Imagining the End in Thirteenth-Century Acre

Uri Shachar

A group of European Jews who set sail for the Holy Land in the spring of 1211 chose to portray their passage as a part of an apocalyptic drama that involves purging the Land of Israel in preparation for the coming of the Messiah:

Redemption begins with the “ingathering of the Exiles” [in which] each person among the Israelites contributes [. . .] to go to the Land [of Israel] and to settle in the holy city of Jerusalem [. . . ] But let no-one say that the King Messiah will be revealed on an impure Land, [. . .] nor that he will be revealed in the Land of Israel amidst the Gentiles . . .

This group was the first in several waves of Jewish immigrants from western Europe that reached Palestine over the course of the thirteenth century. The immigration movement was unprecedented in scope, and included notable religious leaders, whose authority as jurists and exegetes had been well established in Europe prior to their departure. Among them were such luminaries as R. Samson of Sens as well as R. Joseph of Clisson and his brother Meir. In Palestine, the French and English immigrants first settled in Jerusalem, but after the destruction of the city’s fortification in 1219, the majority of Jewish inhabitants resettled in Acre. Thus, the acting capital of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem came to house a vibrant intellectual community of prominent European Jews, toward which subsequent immigrants, both individuals and groups, continued to gravitate throughout the thirteenth century.

The new immigrants arrived at a time of political turmoil in the Near East. They found a region plagued with internal rivalries, suffering from the lack of political or religious cohesion. These tumultuous circumstances were primarily the result of an abrupt erosion of the polarized political landscape that prevailed in the region prior to the death of Saladin in 1193. Afterward, the Ayyubid sultanate and the Frankish Kingdom both experienced a rapid process of disintegration that created constant instability and an incessant battle for political domination. With the weakening of the Christian and Muslim hegemonies, there emerged a dynamic network of alliances that extended beyond traditional political, linguistic, and religious boundaries. The political landscape was characterized by the formation of ad hoc pacts between Muslim princes and semi-independent Christian rulers, in the face of either internal or external threats.

This disintegration of the Ayyubid and Frankish regimes over the turn of the thirteenth century not only enabled Jews to settle in the region, it also shaped the very language in which they framed their mission. Jewish immigrants chose to portray their journey to, and presence in, the Holy Land through a highly sophisticated framework of apocalyptic Messianism. There is no indication that participants in the movement were trained or equipped to undertake any type of warfare. Nevertheless, they employed a language that portrays, if only allegorically, their commitment to the Holy Land in overtly belligerent terms. Furthermore, their accounts mirror contemporary Near Eastern Muslim and Christian narratives not only in the preoccupation with Holy War as a way to convey cultural, hermeneutical, and political claims, but also in their depiction of messianic wars. In fact, numerous Jewish texts make sophisticated use of Christian and Muslim figures as they envision the messianic wars that they expected to take place as a result of the immigration to Palestine.

What is more, the ideological foundations that the first generation of immigrants had established became the backbone for several subsequent attempts by thirteenth-century Jews in the East to convey their sense of possession of the Land and their spiritual intercession on its behalf. Among those renditions are a number of texts that appear to continue the tradition of the immigrant pioneers to Acre and assume a great deal of familiarity with the political affairs of the Near East. Following in the footsteps of the first generation, these tracts build on ancient traditions to frame their disposition toward the Land and its gentile occupants in messianic terms, and to provide an apocalyptic vision of their recent past.

Most thirteenth-century treatises invoke messianic traditions that enumerate the signs [Otot] that are associated with the arrival of the Messiah. Authors build on traditions that originate in late antiquity or the early middle ages, and supplement or amend them to fit their own contemporary political and cultural outlook. Most significantly, authors consistently insist on staging the messianic drama not as a fantasy about a distant future but rather as a continuation of the present political landscape. If the traditions that the thirteenth-century texts build on were originally used to interpret turbulent and tragic events in optimistic and appeasing ways, the Jewish immigrants to Acre (and their successors) appear to have put them to an entirely different use. They used this language deliberately to portray the footprint of a political movement that sought to make claims about the Land of Israel, sovereignty, and the nature of their spiritual and ritual experience upon it. Each generation added an interpretive layer to the apocalyptic discourses in order to come to terms with the spiritual sense of sacred violence and with the ways in which it is mapped on to a material, and political, appreciation of the Land.

One central motif, however, runs through the generations: the purificatory power of the Israelite people on the Holy Land. Whereas both the Christian and Muslim societies have consistently displayed paralyzing fragmentation while simultaneously trumpeting a voice of religious belligerence, the Israelites are able to unify around the one ruler of Davidic ancestry. Authors repeatedly insinuate that the reprehensible alliances among, and intermingling between, Christian and Muslim groups are what will bring their fall. Israel, in contrast, will purify the Holy Land by maintaining the purity of their conduct and the unity of the People.

At the heart of one homily, for example, is a discussion about the group of devoted Jews who gather in Palestine and conquer the Land of Israel in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. By heading east, they set in motion an elaborate process that involves several cycles of triumph and defeat and that is to end with the ultimate conquest of the Holy Land. The homily dwells on the figure of the martyr King Messiah who undertakes a belligerent mission to purify the Land of Israel, and portrays this king through a dialogic encounter with his mythical nemesis, Armylus. The bellicose messianic posture depicted in the treatise emphasizes the ritualistic role of the Jews who immigrate to the Holy Land, bring the Messiah, recognize his arrival, and fight alongside him.

According to another homily, the first contingent of immigrants plays a pivotal role in setting the stage for the arrival of the Messiah. While people from diverse backgrounds may find a way to contribute or participate, “each in accordance with the willingness of his heart,” it is the “scholars and righteous people” who undertake the crucial responsibility of identifying the Messiah. Furthermore, the community of recent immigrants must engage in a number of activities that lay symbolic foundations for the building of a stable governance, a spiritual focal point, and a marker of cultural continuity in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel.

Most importantly, these immigrants must purify the Holy Land by ridding it of gentiles and their defiling presence. Only when the Land is occupied solely by “bearers of the Law, righteous people, ‘men of deeds’ from all over the world,” we are told, will the Messiah appear among them. This central motif characterizes the way authors of this apocalyptic corpus envisioned the mission of the pious immigrant movement and the messianic wars. The immigrants are, in other words, tasked with purging the Land of Israel from the presence of the Franks and Ayyubids. This motif figures dominantly in both Muslim and Christian reflections about holy warfare. Time and again, authors in both cultures portray pious armies and valorous warriors as purifying the polluted land from the defiling presence of the unbelievers, rendering it both pure and sacred once again.

It is at this point that the final act in the messianic drama begins: the Messiah erects an army of brave men from “the four winds of the world” to fight Edom and Ishmael, and to drive away the uncircumcised from Jerusalem. This homily ultimately celebrates the victory of the unified pious immigrants, who manage to purify the Land and subdue the impure, fragmented gentiles. The notion of purity, however, served as a metaphor for the need to maintain a steadfast cultural frontier. In the face of political and linguistic confusion, multiple contemporary homilies engaged with issues of religious, social, and political cohesion. Authors incorporated the language of holy belligerence in order to crystallize a hermeneutical cohesion of Israel in the face of their cultural and political enemies.

Throughout the second half of the thirteenth century, Jewish authors in the crusading Near East continued to employ visions of apocalyptic purification, distinguishing themselves from their neighboring Muslims and Christians. By the 1280s, however, the Jews in Acre must have sensed that the political end of their community was imminent. The fall of the Frankish Crusader Kingdom in the spring of 1291 to the massive Mamluk army marked the end of a glorious tradition. As the Jews of Acre perished, so too did the heritage of their vibrant intellectual community, of which only whispers remain.