Rambling through Ramle

While for most travelers Ramle is just a sign on the road to Jerusalem, it actually has a lot to offer.

Jama el-Amri 521 (photo credit: Courtesy photos: Tsofen)
Jama el-Amri 521
(photo credit: Courtesy photos: Tsofen)
Rooted in Israel’s soil is a long and often heavy history that began in biblical times with the first chapter of the Hebrew legacy and continued through periods of growth and destruction as other nations and religions traversed the region.
There is much history to explore in the only city in Israel built by Arabs: Ramle.
Established between 705 and 716 CE on sand dunes 20 kilometers southeast of where Tel Aviv is today, Ramle soon replaced Lod as the capital city of the region. It became the economic and military center of the central Muslim authority and flourished for over 400 years, as it was located at a major junction connecting Egypt to Syria, Turkey and Iraq. At the time, these were not the sovereign countries we know today, but were represented by their major cities, such as Baghdad and Cairo.
Ramle was a pretty city that attracted people and produced some complex projects, including its water system.
Jews came to live there in the 10th century, and the Jewish population grew during the 11th. However the 11th century proved disastrous for Ramle: It suffered two earthquakes, which killed tens of thousands of people and flattened most of the buildings.
Since then, many powers have conquered the city, including the Crusaders, the Ottomans, Napoleon and Britain. In 1948 the newly formed Israel Defense Forces took over the city, and Jewish new immigrants settled there.
Today, mostly Jews inhabit it, with Muslim Arabs making up 18 percent of the population and Christian Arabs about 5%.
The growing city offers plenty of opportunities to learn about its rich past. Most of the sites are walking distance from each other so you can plan your visit according to the opening hours of some of the sites.
The Pool of the Arches was built in 789 as a social subterranean water pool fed by a few small water sources, including a spring, rainwater and an aqueduct.
Also known as St. Helena’s Pool after the mother of a Roman emperor, it is 400 square meters in size and visitors can take a short and pleasant boat ride along its cool corridors.
Another site, the White Tower, was known as the finest gem of the Islamic world in the 10th century. It was crippled by earthquakes, and in the 12th century Saladin, the ruling sultan, ordered it renovated.
The remains are still standing: the White Tower, 30 meters high, which was probably used as an observation point and a navigation post for travelers of the time. The city’s Great Mosque, known as Jama el-Amri, was built originally as a church by the Crusaders in the first half of the 12th century. In the next century, the Mamelukes took over Ramle and converted the chapel into a mosque. Luckily they did not change the structure too much, and what remains is the best-preserved and largest chapel in the country.
The Franciscan church was built in the 16th century for Catholic pilgrims. Ramle was identified as Arimathea – home to Jesus’s disciple Joseph of Arimathea, who took Jesus’s body off the cross and buried him. This made Ramle a sacred place for the Catholics. Near the end of the 19th century, a school named Terra Santa opened on the site of the Franciscan Church. Today Arab Muslim and Christian children study together at the school.
At the city museum, which opened in 2001 and is housed in an old building from the days of the British mandate, one can find exhibits that show all of the city’s extensive history, dating back to the eighth century. One exhibit, on the treasure of Ramle, shows 376 gold coins that were buried near the city from the Abbasid period. Changing exhibitions are in the new wing of the museum, which also hosts the work of local artists.
If there is time, the British military cemetery and the well-known local Wednesday market are also worth a visit.
Though for most visitors Ramle is just a sign on the road to Jerusalem, it has a lot to offer. One can easily spend a day or two discovering a major piece of central Israeli history from the last 1,300 years.