Ashkelon and Ramla, Israel
"I then set out from Jerusalem the Holy to visit the frontier fortress of 'Asqalan. It is lying in ruins and is no more than shapeless remains and mouldering walls."
According to a sign near the old Canaanite ruins of Ashkelon, the city's name derives from the word shekel, which at that time meant a unit of weight, and is now the denomination of Israel's currency. From approximately 2000BC Ashkelon became a Canaanite seaport and its complex fortifications of thick walls and arched brick gateway attest to a center of importance. But despite such efforts from the wealthy city state, Ashkelon was captured by the Egyptians around 1550BC and later fell to the Philistines or 'Sea Peoples' an invading horde of mercenary/settlers who arrived on the eastern Mediterranean coast in the 12th century BC from the borders of the Aegean Sea. Like all other cities in the region it was thereafter captured in succession by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and in 332BC by Alexander the Great. Remains of an odeon speak to Hellenistic influence and later under the Romans a basilica and amphitheater were added to its layers; excavated churches serve as evidence of its early Byzantine past before the city was taken early in the Arab conquest, in 636 AD.
Reused granite columns to strengthen walls.
From 1153 to 1187AD the Crusaders conquered the city. They heavily fortified the walls with recycled Roman columns which were inserted into the walls horizontally, added towers and built churches, but the city fell to Saladin in 1187 who destroyed the walls to avoid it becoming a base for the Crusaders who were regrouping to re-capture their lost territory. When it was re-captured for the Crusaders by Richard the Lionheart in 1192 he rebuilt the walls, but in 1270 the city reverted to the Mamluk sultan Baybars who decisively destroyed the walls again and the city never recovered its importance. As described by Ibn Battuta, Ashkelon's old city walls are still in ruins, and the little that is left of the entire old city is now part of a National Park.
As I drove through the park I found only the remains of the basilica, the theater, a Byzantine church, fallen statues and crumbling walls - no mosque and no graveyard of which Ibn Battuta notes, "the cemetery of 'Asqalan contains such a number of graves of martyrs and saints as is beyond reckoning."
Ashkelon had a special status during the period of Islamic rule because of the belief that the head of Hussein had been found there. (It was later moved to Cairo.) A special sanctuary for it was built in 1091 and describing it Ibn Battuta writes, "this is a vast and lofty mosque, within which there is a well for water;......to the south of this shrine is the mosque of Omar, of which nothing remains but its walls.......to the south of this mosque, again, is a well known as Abraham's Well. One goes down to it by a broad flight of steps, which give entry to a number of chambers, in each of whose four sides there is a spring. the water comes out of stone-lined conduits and is sweet, but not plentiful."
Abraham's Well is held by Jewish tradition to be in Beersheba south-east of Ashkelon, but there was for a time an Arab Muslim and Christian tradition that the well was in Ashkelon. The Arab historian Abu Alfeda writing only a few years before Ibn B's visit also remarked on the city's wells and the quality of its water, and as recently as the 19th century the city had up to 37 wells which watered orchards of almonds, olives, grapes, lemon and orange trees as well as gardens of spring onions or 'scallions' which were so numerous that they owe their name to the city.
Gaza lies just 10 kilometers south of Ashkelon but four years after my first attempt it is still impossible to get in to the beleaguered enclave. Once again travel in these parts was easier for Ibn Battuta then it is now.
So I continued north to Ramla which like Ashkelon is in Israel 'proper', but unlike Ashkelon which is a wholly Jewish city, does have a population of Arab Israelis. Ramla was the last place on Ibn Battuta's itinerary in Israel that I had yet to visit. Of his journey he wrote,
"I traveled....to the town of al Ramla, which is the same as Filistin, a large town, well stocked with good things, and with fine bazaars. Here is the famous White Mosque, and it is said that on its southern side three hundred of the prophets lie buried."
The town of Ramla was founded as the capital of the province of Filastin by the Ummayads in 712 AD. Badly damaged by earthquakes in the 11th century, the town fell to the Seljuks in 1071 and with the arrival of the Crusaders in 1099, the inhabitants temporarily fled. In 1187 Saladin conquered the town and as he had done in Ashkelon, destroyed its fortifications to prevent it being used by the Crusaders under Richard. Thereafter the town passed back and forth between Christians and Muslims until 1266 when Baybars claimed it, rebuilt the shattered White Mosque and established the shrine of Nabi Salih on its north-west corner as a means to attract Muslim pilgrims to the city.
The ruined walls of the White Mosque.
The original domed building of the shrine has been replaced by a small, concrete flat-roofed cube which is in a state of sad dereliction though on the threshold were several burned down tea-candle holders. (Another shrine of Nabi Salih stands in the Israeli town of Akko, already described in this blog.)
There were some old graves although it seemed too hopeful to imagine they had been there since the 14th century. If Ibn B's graves of the prophets were still there they are blocked off by railings.
Graves on the eastern side of the White Mosque
Unlike Ashkelon, Ramla was a thriving town at the time of Ibn B's visit and indeed his favorite sultan, al-Nasir Mohammed, rebuilt the minaret of the White Mosque in 1318 shortly before he got there. Oddly perhaps, he does not mention its distinctive style.
Minaret of the White Mosque
Minaret of the White Mosque
During the Crusader period a church was built which in the late 13th century was transformed into the Great Mosque. Despite the presence of several churches, prior to 1948 the inhabitants of Ramla were mainly Muslim. Ramla was a center of Arab resistance and today Arabs make up approximately 20% of the population.