Palestine’s Forgotten Capital

Andrew Petersen uncovers the city that was once an Islamic capital, and suggests reasons for its decline in the eleventh century.

The small town od Ramla, less than five kilometres from Tel Aviv International airport, was once the capital of Palestine, yet today it is a rundown area neglected by the modern state of Israel. Ramla was founded as a new town in the early eighth century by the Umayyad prince (later caliph) Sulayman ibn ‘Abd al-Malik.

Ramla (from Arabic raml, meaning sand) was built on sandy ground adjacent to the ancient city of Lydda, from which it drew both its inhabitants and building materials. The town rapidly grew to become not only the major city of Palestine but also its capital with an estimated population of over 25,000. For 300 years Ramla was not only the largest city in the country but also one of Islam’s major capitals, on the same level as Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus. The wealth of the city was based on the dyeing of cloth and international trade, partly derived from its favourable location at the intersection of two major routes, the North-South coast road (Via Maris) and the East-West road from Jaffa to Jerusalem.

Ramla had a cosmopolitan atmosphere with a mixed population of Muslims, Christians, Jews and Samaritans each with their own markets and places of worship. At the centre of the city was the White Mosque, the governor’s palace and the ‘House of the Dyers’ (Dar al-Sabbaghin), presumably a factory for the dyeing of cloth.

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