The White Mosque of Ramla was once considered to be one of the wonders of Islam. Originally completed during the same era as the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, it was one of the three great pilgrimage mosques built by the Umayyad’s in the Holy Land. Unfortunately, time, geography, war and the elements have not been kind to the White Mosque, and all that remains of it are some of the original Umayyad sub-structure and a magnificent Mamluk-era minaret. Nevertheless, the location of the White Mosque is considered sacred ground, as forty early Muslims who were lesser Companions of the Prophet were once buried on the site. Although Muslim pilgrims continue to come and worship at the minaret, the ruins of the White Mosque are noteworthy in that it is one of the very few important ancient Islamic sites that is not currently located within the borders of a Muslim-majority country.
The city of Ramla was the first Muslim-founded city in the Holy Land. Established in the early 8th century by the Umayyads, it was for several centuries the most important city in Palestine, at least politically. The Umayyads desired to establish a new capital for the region which they could build from scratch, choosing for their location an important crossroad that linked the major Islamic cities of Damascus and Cairo with Jerusalem. Ramla remained the regional capital of Palestine throughout the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties until the Holy Land was conquered by Europeans during the Crusades.
Around the year 715 AD, Sulayman ibn Abd Al-Malik, the Umayyad Caliph, ordered the construction of a magnificent new mosque in Ramla. This was just after the completion of the great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, and presumably many of the now very experienced masons and laborers went to work on the new project in Ramla. It was possibly for this reason that the White Mosque was said to have been even more magnificent than its predeccesor. According to tradition, forty companions of the Prophet Muhammad were entombed beneath or nearby the White Mosque, and because of this it was the second most important shrine in Palestine after the Dome of the Rock for the duration of its existence.
In 1034 the White Mosque was destroyed in an earthquake that leveled most of Ramla. According to one report, the mosque was rebuilt, but this is uncertain. However, Ramla was conquered by the Crusaders, and remained under European control until the end of the 12th century. Whether it was never rebuilt or simply deteriorated during the Crusader kingdom period, the White Mosque was not fully rebuilt or restored until Saladin retook the area in 1191. Saladin’s mosque remained the pride of Ramla until it was destroyed once again by yet another earthquake in 1318.
After this second disaster, only the mosque’s minaret remained standing. It has since been renovated several times, though the rest of the mosque was never rebuilt. During the Ottoman period, Ramla lost its political status, and the city was largely abandoned. It never regained its former glory, and for the better part of five centuries was little more than a waystation for pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. The city’s population recovered again during the British occupation, but almost all of the Muslims fled or were driven out during the Arab-Israeli wars. Despite the fact that there is little left to see, the Ruins of the White Mosque still attract a trickle of determined pilgrims who wish to see the venerable minaret and the grave of Nabi Salih, a popular Muslim hero buried at the site.
While the original mosque was completed in the early 8th century, virtually nothing is left from that period except for parts of the foundation and the underground cisterns. These three enormous cisterns were constructed a few decades after the rest of the mosque was built. Amazingly, the pillar supported, high-vaulted chambers are still intact and usable. They once provided water for drinking and ritual cleansing within the mosque.
The main surviving structure on the site is the Mamluk-era minaret. The six-story, square shaped minaret is highly unusual for the location and period. The architectural style of the tower was clearly influenced by earlier Crusader structures, as it looks like it could have once been attached to the façade of a Gothic cathedral. Next to the minaret are the partial remains of a wall with an entrance arch. Nothing else remains of the medieval White Mosque.
The White Mosque is located on the outskirts of the new Israelite city of Ramla, approximately 25 miles west of Jerusalem. Although the minaret is technically an open site, cared for by locals, access may be restricted due to security or religious concerns. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.ramla.muni.il (official tourism website of Ramla)
Virtually nothing remains of the medieval Islamic city of Ramla, and there is little else of Muslim interest worth seeing. However, narby Jaffa is home to several beautiful old Islamic sites, including the Mahmoudia Mosque and the Ottoman Governor’s Palace.