Multicultural city near Tel Aviv reveals rich, 8th-century roots

The city of Ramla is situated on the eastern border of the coastal plain some 13 miles southeast of Tel Aviv. It is one of the few Israeli Jewish towns in Israel which has a significant Arab population. Today some 7,000 Israeli Arabs and Christians live in harmony with about 61,000 Jews. The Arab inhabitants of the city trace their origins to the foundation of Ramla in 716 C.E. by Khalif Suleiman. Ramla also has the unique claim to be the only town in Israel founded by Arabs.

From its foundation until the Crusader period in the 11th century, Ramla was the principal city and capital of the country. In the Middle Ages it was an important stop for pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.

While Ramla is not a high tourist priority, it is worth a short visit. Although the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway sweeps well north of the city, the city is readily accessible from both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem by bus.

The White Mosque Complex consists of a tower and three vast underground water reservoirs that could hold collectively 224,000 cubic feet of water. The tower was built as a minaret and strategic observation post in the 14th century. It was constructed over the foundation of an older tower that was originally part of a mosque complex built when the city was founded. The White Tower is about 100 feet high, and 119 steps take the visitor to the top.

About a10-minute walk from the White Tower is the Pool of St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine.The underground reservoir was constructed in 798 C.E. and the pool acquired its water from external sources, such as winter run-off rains. The reservoir is in effect, an underground building, the roof being supported by arches which divide the pool into regular sections. For this reason the Hebrew name of the pool is Breichat Hakeshatot — the Pool of Arches. The visitor can take a small row boat to examine the arches in detail and admire the remarkable handiwork of the builders.

Ramla also has a Franciscan and a Greek Orthodox church. The Franciscan Church of Joseph of Rama and Nakdimon contains a painting by Titian, which was donated to the church in 1845 by Spain's Catholics. The Greek Orthodox Church is named and dedicated to St. George.

On July 12,1948, Ramla was liberated by the Israel Defense Force. Fifty-one members of the Irgun fell in the battle for Ramla during the War of Independence. Near the battlefield, a large memorial was dedicated in May 1992. In another part of the city, the Haganah Garden is dedicated to the memory of 35 members of the 42nd Brigade who also died in the final battle.

Since 1948 the city has grown and many newcomers have settled here from countries all over the world, turning the city into a busy, active business center. Khalif Suleiman would be well satisfied with his city today.