The last time I was in Ramla I spent a day stacking shelves in a huge supermarket. It was part of my training in my previous job to help me understand the supply chain. It was very interesting but I did not imagine there was much more to the city. Most Israelis associate Ramla and Lod with crime. So, I had very low expectations of this field trip.
I could not have been more wrong. Ramla in particular is a little bit of a hidden gem. Situated close to Tel Aviv (and serviced by the train), it is understandably not an obvious destination for first or second time visitors to Israel given the richness of sites spread around the country. However, for those who are regular visitors and are interested in something a little different, I think it’s a great option.
We began our day in the Karaite Centre. Karaite Jews split off from mainstream (rabbinic) Judaism in around the 9th century. The main difference between them and rabbinic Jews is the status of the oral law. Rabbinic Jews believe that the oral law was given at Sinai together with the Torah; Karaite Jews believe it was written by rabbis and so has a lesser standing. So, for example, they will happily eat milk and meat at the same meal, but on the other hand will refuse the assistance of a gentile to turn on lights on the Sabbath. We heard a very interesting presentation about their background and visited their synagogue, adjacent to the centre.
We then moved on to the city centre and began a walking tour of the old town. Until the mid 19th century Ramla was on the main route from Jerusalem to Jaffa and many travellers would rest here overnight. We saw many old traveller inns related to various religious institutions including the site where Napoleon Bonaparte slept one night in 1799. Unfortunately he did not take kindly to the muezzin at the nearby mosque waking him in the early hours of the morning; so much so that he took his musket and shot him dead. When Napoleon eventually left the Holy Land the local Christian communities suffered recriminations as a result.
We then moved in to the area of the Hospice of St Nicodemus and St Joseph of Aramithea. It is believed that St Joseph (who helped bring down Jesus from the cross and who gave him his burial cave) was from this area. The church inside the complex contains an original masterpiece by the Renaissance artist Titian – a very unusual thing to see in Israel.
We continued to the original centre of the city, which was founded by the Caliph Suleiman in the 8th century, as the capital for the region. We learned about Ramla’s history; at one point it was one of the largest and most flourishing cities in the world; a huge centre of trade and commerce. Little remains of the 8th century city which was devastated by a huge earthquake, but there are remains of a 12 century tower, known as the White Tower, built by Saladin. We enjoyed an amusing tale of folklore about the inhabitants of the neighbouring city of Lod trying to steal the tower, without success.
Next was the Arches Pool. As usual, we arrived at the site and talked about its history (in this case it was built in the 8th century). The pool is an underground reservoir that is filled by a spring underneath it. It is not dissimilar in structure to the famous Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, although it is much much smaller. The pleasant surprise came when we descended and discovered we could paddle around the pool in little boats. It was very cute and a nice break from the searing temperatures outside.
We continued on to the Great Mosque (also known as the Al-Omari Mosque), in the city centre. Our guide used our visit as an opportunity to teach us various things about Islam, which we have just started studying in class. However, of more interest is that this is in fact the largest original and complete crusader church in Israel. The reason for this is that the Sultan Baibars converted it into a mosque instead of razing it to the ground.
After marvelling at the crusader architecture we separated for lunch (some great foodstuffs to be had in the Ramla market) and then visited the city museum which has some nice pieces that have been dug up from the Islamic period.
With this, our time in Ramla was done, and we headed over to the adjacent city Lod. On the way we passed the British military cemetery, site of a modern day pilgrimage to the grave of a Private Harry Potter who passed away in WWII!
Lod’s main attraction is the Church of St George, patron saint of many countries, among them England. I hoped that visiting the church on the day England were due to play Italy in Tel Aviv in the UEFA Euro U21 championship was a good omen. Sadly this was not the case as England crashed to a rather humiliating defeat. Still, we were able to enjoy the ambiance of the church where we visited St George’s sarcophagus in the crypt and heard the stories of his heroic feats and his martyrdom.
We concluded the day at the Jisr Jindas, a fine example of a Mamluk bridge dating back to the 13th century stretching over Nachal Ayalon.
I really was pleasantly surprised by the trip, particularly by Ramla. The city council are now trying to promote tourism to the city and I hope it can take off as it will no doubt also help regenerate the area. For those who think they have seen all Israel has to offer, I’m sure Ramla will prove a pleasant surprise for you also!