In the history of warfare, The Iliad apart, sieges have tended to appear less glamorous or decisive than pitched battles. Yet success or failure in seizing enemy cities has proved militarily pivotal: in modern times, think of Leningrad or Stalingrad. In the Middle Ages, sieges of towns and castles dominated military strategy and practice in western Europe. Of the thousands of medieval sieges, one stands out. The siege of the Levant port of Acre (modern Akko in Israel) lasted 653 days, from August 1189 to July 1191, becoming one of the longest sieges in medieval European and Mediterranean history. By comparison, the lengthiest siege in English history, of Kenilworth Castle in 1266, occupied just under six months, while the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453 took a mere seven and a half weeks.
The struggle to capture Acre formed the opening military passage of the Third Crusade in Palestine. It involved armies from across western Europe, the Mediterranean, northern Africa and the Near East, pitting rulers and great lords from England, France, Germany and Italy against those of Egypt, Syria and the Jazira. The leading figures on both sides, most notably Saladin and Richard the Lionheart, soon acquired legendary status. Acre had first been occupied by crusaders in 1104. It surrendered to Saladin during his lightning conquest of Palestine and the Lebanon in 1187. For the crusaders, the city was important both as a naval base for future operations and as a hugely lucrative commercial entrepôt. One participant in the siege noted, ‘if the ten-year war made Troy famous, then Acre will certainly win eternal fame’.