Early Muslim Period
According to the 9th-century Arab geographer Ya'qubi, ar-Ramleh (Ramla) was founded in 716 by the governor of the Ummayad District of Palestine (Jund Filastin), Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik, brother and successor of Caliph Walid I. Its name was derived from the Arabic word raml (رمل), meaning sand. The name of La Rambla, a major street of Barcelona, is ultimately derived from the same linguistic origin. 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 Syrian province of the Ummayad and Abbasid empires.
Ramla was the principal city and district capital almost until the arrival of the Crusaders in the 11th century. In the 8th century, the Ummayads built the White Mosque, which 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.
Ramla was sometimes referred to as Filastin, in keeping with the common practice of referring to districts by the name of their main city.
The 10th-century geographer al-Muqaddasi ("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 (the so-called "Via Maris") and the other linking Jerusalem with the coast.
In 1068 a ground-rupturing earthquake centered in Wadi Arabah left Ramla totally destroyed, killing some 15,000-25,000 inhabitants. The city lay abandoned for four years and never fully recovered it previous status.
The armies of the First Crusade took the hastily evacuated town without a fight. In the early years of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem though, 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, who also mistook it for a more ancient city, 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."
In the early days of the Ottoman period, in 1548, 528 Muslim families and 82 Christian families were living in Ramla.
On March 2, 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Ramla during his unsuccessful bid to conquer Palestine, using the Franciscan hospice as his headquarters. The village appeared as Ramleh on the map of Pierre Jacotin compiled during this campaign.
In 1838 Edward Robinson found Ramleh to be a town of about 3000 inhabitants, surrounded by olive-groves and vegetables. It had few streets, and the houses were made of stone and were well-built. There were several mosques in the town.
In 1863 Victor Guérin noted that the Latin (Catholic) population was reduced to two priests and 50 parishioners. In 1869, the population was given as 3,460; 3000 Muslims, 400 Greek Orthodox and 60 Catholics.
In 1882, the Palestine Exploration Fund's Survey of Western Palestine noted that there was a bazaar in the town, "but its prosperity has much decayed, and many of the houses are falling into ruins, including the Serai." Expansion began only at the end of the 19th century.
In 1889, 31 Jewish worker families settled in the town, which had no Jewish population at the time.
British Mandate era
In the 1922 census of Palestine conducted by the British Mandate authorities, ‘’Ramleh’’ had a population of 7,312 inhabitants; 5,837 Muslims, 1,440 Christians and 35 Jews. The Christian were 1,226 Orthodox, 2 Syrian Orthodox (Jacobites), 150 Roman Catholics, 8 Melchites, 4 Maronite, 15 Armenian, 2 Abyssinian Church and 36 Anglicans.
It had creased in the 1931 census to 10,347; 8,157 Muslims, 5 Jews, 2,194 Christians and 2 Druze, in a total of 2339 houses.
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”.
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.
1947/8 civil war
Ramleh mosque 1948 from Palmach archive
A second mosque in Ramleh, 1948, from the Palmach archive
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. A disputed claim, advanced by scholars including Ilan Pappé, characterizes this as ethnic cleansing. After the Israeli capture, some 1,000 Arabs remained in Ramla, and more were transferred to the town by the IDF from outlying Arab settlements which the military wanted emptied. As of 2000, the total population of Arab refugees and their descendents with origins in Ramla was estimated by Benny Morris and other historians at 635,000.
State of Israel
Ramla became a mixed Jewish-Arab town within the state of Israel. 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 2015, Ramla had one of Israel's highest crime rates.