This 1,000-Foot-Long Secret Passage Was Built Below Israel – And Forgotten About For 700 Years

Image: Geagea via The Vintage News

It’s the time of the Crusades, and Christian forces in Acre are all too aware that an attack from Muslim armies may be just around the corner. There are certainly no guarantees that the Christians will hold onto the Israeli city, either, despite the fortifications they have built up. So, one of the Crusaders’ military orders, the Knights Templar, decide to build themselves a secret escape: a passage beneath the bowels of Acre that leads in turn to the ocean. And the tunnel itself is so well concealed that it ultimately remains undiscovered for 700 years…

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Before we dive into the unearthing of the subterranean passage, however, let’s turn first to the Crusades themselves. As many know, these conflicts were largely motivated by religion, with western European Christians pitting themselves against Jews and Muslims from the Middle East in a bid to wrest command of the Holy Land. Millions ultimately died as a result of the bloodshed, and a number of settlements were utterly decimated in the process.

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And the series of skirmishes have their origins in an epochal event that took place in the winter of 1095. During that period, Pope Urban II assembled the Council of Clermont – a group composed of both Roman Catholic members of the clergy and non-ordained men of the same religion – in the south of France. What’s more, the fruits of their conversation would go on to spark arguably the darkest chapter in Europe’s history.

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Prior to that meeting, the Pope had received messages from Byzantine ruler Alexius I Comnenus; in particular, the emperor had asked for Catholic aid against attacks from Turkish forces. At the council session, then, Urban urged supporters to help their Christian brethren in the fight against the Muslim soldiers. And apparently the head of the Catholic Church had yet another motive for encouraging such intervention. In short, it’s been said, he wanted Christians to reclaim the Holy Land.

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In 1096 Christians from Western Europe therefore marched to the Holy Land to do battle with Islamic forces. Yet reclaiming the area would not be an easy task. Indeed, the Crusades – as they would come to be called – only ended in 1291, when the Muslim armies emerged victorious. And, in total, eight separate major campaigns were waged throughout nearly two centuries. Our story begins, however, back in 1187.

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In that year, moreover, the Christian soldiers were still suffering from their most recent blow. You see, they had just lost their base of operations – Jerusalem – to Saladin, the leader of the Muslim Ayyubid force. Still, even despite this setback, the Christians didn’t decide to simply retreat.

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In fact, a number of sizeable armies left France and England to assist their Crusader brothers in regaining Jerusalem. And none other than King Richard I was among the hordes intending to help lead the Christians to victory. The monarch’s support was a boon, too; thanks to his military prowess, he had already earned himself the nickname Richard the Lionheart.

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The Third Crusade thus began in 1189, although the Christian forces ultimately failed to retake Jerusalem. Yet all was not lost for the westerners; in 1191, you see, their armies managed to claim the Israeli city of Acre as their own. And this victory was certainly hard-won.

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Indeed, Crusader forces had first attempted to take Acre back from Muslim soldiers in August 1189. On that occasion, Guy of Lusignan – a French knight who had also been appointed King of Jerusalem in 1186 – had besieged the city. But even though Guy also had the support of troops from the Republic of Pisa, the attack was not easy. For one, the Crusaders found themselves in turn to be blockaded by Muslims.

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That’s right: the instigators of the siege were themselves obstructed by Saladin’s army – in the only recorded instance of a double siege having taken place during the Crusades. And this and other factors meant that the city was not certainly seized in a hurry by the Christians. In fact, it took the combined efforts of troops from both England and France to break the stalemate. In 1191, then, these Crusader armies joined forces to bring down Acre’s Muslim occupiers.

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And although acquiring Acre wasn’t a crucial a victory as Jerusalem would have been, the city was nevertheless perfectly acceptable for the Crusaders’ base of operations. Acre was strategically situated at the edge of the Levantine Sea, for instance; and this may have helped it became the Christian forces’ effective capital in the Middle East in 1192. But before we can find out what happened in Acre, we first need to investigate one of the military orders active during the 12th century: the Knights Templar.

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The Knights Templar were in fact just one of a variety of religious military groups that came to prominence during the period of the Crusades; other notable orders included the Knights Hospitaller and the Teutonic Knights. These organizations took it upon themselves to not only safeguard the Holy Land but also look after the Christian pilgrims who journeyed to and from the area.

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And the Knights Templar, it’s said, were originally founded by Frenchman Hugues de Payens during the early Crusades. The group was not formally recognized until 1139, however, when Pope Innocent II issued the papal edict Omne datum optimum. In this decree, Innocent offered the Knights Templar his protection; he also granted members the right to keep all the treasures that they acquired while in the Middle East.

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In Omne datum optimum, however, the order was called by its full name: The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. It’s believed that the group was given this moniker owing to the location of its base, which was situated next to the Temple of the Lord on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Furthermore, Temple Mount allegedly sat on top of the remnants of the fabled Temple of Solomon, where the Ark of the Covenant was reportedly once housed.

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But although the Knights Templar’s proper name hinted at its members’ relative impoverishment, the order itself wasn’t poor for long. The Templars’ cause became a popular one in countries where Christianity was practiced; and both their numbers and their influence quickly swelled as a result. As recognition of the order grew, moreover, the Templars’ coffers swelled, with money and offers of land coming their way.

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And the knights themselves were instantly recognizable thanks to their dress. On top of their clothing, you see, they sported loose white mantles that were each decorated with scarlet crosses. But such a striking ensemble wasn’t merely for show; the colors used also possessed deep symbolic meaning.

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The white cloth, for instance, represented the Templars’ modesty and abstinence – qualities in accordance, it seems, with the cardinal virtue of temperance. The red crosses that were emblazoned across their chests were, on the other hand, a marker of martyrdom. The order’s members believed that death during battle would guarantee the deceased soldier entry into heaven.

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And in time the skilled fighters were also identifiable by their impressive facial hair. The Templars became known for their whiskers, too, leading a French monk called Alberic of Trois-Fontaines to label the group in around the mid-13th century as an “order of bearded brethren.”

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But none of this should take away from the fact that the Templars were more than capable in combat. And perhaps such proficiency was in evidence during the historic Battle of Arsuf, which took place in 1191. Templar troops made up the vanguard of the Christian army on that occasion, and it was during this struggle that Crusader forces ultimately triumphed over Saladin’s Muslim army.

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Yet it must be noted that the order’s name is slightly misleading; knights actually only made up as little as 10 percent of the group. In fact, the majority of Templars chose to develop a skill other than successfully wielding a sword: financial management. The Knights Templar have even been credited with creating a rudimentary version of the banking system – complete with checks. And in time, Templars created a vast monetary network that stretched across Christendom.

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But that’s not all, as the order also proved itself extremely adept at construction. Yes, thanks to both their influence and their monetary means, the Knights Templar were responsible for building hundreds of fortifications and commanderies throughout the Holy Land and Europe. Rather impressively, a great deal of these buildings survive today.

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Yet it would be another order – the Knights Hospitaller – that became associated with the castle that would go on to become one of the most famous Crusader landmarks: Krak des Chevaliers. And this structure came into the group’s possession in the early 1140s. The Count of Tripoli at the time, Raymond II, gave the now-iconic castle and four other fortifications to the Hospitallers so that they could protect Tripoli from Islamic forces.

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And Krak des Chevaliers would have been an excellent defensive stronghold owing to its geographical position. The castle was built, you see, on top of a 2,130-foot-high hill in the Homs Gap. What’s more, the area in which Krak des Chevaliers is located has been dubbed the “gateway to Syria”; chiefly, it acquired that name thanks to its setting between a number of mountain ranges.

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Perhaps thanks to that excellent placement, then, the Hospitallers made Krak des Chevaliers one of their administrative hubs. And to ensure that the castle was fit for purpose, the order set about revamping the edifice in a bid to make it one of the region’s most intricate Crusader fortresses. The end result, meanwhile, led British academic Hugh Kennedy to claim in his 1994 book Crusader Castles, “The whole structure is a brilliantly designed and superbly built fighting machine.”

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But perhaps Krak des Chevaliers’ current reputation rests in part on the fact that it’s still pretty much intact. And legendary archaeologist T.E. Lawrence – also known as Lawrence of Arabia – praised the Crusader fortress for this, labeling it “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world – [and one that] forms a fitting commentary on any account of the Crusading buildings of Syria.”

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Now, however, we leave Syria and return once more to Acre, which was a Templar hub during the Crusades. At the very least, the order had built up a base in the coastal city. And, unsurprisingly, the Templars knew that they could lose their stronghold over Acre if Saladin and his armies attacked. Ultimately, then, they came up with a plan to protect their territory.

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Yes, despite the fact that Acre already had stringent defense measures in the form of both tall perimeter walls and the nearby ocean, the Templars wanted to bolster the city further. And they had something particular in mind: a brand-new impenetrable fortress. In the southwestern portion of Acre, the group therefore set about making their vision a reality.

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What’s more, the structure that the order erected was highly impressive. In the 13th century, one of the Templars reportedly described the fortress as “the strongest one in the city, and [one that mostly] abutted the sea line.” They added, it’s said, “As a strong fortress, its entrance was protected by two powerful towers with 28-foot-thick walls. Two smaller towers were built on either side of the towers, and each tower was topped by a gilded lion.”

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Yet constructing the fortress wasn’t the extent of the Templars’ plan; the knightly order also built a hidden subterranean passage underneath the building. If Acre was attacked or the castle itself was invaded, the Templars could thus creep through the tunnel and emerge at the city’s port – where they could flee. And such a channel would also come in handy if Acre was besieged again; upon such an occasion, the fortress’ inhabitants could use the passageway as a means of obtaining crucial supplies.

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In 1291, however, the Christians suffered a stunning blow. Egyptian sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil and his Mamluk forces besieged Acre that April – and by summer, the city had fallen. Khalil also commanded his army to burn Acre completely to the ground; that way, the Crusaders could not ultimately regain what had once been their territory.

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Thus stripped of its fortresses and other defensive strongholds, Acre was no longer a prized port. It was largely forgotten about, in fact, for the next few centuries. But in the mid-1990s, the settlement began to make headlines again. And it was all to do with the Templars’ subterranean tunnel.

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In 1994 – and so more than seven centuries on from when Acre had fallen to Khalil – a female resident of the city had noticed some problems with her drains. Naturally, she therefore called out a plumber to try and remedy the situation. But when the tradesman looked to ascertain the blockage’s origins, he found something more important than a mere drainage system.

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Yes, as luck would have it, the Templars’ tunnel was directly below the woman’s house. Experts subsequently visited the passage themselves and conducted their own excavations, too. And their findings revealed that the mysterious tunnel dated back to the Crusades. This made it one of only a handful of architectural features from that time to have endured the Mamluks’ assault.

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The tunnel itself, meanwhile, measures up at nearly 1,150 feet and runs under Acre’s Pisan quarter. And while the passageway is made wholly from stone, the methods used to construct it seemingly differ by section. It appears, for one, that its makers simply whittled down rock for the lower portion; above that, however, the tunnel is blanketed by an additional layer of hewn stones that are in turn protected by a semi-barreled dome.

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Faced with such a momentous discovery, then, the authorities set about restoring the passageway to ensure that it was in the best possible condition. And after the tunnel was given a vigorous clean, construction workers introduced touches of modernity to the medieval subterranean structure in the form of both electric lights and a walkway.

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In August 1999 the western part of the passage was then finally deemed fit for the public to explore. The eastern portion was not yet ready, however, and so the Acre Development Company worked painstakingly on revamping this section for a further eight years. And, ultimately, the organization’s efforts were successful: in 2007 the entirety of the Templars’ tunnel became accessible to tourists.

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Furthermore, people can still wander through the subterranean passageway today; some of those travelers who have experienced the tunnel first-hand have even written about their experiences. On the review site TripAdvisor, for instance, one user commented in January 2019, “I enjoyed my walk through the Templars’ tunnel and appreciated the engineering skills from its time.”

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Yet although the tunnel itself remains largely how it once was at the time of the Crusades, the landmarks surrounding it have naturally changed. The original Templar fortress that marked the western entrance to the passage was razed by the Mamluks; today, however, visitors may be able to spot a lighthouse in the vicinity instead.

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Likewise, the passage’s eastern section no longer leads out to its original destination: the internal anchorage of Acre’s port. Instead, the 18th century Khan al-Umdan – or Caravenserai of the Pillars – can be found above ground. The khan – a type of roadside hostelry – is among four such buildings in the city, and it’s perhaps the best maintained structure of its kind in the whole of Israel.

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But while the buildings lying over the tunnel may have changed, the passageway itself remains remarkable – perhaps even more so given that it survived the purge of Crusades-era architecture. And who knows how long the tunnel would have sat undiscovered if it hadn’t been chanced upon in 1994?

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