We recently joined tour guide Pamela Levene to visit Ramla, the mixed Jewish-Arab city in the center of Israel. Many people mistakenly think that Jerusalem was once the Muslim capital of Palestine. However, Ramla is the only Arab city in Israel that was once a Muslim capital. It was founded at the beginning of the 8th century by Caliph Suleiman ibn Abd el-Malik, the second son of Abd el-Malik, the Muslim caliph from the Umayyad dynasty who built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
The Umayyads originated in the area of Mecca. From 661-750 CE, they ruled the Islamic Caliphate, the world’s largest empire at that time. By the end of Ummayad rule, one-third of the world’s population lived under the Ummayad Caliphate, making it one of the largest empires in history.
Suleiman located the new city of Ramla, named after the sand dunes on which the town was built near the devastated city of Lydda (Lod) which had an abundant water supply. Ramla is located on the route of the ancient Via Maris which connected Egypt with Damascus. It is also the intersection of roads connecting the port of Jaffa with Jerusalem. “Ramla served as the Umayyad and Abbasid capital of the Province of Palestine and the seat of Arab governors of the province in the 8th and 9th centuries. In the 14th century, Ramla regained importance for a short time as the provincial capital of the Mamluks.” (www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org)
During this period, Sunni and Shia Muslims, indigenous Jews, Jews from the Diaspora and Karaites lived in the city. Ramla was the principal city and Muslim district capital until the arrival of the Crusaders in the 11th century. It remained a notable town in the Crusader-ruled kingdom of Jerusalem. It was an important way station for pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem, with economic significance. The Crusaders called it Arimathea, mistaking it for the Ramla of Jesus’ time.
We visited St. Helen’s Pools. Helen was the mother of Constantine, the Roman emperor who moved the capital from Rome to the eponymous Constantinople on the site of the existing city of Byzantium. Helen became Christian long before her son came to Palestine to rediscover the most important Christian sites. The pools are not among them because they were built by the Abbasidian caliph, Haroun-al-Rashid. They are actually a large cistern covered by 24 vaults with square openings which allowed many people to draw water simultaneously. The cistern, delightfully cool on a hot day, also has interesting lighting and four row boats which can be paddled around the relatively small area, roughly 20x20 yards.
Our next stop was the White Mosque and the minaret next to it, Ramla’s premier tourist site. The original structure was built at the beginning of the 8th century during the Umayyad rule, and its remains were incorporated in the restoration work by Salah al-Din (Saladin) at the end of the 12th century. The minaret was built during the Mamluk period, in the 14th century.
The White Mosque was known as the region’s most beautiful mosque outside of Jerusalem, but there isn’t much left of the huge mosque which covers about 95x85 yards. There was a large, open courtyard beneath which were constructed enormous cisterns which are still intact. There are remains of the aqueducts which brought water from the springs in the hills east of Ramla.
The main attraction is the tall square minaret known as the White Tower, with its central staircase of 119 steep steps. In the outer walls of the minaret are long narrow windows in recessed arches. The different keystones in the many arches of the tower are a unique feature of the site, which is a candidate for inclusion on the United Nations World Heritage list. After walking to the top of the minaret, we enjoyed panoramic views towards the sea, the airport, the city of Modiin and the Judean mountains.
There is an oft told tale of Napoleon directing the battle for Jaffa from the top of the White Tower, though this is clearly fanciful. (He was also supposed to have directed the battle from Napoleon's Hill in Givatayim next to Tel Aviv). What is known as fact is that in 1799 Napoleon stayed at Terra Santa hospice of St. Francis, our next stop, on his way to Jerusalem. Disturbed in the early morning by the muezzin's call to prayer from the nearby mosque, Napoleon gave orders; the muezzin was shot and plunged to his death. Napoleon and his men packed and hurriedly left town. The incensed Muslims of Ramla reacted to this affront by slaughtering many innocent Jews and Christians.
From the Franciscan hospice we headed to the open market, which attracts thousands of customers and onlookers on a daily basis. We strolled along several of its many streets. One of our group stopped at her favorite stall, where the proprietor concocted the perfume of her choosing in a matter of minutes.
Our last stop was at a small mosque, significant because there is a Crusader church inside of it. The church was converted in its entirety into a mosque when the Crusaders were driven out. There, Pamela gave us a few odd facts about modern Ramla, such as: one of the founders of the Palestinian Fatah party, Abu Jihad, was born there; Adolph Eichmann was executed at Ramla Prison - though his cremated remains were scattered at sea so as not to contaminate the Land of Israel; and David Ben Gurion wrote his seminal platform for the Jewish State there.
Ramla and nearby Lydda had been allotted to the Arabs in the United Nations Partition Plan of November 1947, but they totally rejected the concept of sharing the land with the Jews. Consequently, battles broke out between Jewish and Arab forces immediately, as each side jockeyed to gain position before the British withdrew in May 1948. Ramla was captured by Israel in July 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence. Most Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from Ramla during the war.
Today, the ethnic makeup of the city of 65,000 is roughly 80% Jewish, 20% Arab, about a fifth of whom are Christian. The world’s largest Karaite community lives in Ramla where 3,000 of their approximately 11,000 members live. The city is currently developing its tourism sites and its economy. New shopping malls and public parks have been built, and a municipal museum opened in 2001.
We finished our Ramla tour on a small street off the shuk that had many social clubs for the city’s varied population, all of which were small but lively. We had a cheap, delicious meal at a tiny, plain meat restaurant where we chose the skewers, steak or chops ourselves and the owner grilled them in the street. It was a tasty ending to our very interesting introduction to Ramla.