Ramla may be one of Israel’s most surprising destinations. The city’s grand past has been eclipsed by urban blight in recent years, but glimpses of it still can be seen today in the most unpredictable places.
Founded in 716 CE to serve as the new capital of the Ummayid dynasty, Ramla was planned to be a majestic city – and by all accounts was for its first few centuries. It became a center of commerce and trade, of industry and finance, and even of religion. Scholars and Sufi mystics from the entire Islamic world came to study in Ramla and write important commentaries on the Koran, according to Dr. Shimon Gatt, who has conducted extensive research on the city. Moslems associated it with the “high ground” mentioned in the Koran (Sura 23, vs. 50) and the burial place of the prophet Mohammed’s friends and family, Gatt writes. Though Ramla was established to be a Moslem city, Christians soon identified it with Rama, home of Samuel the prophet, and Arimathea, home of Joseph who removed Jesus from the cross. The Jews quickly adopted the Christian tradition of identifying it as Rama, even naming a local synagogue after Samuel the prophet.
This all came to an end when an earthquake devastated the city in 1068 CE, destroying its magnificent buildings and causing the death of thousands of its residents. Though the city was rebuilt in 1072, it never regained its previous grandeur, according to Gatt. The rebuilt city was a shadow of its former self and subsequent rulers made their capital elsewhere.
Almost all that remains today from the glory days are the huge cisterns built to provide its first residents with drinking water, explains Dr. Yigal Sitry, who directs the Ramla Museum. There was not sufficient water in the area for a large city and so three cisterns were built under the main mosque along with a network of aqueducts that carried water to them from the surrounding area. The original mosque was destroyed and the mosque that stands over the cisterns today was built in the late twelfth century. Known as the White Mosque, it was renowned for its beauty during the Middle Ages. The complex surrounding the mosque also includes a tower, known as both the Square Tower and the White Tower, that still stands today. The ancient cisterns under the mosque are closed to the public because they are in poor shape, but the tower is open and offers an impressive view to those who have the energy to climb it. The Ramla municipality is working on a plan to upgrade the city’s tourism infrastructure, which would include reinforcing the entire compound and reopening the cisterns to the public, municipal spokesperson Roni Barzilay says.
Meanwhile, Ramla has plenty to offer those seeking ancient waterworks. The Pool of the Arches was constructed to serve as a reservoir in 789 CE, during the time of the Abbasid dynasty, not long after the cisterns were built under the mosque. The huge subterranean pool still is intact and full of water. Visitors can rent a rowboat to explore the 400-square-meter pool thoroughly and marvel at its huge stone arches and pillars, which have attracted more than a few modern filmmakers. The beautiful pool has been an attraction for centuries; in Christian tradition, it is known as Saint Helena’s Pool, after the mother of Constantine who was said to have dug it during her fourth-century pilgrimage to identify holy sites.