Ancient & thrilling Ramle

A day trip in the city includes a boat ride, a delightful market, an ancient tower, a stunning church and the largest British cemetery in the country.

The Ramle Market was built by the Mamelukes and renovated by the British. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
The Ramle Market was built by the Mamelukes and renovated by the British.
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
In 1964, while constructing a highway interchange near Ramle, workers made an amazing discovery: Ramle’s Old City – dating back to the 11th century – was relatively new.
For buried deep under the debris the bulldozers were razing, they unearthed remains of a Ramle that was 300 years older! Among the exciting finds were extensive drainage canals, fantastically deep cisterns, beautiful mosaics, pottery, ancient Arabic inscriptions and jewelry. But one of the most thrilling discoveries was a jar containing 372 shiny golden dinars and six gold bars minted in 18 countries – a veritable fortune.
Quite a few of these shiny gold coins are on view at Ramle’s municipal museum, located along the main street of this very central and historic city. Why not make the museum part of a day trip that includes a boat ride, a delightful market, an ancient tower, a stunning church and the largest British cemetery in the country? Leave your car somewhere near the market – in Ramle, parking is free.
Pick up a brochure with a tourist route that hits all the major sites at your first place of interest: the Ramle Museum, at 112 Herzl Boulevard. The walk takes about three to four hours, with stops. Be sure to ask about combined tickets at the museum.
The original Ramle was constructed on sand in 716 CE, as the first and only Muslim-built city in the Land of Israel.
Its founder was Caliph Suleiman Abed el-Malik, whose father had erected the Dome of the Rock earlier on and whose brother built Jerusalem’s al-Aksa Mosque.
Situated on the main route between Damascus and Cairo, the town developed quickly into a splendid and prosperous city, even becoming headquarters for the country’s vastly important southern district.
After Ramle was founded, many residents of nearby Lod moved to the new town. Among them were a number of Jews, and by the 10th century there was a significant Jewish community in the city.
Christians, Muslims, Samaritans and Jews – along with splinter groups like the Karaites – were all represented in ancient Ramle. Today as well, the population is comprised of a variety of ethnic groups and religions. Of the 76,000 people living in the city, 17,000 are Arabs, of whom 4,000 are Christians. Ramle’s 59,000 Jews come from 55 countries, and include over 4,000 Ethiopians and, lately, an influx of South Americans.
As a major crossroads for international travel, Ramle hosted traders and pilgrims from all over the Muslim world. Obviously, these travelers would have needed to turn cash, or the contemporary version of the traveler’s check, into the native currency. Thus, their first stop was probably at the shop of the local moneychanger – most likely a Jew, as the Jews were heavily involved in commerce.
When you examine the coins, you will find that the oldest dates back to the eighth century and the youngest to the 10th. Do you see one that is damaged? When a customer needed change, the dealer simply lopped off part of a coin.
WE TOOK a tour of Ramle last week, after a hiatus of 21 years. It began with the museum, housed in a building constructed by the British in 1922 to serve as city hall. Our guide was Ron Peled, the city’s museum and tourism director, who explained that the structure was abandoned for decades after the Mandate ended, and required a massive repair job before the museum’s inauguration in 2001.
Parts of the original floor can still be seen in the museum, whose displays document the city’s long history. These include items illustrating residents’ everyday life, commerce and cultural fabric. We especially liked the use of an ark to display remnants from Ramle’s Jewish history.
Although the museum is quite charming as it is, huge changes are on the horizon. According to Peled, a project is already under way that will transform the site into a vibrant visitors’ and tourist information center. Among the new displays will be exciting Ramle artifacts currently lodged with the Antiquities Authority.
The museum’s second floor will continue to host temporary artistic exhibits relating to Ramle or produced by its residents; the truly stunning sculptures and vibrant paintings currently on display were created by Shlomo Katz.
Also to remain in the museum is Yad Labanim, a memorial room for the city’s fallen soldiers with a large monument in the yard.
Lovely old trees in the museum’s President’s Park, including shady ficus, were planted by the British. Designed in the shape of a cross, with a fountain and stage in the middle, the park was neglected for years until it was renovated in 2001 by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (without the fountain and stage).
Next on the tourist route is the nearby Ramle Market, filled with over 150 stands and shops. If you don’t enjoy being pushed around at crowded city markets, you will thoroughly enjoy both the spacious feel of the clean, wide aisles, and the friendly people who shop there. Indeed, as I watched a vendor cracking olives, an affable shopper offered me a detailed explanation on the process of creating the final product.
The market was originally built by the Mamelukes (rulers from the early 13th to the early 16th century). But it was renovated by the British, which is why a mailbox made in England during the reign of King George V is found on the wall next to today’s Ethiopian grocery.
The tourist route continues into the Old City, which was built from nothing after the original city of Ramle was completely demolished by an earthquake in 1068. After you pass through the Armenian Quarter and cross Kehilat Detroit Street, step inside Samir Restaurant on the corner.
Built many centuries ago, it boasts a lovely old interior and features metalwork on its walls. You can meet the artist, Samir’s brother Nihad Dabeet, later on; he lives and works next to the Franciscan Monastery of St. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, along your route.
The Franciscan-Ramle connection began in the 14th century when the Jerusalem-based order, manned mainly by monks from Spain, set up a branch in the city. In 1396 they established the Casa Nova Hostel and Monastery – much too close, it turns out, to the Huzeifa El-Yamani Mosque.
In March 1799, Napoleon traveled to Israel from Egypt and stayed overnight at the hostel on his way to Jaffa. Unfortunately, when morning prayers were bellowed out from the nearby minaret, they woke up the emperor. Napoleon whipped out his pistol and shot the crier dead on the spot.
The hostel has since been incorporated into a much larger church and monastery, completed in 1902 and named for two New Testament Jews: Joseph of Arimathea (who donated his tomb for Jesus’s burial) and Nicodemos, who helped remove Jesus’s body from the cross. Within the church are lovely stained glass windows, pictures showing the 14 stations of the Via Dolorosa, and an original painting by 16th-century Renaissance painter Titian.
On the way to the monastery you will pass a strange metal sculpture of a pregnant woman – Nihad Dabeet’s wife.
Stop in to meet the artist, who lives in a former Mameluke palace full of light and space. Always happy to have visitors, Dabeet holds workshops to teach his special methods for sculpting with metal – even olive trees. Before beginning studies in Bulgaria and Greece, he was the first (and, he hopes, not the last) Arab student at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim.
FOLLOWING THE route, you now leave the Old City and head for the area that held the eighth-century town. It takes you to my favorite Ramle site: the Pool of the Arches, constructed in 789 CE by Caliph Harun al-Rashid as part of a large area aqueduct.
Also known as Pool of the Goats, the Pool of the Arches is nine meters high and almost square, over 21 meters long on one side and more than 19 on the other. Five rows of three stone columns hold up an arched ceiling; residents drew water out of square holes cut through the top.
Before descending into the depths, take a look at a recent addition to the site – pipes and a fountain discovered during construction work in the courtyard of a ninth- or 10th-century Muslim villa.
Finally, take a ride in a gondola! And not just any ride, for you will be sailing in 500 square meters of an underground lake in a vastly impressive structure that resembles a medieval cathedral. Special lighting offers beautiful reflections, and hundreds of goldfish and carp are either next to you in the water or hiding under the dock.
Further along the route, the White Mosque Complex was built in the ancient city during the 8th century. Only remnants remain from the mosque, which was covered with white marble. But the White Tower – built in 1318 and named for the mosque – still stands. For a lovely view, climb its 111 steps to the top.
Located on what was the very edge of the city, the tower faced Lod and the road leading to Ramle from Jaffa. It looks very much like a fortress, and served both a religious and a security purpose. During the British Mandate period, the beautiful tower was featured on five-pound bills.
An Arabic legend makes fun of the young people of Lod, who envied Ramle residents their splendid tower and decided to steal it. Representatives of the group met with an elderly sheikh and asked for advice on how it could be done.
The sheikh heard them out and decided to have a little amusement at the expense of the youths. After giving them rubber ropes which he said were magic, he told them to steal the tower at night.
Delighted with his help, the young people stealthily crept to the tower, tied it up and pulled with all their might.
As the rubber ropes tightened, they were certain the tower was moving and ran towards home, shouting with joy: “Here comes the tower of Ramle.” The people of Lod ran outside to receive their youngsters – but the tower stayed in Ramle.
Within the White Mosque complex is the tomb of Nabi Saleh, an annual Muslim pilgrimage site. Tradition holds that Saleh, who was born before the Prophet Muhammad and predicted his arrival, moved among the Arab tribes like a latter-day Abraham as he preached against the worship of more than one god.
During one of his journeys, villagers demanded proof that he was speaking the truth. Saleh picked up a stone and said that, with the help of Allah, he would turn it into a female camel. And turn it into a female camel he did, creating a great many followers.
Return to your cars by way of Adas Shafik Street. But you have one more stop: the British war cemetery on the outskirts of town (Duchifat Street, corner of Hatikva Street). It is the largest of five British war cemeteries in Israel; the others are in Gaza, Haifa, Beersheba and Jerusalem.
Buried in this splendidly landscaped cemetery are fallen soldiers from World War I, World War II and those who served in Palestine during the British Mandate. Among the latter are two British sergeants, Mervyn Paice and Clifford Martin, who were hanged by the Jewish underground in 1947, after the British executed three of their members.
Extremely clear and detailed information about hours and fees can be found in English at The same site offers a map that includes the tourist route, in case you come at a time or on a day when the museum is closed.