Night-time, and a lone skiff slipped from beneath the seaward ramparts of the besieged Lion Fortress of the Templars and headed out to sea. On board were the most precious artefacts from the treasury of the legendary knights, taken for safe-keeping and smuggled out beneath the arrows and catapult-shot of the enemy. Left behind in the doomed fort were the brave remnants of the Military Order who refused to leave their post. This crumbling bastion would be their grave and grand finale and all that was left of two hundred years of Crusade. Late May, 1291, a bad time to be a Christian in the holy land. The Saracens would show no mercy.
The following morning, the sun rose and a small group of senior knights strode out under a flag of truce from the blistered ruin of their redoubt to parley with al-Ashraf, sultan of Egypt, who sat impatient for the finish. They must have known what was to come, might have reflected upon the bitter irony of being the last Crusaders ever to walk along the shore of Palestine.
Their grand master was already dead and their holy relics sailed. Nothing more remained. Quickly they were seized, forced to their knees and beheaded by sword. Then the sultan gave the order. To the sound of trumpets and the beat of drums, two thousand elite Moslem shock troops charged into the breach.
The Templars fought bravely and with whatever came to hand, for pride and honour and the future of their Order were at stake. But exhausted and outnumbered, they could no longer stem the assault. The end was near. As the enemy broke through, their battle-cries and the clash of arms deafening, the walls tottered and the ground that had been undermined by sappers began to give beneath their feet. There was nowhere to run and no time for retreat. With a roar, and in a volcanic cloud of dust and smoke, the tower imploded on itself and consumed all within. There were no survivors. It was a poignant and devastating conclusion to almost two centuries of warfare and land grab, an event that resonates today and foreshadowed the destruction of the Templars within a few years. In the shattered remnants of that single tower lay the dreams of conquest and knightly valour, the hopes of Christendom to retain the holy land and retake Jerusalem.
In the grim aftermath of the fall of Acre and disappearance of the Templar keep, the sultan razed the city walls, looted and burnt its buildings and carried off the porticos of its churches to grace his mosques in Cairo. Next, he marched his armies up and down the coast, mopping up resistance and seizing towns and ensuring the Crusaders would never again gain a beachhead in the holy land. The Templas regrouped on the tiny fortress-island of Ruad two miles off the Syrian coast and survived there for another twelve years. Events in Europe conspired against them and in November 1313 they fell victim to the avarice and jealousy of the French king and were brutally suppressed. The Hospitallers fared better, first moving to Rhodes and eventually establishing themselves on the island of Malta. Over two hundred and fifty years after the fall of Acre, it was the turn of the Ottoman empire in 1565 to go to war against these last Crusaders. The Hospitallers won the engagement and thirty thousand Turks died in the attempt.
Walk the site of the siege of Acre today and you will find many ghosts and ruins to provoke the imagination. There is the waterfront looking out to the leaning and derelict Tower of Flies, the lighthouse of the Crusaders that once guarded the harbour entrance and served as a waypoint for their chaotic flight from the holy land. There are the abandoned tunnels of the Templars leading from the wave-lashed site of their Lion Fortress, the echoing spaces of the Hospitaller great hall and storerooms, the looming presence of the Venetian Tower that speaks of former wealth and power and ambition, the line of the city walls that once briefly held the Mameluk at bay.
And in a small private chapel surmounting the keep of the Fortress of St Angelo on the island of Malta is a column of rose granite. It is believed to have been carried - first from Acre and then from Rhodes - as ballast in a galley of the Hospitaller Knights of St John of Jerusalem. Evidence of defeat and escape and retreat from the holy land; a symbol of defiance and renewal Proof also that the past often travels with us and we rarely shake off history. Over seven hundred years ago, the keep of the Templars at Acre toppled: a warning to the future and a markeer for other towers that would fall.