It was founded as the political and administrative capital of the district (“Jund” in Arabic) of Palestine during the reign of Caliph Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik who ruled 715-705 CE (96-86 AH) by his brother and successor Sulayman bin Abd al-Malik, the governor at the time of the district of Palestine.

Until its destruction by a massive earthquake in 1068 CE (460 AH) Ramla was the largest and most important city in the Greater Syria region known as Bilad al-Sham. Ramla’s political importance is reflected in the fact that the governors were typically distinguished nobility in line to assume the caliphate reign in their time.

Source evidence as well as documents retrieved from the Cairo geniza (archive) indicate that Ramla was the most prominent and important city in the country from the eighth until the eleventh century. While Ramla did not possess the holy aura of Jerusalem, its economic and political significance, even as the center of Muslim opinion, elevated its status as the capital of the historic land of Israel which included other important centers such as Tiberias, Hebron, Acre, Ashkelon and Gaza.

It was said of Ramla that its inhabitants were abundantly wealthy. Of the many sources that describe Ramla’s wealth and economic strength the primary source was the medieval Arab geographer Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Shams al-Dīn al-Muqaddasī (c. 945/946 – 991), or Al-Muqaddasi “the Hierosolomite” as he was better known, author of Aḥsan al-taqāsim fī maʿrifat al-aqālīm (The Best Divisions in the Knowledge of the Regions).

Another important source is the work conducted by Ibn Eved Almanam, otherwise known as Alhamiri, a fifteenth century cartographer who charted the topography of the city of Ramla in his dictionary of geography titled Kitab A’Rok al- Almatar According to Alakatr which included significant economic data as well. Another central source of information was a native resident of Ramla by the name of Majid al-Din Alalimi (died 1516), who devoted a significant chapter in his book titled Alance Alg’alil BeTarikh al-Quds Ve’al-Khalil (translated as “The Good and the Beautiful History of Jerusalem and Hebron”).

Archaeological excavations conducted in the city since 1949 shed light on products originating in Ramla industries. The cumulative knowledge derived from these excavations is the basis for better understanding the economic history of the city, the country and the region around it from the eighth century until the mid-eleventh century. Yet this period still requires additional investigative research. This article, based on a combination of historical sources as well as information derived from archaeological finds, presents a cross-section of economic life in the most important city in the land of Israel during the initial centuries of Islamic rule, painting a portrait of the Muslim economy that broadly portrays everyday life in the country in particular and in the Islamic caliphate in general.

Urban Economics

The economic nature of a city is characterized by its ability to exchange consumer goods and services beyond its borders by converting the excess production that is not consumed by its residents into an export industry. Major cities typically develop on the basis of their economic interaction with both their immediate surroundings as well as remote destinations. They excel in a variety of specialized activities that are concentrated in a relatively small area and dense population. This requires focused human resources, facilities and investment capacity for the development and expansion of industry and related employment.

In a city, as opposed to the urban countryside, there are three employment sectors: agriculture, industry and businesses, which combine with trade and services. Residents of urban areas by contrast were mainly involved in agriculture in a closed system where most of the produce was consumed internally by its residents with limited excess trade with surrounding communities. A city on the other hand, then as now, were typically dependent on trade relationships with both their immediate surrounding countryside as well as remote destinations.

A city would also typically have trade interactions with other urban centers in which it markets its products and from which it purchases products that cannot be or have not been produced locally. This exemplifies another feature of a city’s economy: goods and services produced which are intended for export as well as consumption by its inhabitants.

One indicator of a city’s status was the extent its products were consumed by other cities. Goods and services produced in the city fall into two sectors: i) Basic, which includes all products intended for export and were the basis of the existence of the city, hence the name, and ii) Domestic, including the goods and services consumed in the city’s inhabitants. The relationship between the Basic and Domestic sectors was the basis of economic success of every city and town.

The status of a city was partially determined by the extent of its transit trade. Ramla markets traded with Iraq, Syria and Egypt as well as with more distant countries, and this was an indicator of the great economic importance of the city, which was rich in its variety of products and known for its fine quality products.

A city’s economic strength was also typically influenced by other factors: the political status of the city and its religious standing often affected its economic position.

Features of a Muslim City’s Economy

From its inception life within Islamic civilization was based on an active trade industry. Its urban nature was a continuation of the urban tradition that preceded it. Prophet Muhammad grew up within a family of traders and was himself a trader. It is therefore no wonder that Muslim settlement in new areas led to the establishment of new towns without – at least initially – disaffecting existing towns in the area. The nature of economic activity that was established during the Roman and Byzantine periods that characterized this region continued to characterize it long after the Muslim conquest. Most of the products exported from the land of Israel during the Roman and Byzantine periods, such as olive oil, textiles, wine and glass mentioned in the export of goods of this area also continued under Muslim rule.

Ramla was the center of production and marketing of these products as well as additional export products, including paper, raisins (which replaced wine that is forbidden to Muslims), and dried fruit. In the period prior to the Arab conquest major cities had specialized markets placed at the top in their primary streets known as the Cardo (oriented north-south) and Decumanus (oriented east-west). This arrangement of specialized markets remained after the occupation, including in Ramla. Cities also included guilds of traders and other professionals.

Agriculture, factory work, craftsmanship and trade were the primary jobs in Muslim cities. In addition to these primary jobs various sources mention a long list of other forms of livelihood. Joseph Ibish enumerated a list of livelihoods held in Muslim cities that include: brokers, advertisers, singers and musicians, storytellers, boat makers, chimney sweepers, drawers of water, books sellers, sellers of beverages, torches, messengers, midwives, government officials, butchers, coins minters and tax collectors. Our knowledge on this subject with regards to Ramla is very limited. In this article I will mostly deal with our knowledge of agriculture, industry, trade and services in Ramla.

Growing Crops and their Processing

Agriculture was the economic foundation of most cities in antiquity and continued into the Middle Ages. Farmers who typically lived in a walled city would cultivate land that surrounded the city walls. Industry evolved beyond the direct use of raw produce and extensive secondary production capabilities were cultivated: oil and wine production, grinding grains, fruits and vegetable preservation, spinning and weaving fabrics, and manufacturing tools and other objects from raw materials found in the soil. This secondary production industry emerged due to the fact that processed agricultural products were valued higher than could be obtained from the raw produce.

There was extensive agricultural activity in Ramla and its vicinity. Even though most of the agricultural areas were located outside the city walls there is clear evidence that agricultural activity also existed within the city walls. Wheat was a renowned product available in one of the city’s main streets. Large-scale wheat and other grain markets operated and near Jaffa Gate on behalf of sellers (called Souk Alhbabin). Another important food source in the region was legumes. Ramla probably grew rice as well.

Of the annual crops in the area there was a rich variety of fruit trees. Mikras, who wanted to describe the agricultural wealth of the city of Sharastan, the capital of the province of Georgian, Iran, compared it to Ramla and wrote: ‘Multiple types of fruits, olives and pomegranates, most similar to Ramla in Palestine.” At the beginning of the thirteenth century a Muslim geographer described Ramla as having an abundance of fruit and fresh air. Hundreds of years later it was said: “Ramla is in the center of Palestine … an environment of cultivated fields and orchards in abundance and with a variety of fruits that are a blessing on the land … is highly regarded as most pleasant, where everything is very cheap, sweet and excellent, extremely fertile and with an abundance of good fruits … this city provides plenty of fruits and produce to Gaza and Jerusalem.”

Of the various varieties of trees growing in the vicinity of Ramla, the greatest focus was given to growing olives since the city supplied the raw materials for the olive industry and was host to extensive production to related olive byproducts. Ramla figs also garnered praise, and raisins and dried figs produced in the city were sought in neighboring and distant countries, as were other locally grown fruit.

Olive Oil and Soap

Arab conquests generated a significant increase in industrial activity across the Muslim empire. The special interest of the early Muslims in commerce, along with various production areas within their ruling territory, created great market demand. As a result, those industries which suffered stagnation under the Byzantine reign were reignited.

Two industry sectors in Ramla particularly stood out: the olive oil industry and its derivative products and the textile industry.

There is ample evidence that Ramla was an important center for the production and export of olive oil and soap. Already in the eighth century olive oil was being exported. As an example, the crusaders found “ample oil” in Ramla. Ramla oil exports to neighboring countries are also referenced during the Mamluk period. Zohar Amar stressed that the establishment of Ramla as the capital of Palestine was also “the center of the olive crops and oil production in the country.”

Ramla also developed an exquisite and exclusive variety of sour olive oil called “Olive Alanfak”. It was said that ‘there is no oil that compared to Ramla’s sour olive oil, in its purity and absolutely delicious taste without any bitterness’. The significance of olive oil for Ramla was further reflected in the nickname given to it by invaders: ‘Olive of Palestine’. It is worth noting that the reputation of this oil reached Spain, and probably extended even beyond.

An important byproduct of the excess fat in the production of olive oil was soap. Even after olives are squeezed until they reach a pasty state there remains a certain amount of oil. This oil is extracted from the paste using boiling water. The resulting oil is of a low quality and therefore not used for eating, perfume or illumination. Instead it was cooked with ash plants which included potassium from which soap was produced. Soap from Ramla was first mentioned at the end of the tenth century.

In the Cairo Geniza (archive) there is a document that references a complaint of a Jewish merchant against his partner who “travelled to Ramla to buy soap.” Soap from Ramla was considered among the finest exported products from the land of Israel. It seems that Egypt was the main destination for soap exports produced in Ramla. Another reference was of a Jewish Maghreb merchant named Avon Ben Zadka who traded in soap and exported it to Egypt. Among other names mentioned of merchants of olive oil to Egypt are Jacob ben Ismail and Rabbi Nattan Ben-Avraham, a rival of Shlomo Ben Yehuda the Gaon. According to archeologist Yehoshua Drei who specializes in the reconstruction of historical industrial facilities and workshops, he identified a soap factory within an industrial neighborhood of Ramla that was exposed in 1994 during a water utility repair in the neighborhood called Area of Judges ( ‘Little Holland’) in Ramla. Soap production from Ramla and its environs continued until the twentieth century. It is noteworthy that in neighboring Lod there still exists traditional soap-making factories that are left intact which operated until 1948.

Textile Industry

Ramla was an important center for the production of and trade in textiles. The main raw material used for fabrics in Ramla was probably cotton. From the time the land of Israel was conquered by the Arabs it had evolved cotton growing in the country, and the area of Ramla was one of the most important centers of this growth. Even in the fifteenth century travelers who went from Jaffa and Ramla noted that “the land is empty of trees but full of cotton.” Around the city itself there was an abundance of cotton plants. Cotton fabrics were considered a luxury product at that time, and Ramla developed several variations of cotton fabrics. The fabrics exported from Ramla were noted as being incomparably fine.

“Foovot (singular: Futah)” were towels or handkerchiefs made from a particularly delicate cotton fabric, and were both part of the city’s export commodities; Also from Ramla was a fabric woven from silk thread on a base of cotton yarn called the “Mulham (plural: Molahim)”, which was considered particularly prestigious. The silk was likely produced from silkworms cultivated on mulberry leaves around the city. It should be noted in this regard that a certificate from the geniza in Cairo mentions blue Damascus silk robes and silk fabrics of different colors that were produced in Ramla.

An interesting testimony that referenced cotton processing in Ramla was from the fourteenth century traveler named Isaac Hilo: ‘I found [in Ramla] someone from Cordova and another from Tolido, both rich and honorable, that were in the business of cotton.” The city also had outstanding linen that was traded in a special market called Souq Almsak Lilachtan.

In the early Arab period the residents cultivated flax fields near Ramla, but apparently cotton subsequently overtook flax cultivation in the country. From then on raw linen was imported primarily from Egypt. The raw linen was spun into thread, then refined, then woven into fabric, and finally dyed. Among the fabrics that were exported from Ramla was a particularly delicate linen cloth known as “Tivri HaRamla”. These fine linen fabrics were exported to markets in India and Egypt. At the end of the tenth century the Fatimid Caliph in Egypt established mills for this type of linen fabric and thus probably ended the export market from Ramla.

Dye Houses

Of the first three buildings that were built by the founder of the city of Ramla, Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik, was a neighborhood dye facility. The early establishment of a dye facility was most likely designed to attract to Ramla an extension of the major dye industry that was already well established in Lod. During the Roman period Lod was one of the most important centers for the production and export of purple cloth, as was recorded already from the third century in one reference as follows: “Sarfati (France, Lebanon), Caesarea, Lod, Nablus were sources of export of fine crimson”. Fine quality colored material from Lod earned international acclaim.

The dye industry continued in Lod during the early Arab period. Andras of Crete, who was born in 660 in Damascus, told a story of Lod where they used to prepare purple clothes for the statue of the virgin at the church in Lod (apparently the Church of St. George). Suleyman, the founder of Ramla, had likely intended that Ramla would replace Lod in the lucrative industry of dying fabrics. In 1991, Eric Rosenberg discovered facilities with dyes near the White Mosque, which was located at the center of ancient Ramla, and surmised that they were in fact dyeing plants.

Since the dyeing process generates a lot of noise and repugnant odors it is likely that that the dyeing facilities were eventually transferred to the perimeter of the city. Indeed excavations conducted around the city of Ramla found evidence of this. In the seventies Etan Ayalo discovered dyeing facilities and water cisterns one kilometer west of the Ramla police station – around 700 meters from the mosque, apparently in an area where the city walls stood. Excavations in other parts of the city revealed a number of industrial facilities and in the opinion of excavators they seemed to be designed for dyeing textiles. It appears that the dyeing industry continued up until the destruction of Ramla in 1068 CE (460 AH).

Paper Manufacturing

During the eighth and ninth centuries paper replaced parchment and papyrus as the primary writing platform across the Muslim empire. The paper revolution greatly contributed to the development of the bureaucracy and the extensive correspondence that characterized the administration of government in Islam. Paper was a convenient means of generating books, became an inexpensive and efficient means of disseminating information about science and religion, and facilitated the expansion of the education system. The emergence of paper was an important milestone in the history of progress of human civilization.

In the land of Israel the production of paper directly related to the cultivation of cotton, and as stated, Ramla was surrounded by extensive cotton fields and was therefore at the center of the paper industry. Since Ramla was the source of raw material used for the production of paper, and because cotton was one of the most profitable products at that time, it seems likely that paper was also produced in Ramla even though there are no direct sources of evidence for that.

Stone, Clay and Glass Industry

Not far from Ramla were stone quarries that supplied the city with fine stone. These stones were cut in quarries using a special technique that apparently impressed observers. Maqdasi praised the outstanding construction of houses in Ramla that were made of “exceptionally carved stones”, and Nasser Hasr who visited the Land of Israel in 1048 CE (438 AH) said the stones were cut with a special sand called sand “Maicho”.

In addition, the city was likely a destination for the stone utensils industry. Excavators found that many excavated sites were dedicated to the manufacture of stone utensils. These excavated sites contained different stone vessels, as well as stone molds used in the manufacture of pottery and especially stone molds for dishes used for holding candles. Additionally, there were utensils made of soapstone, which is soft green-gray stone powder which can be relatively easily molded.

Ramla was also a pottery production center, apparently designed not only for internal consumption but marketed nationally. Many workshops were discovered in the city – identified not only by the many packaged utensils that were found in their vicinity, but also by the many distorted utensils caused by the hot production process which were thrown into the trash nearby. In recent excavations waterways were also found in some of the workshops. Many tools that were found were of the type that were previously called “Sayar” utensils, named after the mount Al Fajr near Jericho, and are now referred to as white utensils that are typically found in excavations in Ramla. This is perhaps an indication that Ramla was the source of a class of utensils that is common in almost every excavation site dating from the earliest generations of Islamic rule in the country. Simple utensils were also found among the remains of excavated workshops, as well as finer utensils that were glazed and decorated.

In Ramla and in many cities across the country were found hundreds of clay lamps dating from the early Islamic period. Anna de Vincenz suggested that the quantity of candles that were found in Ramla is limited, however they have widely varied decorations, leadig to the surprising possibility that Ramla operated as the candle manufacturing center for the whole country. In Ramla zoomorphic (animal-like) motifs were commonly found, painted and decorated on hundreds of everyday products, such as on cooking pots, jars and cups. Utensils that were produced in Ramla were made of outstandingly high quality of materials from which one could adhere a rich finish and form. It appears that such workshops operating in the city were a key economic sector and continued to exist during the Mamluk period. The large number and wide distribution of workshops seem to indicate that the ceramic industry employed many of the residents, and its products were marketed outside the city. However since no such historical record has been published this may still be questioned.

In many sites in Ramla were found complete as well as fragments of glassware among hundreds of utensils. An industrial zone of ​​150 hectares was discovered near residential areas which was dated by excavators as part of the early Arab period. This demonstrates clear evidence of the existence of glass workshops in the area and even in the city itself.

Glassware found in Ramla represents centuries-old continuity of tradition for glassware manufacturing. Many of them are typical for the Umayyad period, and some of them were made according to traditions that dated back to the Byzantine period and which persisted in Muslim glassware production into the early eighth century. Alongside these were found unique utensils related to the end of the Umayyad period. Prominent among them are decorated bottles with indentations as well as decorated bowls. Glass oil lamps were also discovered from this period.

Glassware finds discovered from the Abbasid period included a large number of bowls as well as a large variety of bottles and even tubes used for medical purposes usually made of blue glass. Typical utensils from the Fatimid period were also discovered. The availability of raw materials, abundant artifacts, a range of utensils dating from the eighth through the eleventh centuries many of which were found in industrial areas near glass blowing ovens – all strongly suggest the possibility that Ramla operated a large-scale glass industry.

This opinion correlates with Yael Gorin-Rosen who researched and determined that the raw materials found in the city indicate that they come from a local source. It is possible that some of the manufactured glass was marketed outside the city, but it is difficult to prove this because the study of materials is tenuous and still very early-stage.

Metalworking

Alatzhbani told about the ninth century scholar by the name of Abu Yacoub Aschas ben Ismail al-Ramli whose livelihood was producing copper tools. Indeed, evidence of metalworking workshops were found in many of the earliest industrial parks excavated in Ramla. At various sites were found melting furnaces, bundles of metal, metal ores and tools for different containers. According to a metallurgical study conducted by Gorin-Rosen in Ramla, there is evidence that this metalwork was internally produced.

Among the utensils found were bronze weights for weighing precious metals of the sort used by contemporary goldsmiths. In extended excavations they also discovered a substantial amount of jewelry, and it can be assumed that jewelers who engaged in manufacturing of jewelry also existed in the city.

It should also be noted that glass vessels used for food storage dating from the Mamluk period were also found.