The city was founded during the reign of caliph Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik, during his reign between the years 705-715 CE. He was also the builder of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The project to build Ramla was initiated by Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik, the brother of al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik, whose father built the Dome of the Rock. Ramla was intended to serve as the capital of the District (Jund in Arabic) of Palestine. Ramla was built in the period 705-715 CE along the historical Sea Route on a bed of sand from where it derives its name (“Ramal” is the word for sand in Arabic). Originally Jewish sources referred to Ramla as “Chol”, “Cholot”, or “Cholot Hamechuz”, drawing from the term “chol” which means sand in Hebrew.
Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik, who in 715 CE was the caliph, accelerated the establishment of Ramla as an important city. He built a national workshop for painting and succeeded to attract artists and other craftsmen which established a new industry for Ramla. He built a palace for the city’s administration, a magnificent mosque, and likely a city wall as well. Settlers were allocated plots of land for development, and the city was open for settlement by anyone irrespective of religion and origin. Since saltwater was found in pits that were dug in the vicinity of the city, fresh water had to be drawn from water springs east of Tel Gezer about 10 kilometers east of the city.
Sulayman’s successors continued to pursue the development of Ramla. In 720 CE the city minted its own currency. Each year the state invested funds to treat the city’s water plant. The 10th Umayyad caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik who reigned 724-743 CE established a minaret for the mosque and strengthened the city walls. He was replaced by Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph who ruled between 786-809, and established a reservoir in 789 which was originally named Bīr al-Anezīya, fed by springs from the vicinity of Tel Gezer. This reservoir which stores water to this day is known as the ‘Pool of the Arches”.
Ramla developed rapidly and became one of the largest cities of its time in the Islamic world. Historical sources describe the size of Ramla as a ‘mil by a mil’, which corresponds to more than 2,000 dunam. Its population likely reached fifty thousand residents. Historical descriptions make Ramla seem like a modern city, describing the city as having wide and straight streets with an intersection which housed the city markets at its center. Near the market was a magnificent mosque now known as the White Mosque on which a sign read: “There is none finer in all the Islamic world”. Next to the mosque was the governor’s palace of the city.
Tenth century Arab sources describe Ramla as a prosperous city. It excelled in a wide range of economic activity. Its surrounding countryside was full of orchards that provided its residents with a wide range of produce. In the city proper there were diverse industries including the production of olive oil, soap, canned fruit, pottery and textiles.
Various trading markets fanned out from the magnificent mosque at its center. Along with government contributions and its location on the coastal trading route, Ramla became a prosperous city and the focus of international trade. It therefore also evolved money-changing and banking services on a large scale. Economic prosperity brought with it extensive educational and cultural activities. One source mentions more than 150 Muslim clerics operating in the city.
From the beginning of its existence the citizens of Ramla reflected the diversity that existed throughout the country: Muslims, Christians, Jews and Samaritans. According to Cairo Geniza documents, by the 11th century Ramla hosted one of the most prosperous and thriving Jewish communities of Israel. The Jewish community hosted Karaite Jews, Jews who practiced by the Jewish laws of Israel – “Halacha Eretz Israel” – also known as “Jerushalmim”, and Jews who practiced by the Jewish laws of Babylonia – “Halacha Bavlit”.
It was in the 11th century that many calamities hit the city: in 1024 the city suffered significant damage and heavy casualties as a result of a Bedouin raid. In 1038 an earthquake destroyed numerous buildings. A much more severe earthquake occurred in 1068 with its epicenter close to Ramla. The city was completely destroyed and the death toll was estimated to be 15,000 to 25,000 people. The survivors abandoned the city and left it in ruins. For four years Ramla was left deserted and in ruins.
New conquerors arrived in the country – the Turks, whose soldiers acted under the authority of the Seljuq dynasty, and decided to make Ramla the center of their rule in the country. Due to the many ruins caused by the earthquake they preferred to re-settle Ramla near empty buildings. The city was re-established but did not succeed in returning to its prior fame or glory.
By 1073 the Turks moved the capital of their rule to Jerusalem which they conquered in the same year. At that point Ramla was reduced to a small town without any status. The city suffered another blow when its people rose up against the Seljuq rule in 1077 and then fled fearing vengeance by the Turkish governor.
Crusader Conquest to the 19th Century
Jaffa and Ramla were two of the first cities conquered by the Crusaders in Palestine. In 1099 Ramla was conquered by the Crusaders causing its inhabitants to flee. The Crusaders established a large church. After the conquest of Jerusalem Ramla became a strategic hub that enabled the Crusaders to control the route between Jerusalem and the sea. Due to its strategic location the city was attacked many times by Muslims, who succeeded in conquering the city twice. In 1102 the Fatimids succeeded to take over the town and hold it for a short period, and in 1187 Saladin captured the city and held it for five years until he lost control to Richard the Lionheart. An agreement was signed between the two sides and thus ended the third Crusade. However, Ramla was not established as a central city.
Mamluks conquered Ramla in 1268 led by Sultan Baybars I. Although the city grew slightly under Mamluk rule it never returned to its status similar to the first centuries after its establishment. The provincial capital of Palestine was now set in Gaza City. Mamluks did not bother to take care of the protective walls surrounding Ramla, and these gradually disappeared. Notwithstanding the decay the walls still retain some evidence of the impressive city landscape that existed during its glory period. Baybars initiated the restoration of a compound called Jama Arbein al-Ma’zi – “The Mosque of the Forty ” – a huge square compound containing a mosque, a large courtyard and underground water storage, and added to it the White Tower – a magnificent spire square building 30 meters tall.
Circa 1295 the Crusader church was converted into a mosque. In 1314 an impressive steeple was added which was subsequently destroyed in the earthquake of 1927. A few more mosques and mausoleums were also added where important figures in the history of Islam are buried. The city established a number of inns and built a luxurious lodge for pilgrims who came from Europe. Today the lodge is affiliated with a monastery associated with Joseph of Arimathea who removed Jesus Christ from the cross and buried him.
At the end of the Mamluk period Ramla again fell into decline. In 1481 the city was attacked by Bedouin tribes who plundered it and set it on fire. In 1516 the city passed into the hands of the Ottoman Empire along with all the land of Israel, but under new occupation the city did not change much. Thirty years later the city was once again destroyed by an earthquake. During the Ottoman period Ramla’s status as a city district was demoted to a sub-district of Gaza City. During this period Ramla served as a station for pilgrims travelling between Jaffa and Jerusalem. In the 17th century Ramla became a stopover for weekly trade caravans traveling between Egypt and Damascus. In 1799 Napoleon made Ramla his headquarters from which he launched the attack on Jaffa.
It was not until the 19th century that Ramla resumed development. A major factor for this was the increasing number of Christian pilgrims and tourists who travelled between Jaffa and Jerusalem with Ramla becoming a stopover along the way. Thanks to one of the pilgrims, the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph who visited the country in 1869, a new road leading from Jaffa to Jerusalem was built (now known as Herzl St). By 1892 a railway passed through the city connecting Jaffa and Jerusalem by train.
Under the Ottomans Ramla continued to remain a multi-religious and multi-ethnic city. Christians from different communities along with Jews lived in the city nearly without interruption.
Ramla in the 20th Century
After World War I under British mandate Ramla expanded and developed, but the events of the riots of 1929 and the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 left Ramla devoid of a Jewish presence. By December 1947 it became unsafe for Jews to even pass through the city. Reprisals by the Palmach did not change the situation. In January of that year the Arab Police Academy settled near the city of by Hassan Salama, the commander of Arab forces in the region who made it his headquarters. On the night of April 3, 1948 the Givati Brigade 52nd Battalion broke into the headquarters of Hassan Salama in an operation known as Operation Nachshon, which led to the opening through which they reached Jerusalem.
During the second half of May of 1948 Etzel forces attempted to occupy Ramla, but the attacks were repulsed at the cost of 51 fighters. On 12 July 1948 Ramla surrendered without a fight after the neighboring city of Lod was overtaken. Despite the surrender agreement which stated that any Palestinians would be able to remain in their homes, the local Arab commander decided to expel Arabs leaving Ramla with only 500 residents, most of them Christians.
Ramla Since the Establishment of the State of Israel
Before the end of the War of Independence newcomers began to fill the empty houses. Nearly the entire population of Ramla since then has been populated by immigrants. New neighborhoods have since sprung up along with factories, the most important of which is the cement factory known as “Nesher” (“Eagle”). At the same time Jews from different parts of Muslim territories began to flock to Ramla.