Ramla (Ramlāh; , ar-Ramlah) (also Ramlah, Ramle, Remle and sometimes Rama) is a city in central Israel. The city is predominantly Jewish with a significant Arab minority. Ramla was founded circa 705–715 AD by the Umayyad Caliph Suleiman ibn Abed al-Malik after the Arab conquest of the region. Ramla lies along the route of the Via Maris, connecting old Cairo (Fustat) with Damascus, at the intersection of the roads connecting the port of Jaffa with Jerusalem.
It was conquered many times in the course of its history, by the Abbasids, the Ikhshidids, the Fatimids, the Seljuqs, the Crusaders, the Mameluks, the Turks, the British, and the Israelis. After an outbreak of the Black Death in 1347, which greatly reduced the population, an order of Franciscan monks established a presence in the city. Under Arab and Ottoman rule the city became an important trade center. Napoleon's French Army occupied it in 1799 on its way to Acre.
Most of the town's Arab residents were expelled or fled during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War while others remained in the town. The town was subsequently repopulated by Jewish immigrants. In 2001, 80% of the population were Jewish and 20% Arab (16% Muslim Arabs and 4% Christian Arabs).
In recent years, attempts have been made to develop and beautify the city, which has been plagued by neglect, financial problems and a negative public image. New shopping malls and public parks have been built, and a municipal museum opened in 2001.
According to the 9th-century Arab geographer Ya'qubi, ar-Ramleh (Ramla) was founded in 716 by the Caliph Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik, and its name was derived from the Arabic word Raml (رمل)—meaning sand. The early residents came from nearby Ludd (Lydda, Lod). Ramla flourished as the capital of Jund Filastin, which was one of the five districts of the ash-Sham (Syrian) province of the Ummayad and Abbasid empire. In the 8th century, the Ummayads constructed the White Mosque. Ramla was the principal city and district capital until the arrival of the Crusaders in the 11th century. Ramla's White Mosque was hailed as the finest in the land, outside of Jerusalem. The remains of this mosque, flanked by a minaret added at a later date, can still be seen today. In the courtyard are underground water cisterns from this period.
A geographer, el-Muqadasi ("the Jerusalemite"), describes Ramla at the peak of its prosperity: "It is a fine city, and well built; its water is good and plentiful; it fruits are abundant. It combines manifold advantages, situated as it is in the midst of beautiful villages and lordly towns, near to holy places and pleasant hamlets. Commerce here is prosperous, and the markets excellent...The bread is of the best and the whitest. The lands are well favoured above all others, and the fruits are the most luscious. This capital stands among fruitful fields, walled towns and serviceable hospices...".
Ramla's economic importance, shared with the neighboring city of Lydda, was based on its strategic location. Ramla was at the intersection of two major roads, one linking Egypt with Syria and the other linking Jerusalem with the coast.
In the early years of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, control over this strategic location led to three consecutive battles between the Crusaders and Egyptian armies from Ascalon. As Crusader rule stabilized, Ramla became the seat of a seigneury in the Kingdom of Jerusalem (the Lordship of Ramla within the County of Jaffa and Ascalon). It was a city of some economic significance and an important way station for pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem. The Crusaders identified it with the biblical Ramathaim and called it Arimathea.
Around 1163 Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela visited "Rama, or Ramleh, where there are remains of the walls from the days of our ancestors, for thus it was found written upon the stones. About 300 Jews dwell there. It was formerly a very great city; at a distance of two miles (3 km) there is a large Jewish cemetery." He wrote that the Crusaders had found the bones of Samuel, the biblical prophet, close to a Jewish synagogue in Ramla and "conveyed them unto Shiloh, and erected over them a large church, and called it St. Samuel of Shiloh unto this day". This site is identified with Nebi Samuel overlooking Jerusalem.
Ramla was sometimes referred to as Filastin, in keeping with the common practice of referring to districts by the name of their main city.
In the early days of the Ottoman period, Ramla was a desolate town with few inhabitants. In 1548, 528 Muslim families and 82 Christian families were living there. On March 2, 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Ramla during his unsuccessful bid to conquer Palestine, using the Franciscan hospice as his headquarters. Expansion began only at the end of the 19th century. Under the British Mandate, the population grew steadily, reaching 12,000 Muslims and 3,300 Christians in 1945.
Ramla was connected to wired electricity (supplied by the Zionist owned Palestine Electric Company) towards the end of the 1920s. Economist Basim Faris noted this fact as proof of Ramla's higher standard of living than neighboring Lydda. In Ramla, he wrote, “economic demands triumph over nationalism” while Lydda, “which is ten minutes’ walk from Ramleh, is still averse to such a convenience as electric current, and so is not as yet served; perhaps the low standard of living of the poor population prevents the use of the service at the present rates, which cannot compete with petroleum for lighting”.
Although Ramla was primarily an Arab city, it had a small Jewish community until the Arab riots in 1936–1939 Sheikh Mustafa Khairi was mayor of Ramla from 1920 to 1947. The 1945/46 survey gives 'Ramle' a population of 15,160. Of whom 11,900 were Muslim and 3,260 Christian.
Ramla was part of the territory allotted to a proposed Arab state under the 1947 UN Partition Plan. However, Ramla's geographical location and its strategic position on the main supply route to Jerusalem made it a point of contention during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. A bomb by the Jewish militia group Irgun went off in the Ramla market on February 18, killing 7 residents and injuring 45. After a number of unsuccessful raids on Ramla, the Israeli army launched Operation Dani. Ramla was captured on 12–12 July 1948, a few days after the capture of Lydda. The Arab resistance surrendered on July 12, and most of the remaining inhabitants were driven out on the orders of David Ben-Gurion. After the Israeli capture, some 1000 Arabs remained in Ramla, and more were transferred to the town by the IDF from outlying Arab settlements which the military wanted emptied.
Arab homes of those who left in Ramla were given by the Israeli government to Jewish immigrants arriving at this time. In February 1949, the Jewish population was over 6,000. Ramla remained economically depressed over the next two decades, although the population steadily mounted, reaching 34,000 by 1972.
In the 1960s, Ramla was noted for its movie theaters and vibrant nightclub scene, which later relocated to Tel Aviv.