Improbable Ramle, where gondolas tour underground, and Napoleon killed a muezzin
Remarkable history of only Muslim-built city in Israel, a vibrant center on route between Damascus and Cairo, is being revealed
In 1964, while constructing a highway interchange near Ramle, southeast of Tel Aviv, workers made an amazing discovery: Ramle’s Old City — dating back to the 11th century — was relatively new.
For buried deep under the debris that 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 different countries — a veritable fortune.
Quite a few of these shiny gold coins are on view at the city’s municipal museum, located along Herzl Boulevard — the main street of this very central and historic city.
The museum is only one Ramle attraction in a city with underground boat rides, a delightful market, an ancient tower, and an impressive stunning church.
The original Ramle was constructed on sand in 716 C.E. as the first and only Moslem-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-Aqsa Mosque.
Situated on the main route between Damascus and Cairo, the town developed quickly into a splendid and prosperous city and even became headquarters for the country’s vastly important southern district.
Christians, Moslems, Samarians 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 Ramle, 17,000 are Arabs, 4,000 of them Christians. The city’s 59,000 Jews come from 55 different countries; they 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 Moslem 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.
Parts of the original floor can still be seen in the museum, whose displays document the city’s long history. These include items illustrating the residents’ everyday life, commerce, and cultural fabric.
The museum’s second floor holds temporary artistic exhibits relating to Ramle or produced by its residents. Yad Labanim, with a memorial room for the city’s fallen soldiers and a large monument in the yard, is also part of the museum. Lovely old trees in adjacent President’s Park were planted by the British during their mandate in Palestine.
If you don’t enjoy being pushed around at crowded city markets, you will enjoy the spacious feel of the clean, wide aisles at the Ramle Market. 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 George the Fifth is located next to today’s Ethiopian grocery.
The 11th-century Old City was built from nothing after the original Ramle was completely demolished by an earthquake in 1068. One old edifice, dating back many centuries, houses Samir’s Restaurant.
Visitors are welcome to stop in and view the lovely old interior and artistic metalwork (created by his brother Nihad Dabeet) on its walls. Dabeet, who is also happy to have visitors, lives and works next to the Franciscan Monastery of St. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
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 Ramle.
In 1396 they established the Casa Nova Hostel and Monastery much too close, it turns out, to the Huzeifa El Yamani Mosque.
In March of 1799 Napoleon traveled to Israel from Egypt and stayed overnight at Casa Nova 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 muezzin dead on the spot.
The hostel has since been incorporated into a much larger church and monastery completed in 1902.
Our favorite Ramle attraction is situated in the 8th-century Old town. Called the Pool of the Arches, it was constructed in 789 by Caliph Haron el 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 each hold up an arched ceiling. Residents drew water out of square holes cut through the top. Recently added to the site were pipes and a fountain discovered during construction work in the courtyard of a 9th or 10th-century Moslem villa.
The main attraction is the gondola ride, where you sail through 500 square meters of 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.
Also great to visit is the White Tower complex, built in the 8th-century with a white marble-covered mosque. Only remnants remain from the mosque, but the White Tower — dating back to 1318 and named for the mosque — still stands. There is a lovely view from the top of its 111 steps. Located on what was the very edge of the city, the tower faces 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.
An Arabic legend makes fun of the young people of Lod, who envied Ramle residents their splendid tower and decided to steal it away. Representatives of the group met with an elderly sheikh and asked for advice on how it could be done. The sheik heard them out and decided to have a little fun with 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 Tower complex is the tomb of Nebi Salah, an annual Moslem pilgrimage site. Tradition holds that Salah, who was born before Mohammed and predicted his arrival, moved among the Arab tribes like a latterday 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. Salah 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.
Visitors should take a map of both Old Towns at the Museum or get it off www.goramla.com, which provides readers with the extremely clear and detailed information in English.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed, tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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