palmira. Mapping the Ottomans: Sovereignty, Territory, and Identity in the Early Modern Mediterranean. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
GÜLER, Mustafa. Cezzar Ahmed Paşa ve Akka Savunması. Istanbul: Çamlıca, 2003.
PETERSEN, Andrew. A Gazetteer of Buildings in Muslim Palestine (Part 1). Contributions by Marcus Milwright, drawings by Heather Nixon, and maps by Peter Leach. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
PHILIPP, Thomas. Acre: The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian City, 1730-1831. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Citation: "Keeping out Napoleon," Annie Greene, Stambouline (October 7, 2015).

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