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By Mariam Shahin with photographs by George Azar
Founded in 716 during the rule of Umayyad Caliph Suleiman Ibn Abd el-Malik, Ramla was once simply described as a “fine city.” Like so many “new” cities, Ramla was fresh and young and unimpeded by the burdens of history. Its name, a derivative of ramle (“sand”), apparently referred to the sand dunes on which the city was built.
The Arab founders of Ramla, wanting to be equally close to the two major cities of the country, Jerusalem and Gaza, measured the way and chose a spot in the middle. Located some 15 kilometres east of the Mediterranean coast, Ramla lies at the crossroads of two major historical routes: the Via Maris, along the coast, and the road that connected the port of Jaffa with Jerusalem.
The Arab armies were initially based in Jerusalem, but they felt that Al Quds was first and foremost a spiritual city, a city of God and not an appropriate seat for political power. The Muslim Arab powers felt that it was time for a new start and built a city that did not carry the burdens of another history. It was in line with the tradition followed by Arab Muslim armies elsewhere, which established garrison cities and did not interfere in the civil and religious life of the local population until a gradual integration took place. Ramla was the Umayyad and Abbasid capital of the Province of Palestine (Jund Filistin) and the seat of Arab governors of the province in the 8th and 9th centuries. But this capital of Palestine lost its importance for the entire interlude of the Crusades.
During the four hundred years before the Crusaders came, Ramla was known for its religious tolerance, in particular towards peripheral and fringe groups. Sufi orders, which advocated spiritualism and meditation, flocked to the capital during the Abbasid Era. It was also one of the few places in Palestine where followers of the Shia branch of Islam found a foothold. Along with a colony of Karaite Jews in nearby Matsliah, the Sufis, Shia, Orthodox Christians, and Sunnis combined to make Ramla a diverse and cosmopolitan capital. Economically too, it had cornered a niche with a successful dye industry that was established early on. It catered widely to cloth and carpet manufacturers as far away as Baghdad and Persia.
Much of the city was destroyed during an 11th-century earthquake and while the Crusaders were trying to wrest the city from the Fatimids. The Crusaders controlled it for some 90 years, during which they used it as a stopover for pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem from the coast.
Although not much is known about it before the 7th century, some Christian traditions believe it to be the site of Arimathea, the home of Joseph, who removed the body of Jesus from the cross and helped with burial. Thus the Crusaders built the Church of St. Joseph of Arimathea in Ramla.
Both Salahedin and Baibars are said to have made Ramla their base, in part because its location was convenient and in part to reiterate its importance as an Islamic city. Once the Mamluks came to power in the 14th century, Ramla once again regained some of its importance when it became a provincial capital and large parts of it were renovated and rebuilt.
Because it has been inhabited continuously since it was established, much of the early foundations of the city are buried underneath the existing structures, and the plans of archaeologists who have wanted to dig have been seriously curtailed. Limited excavations carried out after the city was occupied by Israeli troops in 1949 indicate that the city is located in the same spot as 8th-century Ramla.
The best-known historical building in Ramla is the White Mosque and the minaret next to it, which is known as the Tower of the 40 Martyrs. What remains of the original structure of the mosque, erected at the beginning of the 8th century during Umayyad rule, was incorporated into a smaller restored building after Salahedin wrested it from the Crusaders at the end of the 12th century. It is often referred to as a site, when in fact there is not very much to see. The tower still exists, however, and all of Ramla can be seen from the top.
Arab-Jewish relations seriously deteriorated during the 1930s, and Ramla along with Lydda saw some of the worst ethnic cleansing by Zionist forces in 1948, during Operation Dani. Initially Arab Jews from Yemen, Iraq, and North Africa were settled in Ramla; today Russian and Ethiopian immigrants are encouraged to settle in the city. The Palestinian population, which consists of approximately 20 percent of the total population, is almost equally divided between Muslims and Christians. Ramla has some 60,000 inhabitants.
Excerpted from Palestine: A Guide by Mariam Shahin, photography by George Azar, Chastleton Travel, 2007.
This Week in Palestine