Ramla: Palestine’s Forgotten Capital

Andrew Petersen uncovers the city that was once the Palestinian capital and suggests reasons for its decline in the 11th century.

A view of Palestine’s old capital of Ramla by by Dutch cartographer Johannes Janssonius, c. 1657. National Library of Israel. Public Domain.
A view of Palestine’s old capital of Ramla by by Dutch cartographer Johannes Janssonius, c. 1657. National Library of Israel. Public Domain.

The small town of 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.

However, the fortunes of the city were reversed in the eleventh century when a series of natural and man-made disasters reduced the Ramla to a shadow of its former self. The most catastrophic event was the earthquake of 1033 which destroyed more than two-thirds of the city and left thousands homeless. Two further earthquakes in 1068 and 1070 and frequent warfare between the ruling Fatimids and a variety of enemies were equally devastating so that when the crusaders arrived in 1099 they found the city gates wide open and the population fled. The crusaders built a church and a castle in one corner of the city and this area subsequently became the centre of a city much reduced in size. With the return to Muslim rule under the Mamluks (1260-1516) there was some recovery, exemplified by the square minaret which was added to the White Mosque and which, even today, dominates the surrounding landscape. However, the town was never able to regain its former size with the result that the White Mosque, which had stood at the heart of the eighth-century Islamic city, now found itself outside the medieval city.

The minaret of the White Mosque in Ramla by Felix Bonfils, c. 1867-77. Rijksmuseum. Public Domain.
The minaret of the White Mosque in Ramla by Felix Bonfils, c. 1867-77. Rijksmuseum. Public Domain.

At the height of its prosperity Ramla covered an area of nearly two square kilometres, a fact recently confirmed by archaeological excavations which have uncovered remains of the early Islamic city up to two kilometres from the present ‘Old City’. According to contemporary Arab chroniclers, the city contained numerous markets, mosques and houses built of limestone and marble. The remains of one of the markets, comprising a series of rectangular shop units in front of the White Mosque, has recently been uncovered together with a tenth-century hoard of gold coins, many bearing a representation of a palm tree, the symbol of the Ramla mint.

Excavations have also revealed large rectangular vats containing traces of the red pigment used for dyeing textiles, the source of much of the city’s wealth. Other evidence of industrial activity includes the remains of at least four potters’ workshops complete with lamp moulds, wasters and trays containing coloured glazes. The city’s prosperity was also evident in domestic architecture with a series of figural and geometric mosaics located in private houses.

All this makes us wonder why Ramla declined so rapidly that it appears to have been virtually deserted by the end of the eleventh century. One reason may be that the political fragmentation of the period meant it became the target of a variety of competing armies. Another reason may be down to the numerous earthquakes mentioned above; but both of these factors must have affected other cities in the region which subsequently were able to recover. Recent research indicates that the decline of the city is more likely to have been a result of its dependence on a fragile artificial water system.

Ramla had no natural water sources and was supplied with water by an extensive system of aqueducts, the chief of which, Qanat Bint al-Kafir, was likened to the Barrada river which flowed through the heart of Damascus. Traces of this plaster-lined aqueduct have recently been discovered in fields to the east and south of the city stretching for a distance of more than fifteen kilometres. The aqueduct supplied a series of cisterns, the most famous of which is the vast subterranean reservoir known as Birkat al-'Anaziya (cistern of the goats) which still survives to the north of the Old City. The cistern contains an inscription cut into the plaster which dates its construction to AD 789 during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. AD 786-809). The cistern is covered by six vaulted bays supported by cruciform piers which are important as the earliest example of the consistent use of the pointed (Gothic) arch. Three large subterranean cisterns of similar design beneath the White Mosque can also be dated to the eighth century.

 Such an elaborate water system was clearly expensive and would have required a stable political environment with investment by the government to maintain it. However, by the 11th century this was no longer the case. Thus the Persian traveller Nasir-i-Khusrau (1003-60) relates that each of the houses had its own water supply because there was no reliable public source. Confirmation of the dilapidated condition of the town’s public cisterns can also be found in the early 13th century account of the medieval French chronicler Joinville who describes a skirmish between crusaders and ‘Saracens’ near Ramla, where a man and three horses fell into a ruined cistern.

Perhaps the story of Ramla’s rapid rise and subsequent decline may have implications for the modern inhabitants of the region who are equally dependent on artificial water systems to maintain their way of life.


Andrew Petersen is Director of Research Islamic Archaeology at the University of Wales. He is – with Denys Pringle – editor of Ramla: City of Muslim Palestine, 715-1917 (2021).