Acre Has Been Settled by Jews Alternately Since the 3rd Century BCE/ DR.Rivka Shpak Lissak


Jews lived in Acre continuously from the 3rd century BCE until massacred by the Byzantines in the 7th century CE. Jews returned to Acre in the 10th or 11th century, remaining there until its conquest and destruction by the Mamluk in the 13th century. Jews lived in Acre continuously from the 14th century until 1936. Jews returned to Acre since 1948.

A small number of Muslims first arrived in Acre during the 7th century. They were joined by Christians who were forcibly converted to Islam under Abbasside rule (and, likely, converted back to Christianity during the Crusader period). Arabs began settling in Acre only around the mid-18th century.

Acre sits around its bay, in the north of Israel. According to an old legend, the name Acre (AKKO in Hebrew) is made up of two Hebrew words: Ad Koh (up to here). The legend tells that the sea flooded the world twice, stopping at the shore of Acre on the second time, and as it is said in the Book of Job, “Thou shalt come UP TO HERE and no further”.

Nowadays, Acre is a mixed city. Of its 46,000 residents, 25% are Arab, mostly Muslim, with a Christian minority, and a Jewish majority.

Acre and its port are about 4000 years old, among the most ancient in the world.
Its ancient Canaanite remains can be seen at Acre Hill (known as Napoleaon’s Hill). Its harbour has served international trade through the ages. It is mentioned among the cities conquered by Egypt’s Thutmes III in the early 15th century BCE, and in the 14th century BCE El Amarna documents. Acre was supposed to be included in the estate of the tribe of Asher, but in fact was not conquered and remained in the hands of the Canaanites.

King David conquered Acre, and King Solomon gave it to Hiram, King of Tyre, as part of the deal providing wood for the construction of the First Temple. Acre was conquered by the Assyrians at the end of the 8th century BCE, and was attached to the Assyrian district of Dor or that of Megiddo.


Under the Persians (538 BCE – 332 BCE) Acre was a military base and an important port. The Persians needed the cooperation of the Phoenician fleet and therefore granted extensive autonomy to Phoenician cities. Acre was an important Middle Eastern port during the 4th century BCE, and its status was the same as other Phoenician cities. Acre controlled all the settlements on its plane.

Alexander the Great conquered Acre in 332 BCE. Greeks, and Macedonians, then, began settling in Acre and other cities along the coastal plane. After Alexander’s death, his successors (Ptolemy and his descendents in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria) fought over the Land of Israel. By 310 BCE the land was ruled by the Ptolemaic Egyptian dynasty. Acre became a Greek polis and was renamed Ptolemais. The battle between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties was renewed at the beginning of the 3rd century BCE, and in 201 BCE the Land of Israel was under the control of the Syrian Seleucid dynasty. During the Hellenic age Acre was the largest coastal city in the Land of Israel, with a thriving economy.

At the start of the Hasmonaean period (167 BCE), Acre was ruled by the Seleucids. A treaty between them and Jonathan the Hasmonaean regarding support for the Seleucids given by the Jews of Acre indicates that, at some time during the Hellenic period, Jews began to settle in Acre. The Ptolemaic and Seleucid rulers, however, encouraged the settlement of Hellenist-Greeks and so most of Acre’s population was foreign. Jonathan the Hasmonaean visited Acre several times to negotiate its transfer to Hasmonaean control. In 143 BCE, on his third visit, he and his entourage were arrested and executed by the Seleucid General Triphon. Under Yanai’s rule, most of the foreign-populated coastal cities were under Jewish rule, although his attempt to conquer Acre failed.

After the Roman conquest in 63 BCE, Acre continued to be an autonomous, foreign-populated city, while the number of Jews in it increased. Herod the Great, who was a Roman vassal, carried out construction projects in the city.


In the Mishna and the Talmud, Acre is mentioned as a foreign city with a large Jewish community, home to famous scholars such as Rabbi Shimon ben Yehudah, Rabbi Yehudah ben Agra, Rabbi Tanhum ben Hiya, Rabbi Yitzhak, and Rabbi Hizkiyah. Rabbi Abba Deman was the community’s leader. Rabban Gamliel, president of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish highest religious institution, also lived in Acre for a while at the beginning of the 2nd century CE. Jewish Halakha did not consider Acre a Jewish city or part of the Land of Israel because it maintained its former status as a Phoenician city and most of its population was foreign.

For the Romans, Acre was an important base. During the time of Emperor Claudius (mid-first century CE) a colony was established in the city for retired Roman legionnaires. During the Great Revolt (66-70 CE), Acre was the Roman army’s forward operating base. According to Josephus Flavius, the Roman Consul Gassius Florus massacred the Jews of Acre in 66 CE, murdering 2000 people. The Emperor Aspasianus carried out his preparations for the conquest of the Galilee in Acre. The Romans expanded Acre’s port and built a break-water structure in it.

Acre-Ptolemais was a Roman base during the Jewish Bar-Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE) as well. During the Roman period it maintained its status as polis and its Hellenist culture, and was home to a Jewish community throughout the Mishna & Talmus period. Its population rose to about 30,000.


Acre expanded during this period as its population gradually embraced Christianity, and its Jewish community continued to exist. In 351 the Jews rebelled against the Roman governor Gallus, who retaliated by massacring the Jews of Acre who participated in it.

From 614-628, Acre was ruled by the Parthians who took it from the Byzantines. Harassed throughout the Byzantine period by the Christians and the Byzantine governments, the Jews assisted the Parthians in their conquest of the Land of Israel. Following the Parthian conquest, the Jews carried out a pogrom among the Christians and forcibly converted one of their priests to Judaism. According to James the Convert (a Jewish convert to Christianity who had tried unsuccessfully to convert the Jews to Christianity) the Jews burned a church and Christian scriptures. James also tells of a synagogue that used to stand near the harbour, but no other evidence exists to support this. The Byzantines settled the score after their expulsion of the Parthians in 628 – according to Nathan Shor’s The History of Acre, most of Acre’s Jews were killed, expelled from the city, or sold as slaves.

THE ARABIC PERIOD (640 – 1099)

According to the Arabic historian Al Baladhari, Acre was conquered in 636, but through the 7th century the Arabs and the Byzantines continued their fight over it, causing extensive damage to the city. Reconquered by the Arabs, it was rebuilt and refortified, its harbour reconstructed, and its original name restored. Acre was annexed to the district of Jordan. Its Hellenist-Christian population remained largely unchanged, with only a small number of Arabs, the city’s rulers, settling in it.

Scholars are divided over the Islamisation of the country’s population, including Acre’s. Shor is of the opinion that the process was slow and that most of the conversion to Islam in Acre occurred between 800 and 1000 CE. According to another source (Conversion to Islam, by Richard Bulliat Acre was taken by the Abbasside in 750 CE, its population was forced to convert to Islam and its churches converted to Mosques. In his book, Richard Bulliat determined that most of Acre’s population converted, but agreed with Shor that in throughout the country the transformation was extremely slow. By the time of the Crusader conquest, only half of Acre’s non-Jewish population had converted to Islam. An earthquake, followed by a Tsunami, shook the city and flooded it in 881. In 969, Acre was taken by the Fatimid.

No Jews remained in Acre at the time of the Arabic conquest. Jews in Acre are mentioned again for the first time in the 11th century, but according to Schor, it is possible that Jews began returning to the city during the 8th or 9th century. From the Cairo Genizah (a Jewish archive) we know that in 1031 the family of Yoshiah ben Aharon lived in Acre, and had already held top positions at the end of the 10th century. A note from 1040 tells of Rabbi Abraham ben Shlomo, thought to be Acre’s Rabbi. Eliyahu ben Aharon ben Yoshiah completed his Bible concordance in Acre in 1041. A Torah centre and a Jewish court of law in Acre that are mentioned in a document from 1095, testify to the existence of a Jewish community there.


Acre became the Crusaders’ largest and richest city and an international trading cener. It was taken by the Crusaders in 1104, and, although they massacred Jews in other cities, the Crusaders did not harm the Jews in Acre. There are, however, indications that Jews, fearing massacre, fled Acre ahead of the Crusaders. An Israeli-Arabic source claims that the conquering Crusaders murdered 4000 of Acre’s Muslims. The article, Population and economic distribution – the village and the city: The Crusader City (in M. Hed, Ed., History of the Land of Israel), describes Acre’s various quarters, with no mention of a Muslim quarter at all. May be no Arabs remained in Acre, or that Christians who were forcibly converted to Islam returned to their former faith.

Genoa’s fleet had assisted the Crusaders in their conquest of Acre, and were consequently invited to establish a neighbourhood near the port. The residents of the Genoese neighbourhood were exempt from taxes. Venice, Pisa, Amalfi, and Marseille were given a similar status later as well. The presence of Italian and French merchants in Acre increased its importance as its port connected the East and the West. Acre’s church of St Anne was built by the Crusaders, and under their rule Acre had a population of 50,000, most of them European Catholic Christians, with Christian Orthodox and Jewish minorities.

The Jewish community in Acre during the Crusader period

Acre had a Jewish community and a synagogue, and many Jewish scholars lived there during the Crusader period. Liturgical poets, Torah scholars, and Jewish individuals from Acre are mentioned in the Cairo Genizah documents. Benjamin of Tudela, a Sephardic Jewish traveller, mentions 200 Jews in Acre in 1173. Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon arrived in Acre in 1165 and stayed for a while. Rabbi Petahyah of Regensburg visited in 1180 and reported a Jewish community of 100 to 300 Jewish individuals. The poet Yehudah El Harizi visited Acre in 1212. According to Prof. Joshua Prawer in his article, The History of the Crusaders’ War, in 1210 the Jews of Acre welcomed Jean de Brian, Jerusalem’s Crusader king who was visiting Acre, and in 1209-1211 about 300 Jewish families from France (including from areas that were in English hands) settled in Acre, among them Rabbi Joseph ben Gershom, Rabbi Samson of Shanz, and others. Rabbi Shem Tov, son of Rabbi Isaac of Tortosa (Aragon, Spain) arrived in Acre in 1226. In 1260 Rabbi Yehiel of Paris arrived in Acre with his students, set up and led the Yeshivah de Paris. After his death the Yeshivah was led by Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (the Ramban) who was forced to flee Barcelona following the Barcelona Debate. Rabbi Maimon's famous book, More Nevuchim (Teaching the Baffled) was debated in the Yeshivah, and Rabbi Shlomo Pattish was banned because of his views and his decision to burn the book. Evidence exists that Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman gave a sermon in 1268 in the synagogue of Acre, which was described as “large and tall … with 12 windows and each as large as the door to the synagogue of Livorno (in Italy), and is named Ahab’s Synagogue”. [would be nice to add here who wrote this] The Jewish community in Acre was the spiritual leader for the Diaspora during the 13th century.

Christian merchants fled Acre in 1187 following its peaceful takeover by Saladin, but the city was retaken by the Crusaders, led by King Richard Lionheart in 1191 after a siege that lasted two years. After Jerusalem was lost to the Arabs(Saracens), Acre became the capital of the Crusader kingdom and their last fort in the country, and the Templar Knights settled in it. Acre prospered again and its population rose to 40,000, reaching 50,000 during the 13th century. The Crusaders built churches and monasteries in Acre and merchants from San Giminiano, Lucca, and even Barcelona, settled in it.

THE MAMLUK PERIOD (1260 – 1516)

While the Crusader rule in other parts of the country ended in 1260, Acre was conquered by the Mamluk as late as 1291. They destroyed the city, its fortresses, and its harbour. Any Christians who survived fled the city. Acre’s destruction brought an end to its Jewish community. Acre is mentioned in 1320 by a Muslim geographer. According to Zeev Vilnai (in the chapter on Acre in the Ariel Encyclopaedia), Acre remained in ruins through the 14th and 15th centuries, but according to Joseph Drori, "Etetz Israel in the Mamluk State,"pp.43, 57-58 the city’s port began to be active again, and partial reconstruction began around the middle of the 14th century and the Jews returned to Acre then.

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