A dream come true? Israeli village proves Middle Eastern peace possible
Tank tops and abayas: the Israeli city of Ramla has it all. (File photo).
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If you’ve been to Israel before, we know you’ve experienced religion and politics in Jerusalem, hangovers on the beach in Tel Aviv, floating while reading a newspaper on the Dead Sea and getting lost in the confusing cityscape of Haifa.
There’s also a good possibility you’ve enjoyed an afternoon of Protest Tourism – or Occupation Tourism, as uniquely coined by activists operating in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
So, at this point, we’re assuming you're back for round 2, and eventually rounds 3, 4, 5 and 6!
Your next trip is the perfect time for a stop in Ramla.
Located in the Ayalon valley on the way from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and resting between the Coastal Plain and Judean Lowlands, Ramla offers an excellent look at multicultural coexistence in a land wobbling on a tight rope of ethnic, religious, and political enigmas.
The story of Ramla begins at the advent of the 8th century after the first Muslim conquest of the Holy Land – the Terrae Sanctae – and the steady decline of the Byzantine Empire in what was at the time Palestina Prima, Palestina Secunda and Palestina Tertia (primarily the area between Damascus and Jerusalem).
Upon recognizing the strong Christian ethos attached to the city of Lydda – today’s Lod – the Umayyad Caliph Suleiman Ibn Abed al-Malik, whose father Abed al-Malik authorized the building of the Dome of the Rock, decided to build a Muslim stronghold just down the road from Lydda,
Suleiman’s claim to fame in the area was his building of the marble White Mosque, which according to the famous Muslim chronologist Al-Muqadassi was even more opulent and captivating than the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and “the most splendid to be seen after that of Jerusalem.” Like so many great structures of the time, the White Mosque was destroyed in the devastating earthquake of 1033 but was refurbished time and time again by various Muslim rulers such as Saladin and the Mamluk Sultan Baybars.
Today, the most impressive remains at the site are the Muslim gravestones which date back at least 600 years and the 112 step tower, which was built in the 14th century to serve as either the muezzin of the renovated 12th century mosque or a regional guard tower, which today offers spectacular views of the Mediterranean, Judean and Samarian hills, Ayalon Valley and Tel Aviv.
As the Crusaders entered the Holy Land in 1099, so did their monumental church styles and fervor in building security installations – the two often overlapping one another.
Today, at the Al Omari mosque, we can see the largest remaining and most in tact Crusader church in Israel – what used to be the 12th century Church of Saint John the Baptist. Like he did with other Crusader structures, the Sultan Baybars kept the structure in tact and converted it into a large mosque. Inside it, visitors can get a unique glimpse at some classic Crusader and Medieval architectural styles while observing the defining features of most mosques today.
Ramla continued to play an important role in both Ottoman and British Palestine as well as during the 1948 Israeli-Arab war.
After conquering Alexandria in 1798, Napoléon made his way up the coast and conquered Ramla and lodged at a local Franciscan pilgrims’ hostel before making his way up the coast to Acre, only to retreat to Egypt after a grueling siege ended in defeat.
Ramla has always been tied at the hip with neighboring Lod, and in both cities we can see the sisterly attachment between the two places.
We know the British valued this area tremendously as they built the largest train depot in the Middle East here after World War I. The station had five different track lines that connected destinations between Damascus and Palestine.
The city hosted a primarily Arab population until Israel’s War of Independence, and almost every citizen – Jew and Arab – will offer you a different perspective of how history played out here.
Today, the city is a bustling marketplace of different religious beliefs, ethnicities and minority populations. Here however, these minorities constitute the majority. There are pockets of different Jewish sub groups like Karaites, Ethiopians and Cochin Jews, a large population of Muslims and enclaves of Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Franciscan and Anglican Christians.
On the surface, it would be easy to compare Ramla to Jerusalem in terms of its ethno-religious composition; however, there is always an aura of tension surrounding life in Jerusalem, while the mood in Ramla is much lighter and less adrift in political and religious antagonism amongst the masses.
Due to the shaky socio-economic situation in the city, an increase in crime and specifically violence against women has often brought scattered groups of people into the street to protest the police’s lack of sufficient strength. But the city as a whole is an excellent way to get away from the side of Israel and the West Bank that can often feel like a lions den of cultural and political strain.
By Stephen Rubin
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