Crusader Shipwreck Tells a Golden Knights’ Tale

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.

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