Ramla is located in the coastal plain, some 15 km. east of Tel Aviv. The city was built at the crossroads of two major routes: the via maris, along the coast, and the road that connected the port of Jaffa with Jerusalem. The origin of the name Ramla is in the Arabic word raml, meaning "sand", and apparently refers to the sand dunes on which the city was built.
According to historical sources, Ramla was founded at the beginning of the 8th century by the Umayyad Calif Suleiman ibn Abd el-Malik. It served as the Umayyad and Abbasid capital of the Province of Palestine (Jund Filistin), and the seat of Arab governors of the province in the 8th and 9th centuries. In the 14th century, Ramla regained importance for a short time as the provincial capital of the Mamluks.
The remains of Arab Ramla lie buried under the present-day city, making archeological research difficult. Results of excavations carried out in 1949 and limited salvage excavations conducted since, indicate that the city has been continuously inhabited since its foundation.
The best known historical building in Ramla is the "White Mosque" and the minaret next to it. The remains of the original structure, erected at the beginning of the 8th century during Umayyad rule, were incorporated in the restoration work by Salah al-Din (Saladin) at the end of the 12th century. The minaret was built during the Mamluk period, in the 14th century.
The White Mosque (93 x 84 m.) is oriented to the cardinal points. It is surrounded by walls, with a main gate in the east and a secondary entrance in the north. At the center of the structure is a large, open courtyard; along its southern wall, a 12 m. wide mosque was built, its ceiling consisting of cross-vaulting supported at the center by a row of piers. In its wall facing the courtyard is a row of 12 openings between pilasters supporting the ceiling of the mosque on this side. The ceiling of the mosque and its western portion are additions made during the restoration work by Salah al-Din, as is the mihrab (prayer niche) in the southern wall facing Mecca.
Under the courtyard the Umayyads constructed enormous, even-sized cisterns for storage of water which remain intact to this day. Broad pilasters support the barrel-domed ceilings of the cisterns. They were filled with rainwater collected from the area around the mosque and with water carried by an aqueduct from the springs in the hills east of Ramla. These reservoirs provided water for the worshipers at the mosque and filled the pool for ablutions at the center of the courtyard, of which only the foundation remains today. An Arabic inscription in Kufic script, which was found in the excavations, relates to the restoration of the plaster in the year 1408.
The square minaret, several stories high, built by the Mamluks in the 14th century, stands to this day. Inside, it has a central staircase which takes one to the roof. In the outer walls of the minaret are long, narrow windows in recessed arches. An Arabic inscription on the lintel above the entrance to the minaret states that it was constructed during the reign of the Mamluk Sultan Muhammad ibn Qalaun in 1318.
Some 500 m. northeast of the White Mosque is an intact subterranean vaulted water reservoir; it was constructed by the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid in the year 768 to safeguard the water supply of the city.
A large and varied assemblage of pottery from the Umayyad period was found in the excavations. It indicates that Ramla was also a center of pottery production during this period.
In excavations outside the White Mosque and at a number of sites in the city, several buildings from the Umayyad, Abbasid and Mamluk periods were found, verifying that Ramla was indeed founded on sand dunes during the Umayyad period. From that period, fragmentary remains of several large structures, probably of public and administrative nature, were found.
Of particular interest is a portion of an Umayyad- period mosaic floor with geometric patterns. The frames dividing the floor are each decorated with a different motif, among them grape clusters, pomegranates, an eight-pointed star and the figure of a cat and birds. The southern part of the mosaic depicts a prayer niche (mihrab), consisting of two pillars supporting an arch which frames an Arabic inscription in Kufic script, including a quotation from the Koran: Be thou not among the negligent – intended as an encouragement to pray. This mosaic prayer niche is the oldest known in Islamic art.
Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry