jamuna travel desk: When the geographer Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Shams al-Din al-Muqaddasi visited the city of Ramla on the road between Cairo and Damascus in the 10th Century, he described an urban paradise that rivalled his hometown of Jerusalem.
“It is a fine city, and well built; its water is good and plentiful; its fruits are abundant,” al-Muqaddasi wrote in his famous travelogue. “Commerce here is prosperous, and the markets excellent.”
The city, established as the new provincial capital of Palestine in 715, shortly after the area came under Muslim rule, boasted grand mosques, administrative buildings and mansions with gardens, mosaics and fountains. But most of these early Islamic buildings were destroyed in a series of earthquakes in the 11th Century, and the city, although partially rebuilt, never regained its earlier prestige.
“You can see almost nothing of this today,” said Gideon Avni, head of the archaeological division of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
Today, Ramla is a small Israeli city populated by both Jews and Arabs near the country’s Ben Gurion Airport, about 25km south-east of Tel Aviv, that’s working to overcome its reputation for crime and drug trafficking.
But a hidden, underground world of ornate water cisterns offers a glimpse into the city’s enchanted past.
The main entrance to the subterranean world, where archaeologists have found four elaborate cisterns, as well as further evidence of how an aqueduct supplied these pools with water, is found just off the main street in downtown Ramla.
Inside a small building, surrounded by apartment blocks and a park, a stone staircase leads down to an expansive, water-filled cistern. Its ceiling is supported by numerous pointed arches, which have given it the name ‘Pool of the Arches’. Small openings in the ceiling, as well as modern red and green electric light bulbs, pierce the darkness, revealing moss-covered walls and an inscription carved in Arabic that says the cistern was commissioned in 789 by Caliph Harun al-Rashid, who ruled the area from Baghdad.
Unlike the foundations of other early Islamic buildings found underground in Ramla by archaeologists, which often just look like piles of rocks to the untrained eye, the Pool of the Arches allows visitors to relive the city’s glorious past. Caliph Harun al-Rashid, who commissioned the pool, ruled during the Golden Age of Islam when economics, science and culture flourished from the western edge of the empire in Spain all the way into Asia.
The significance and accomplishments of this period became clear as our boat glided through the dark water under the tall arches, still standing after more than 1,200 years.
“This is almost all that is left,” Avni said. “And you must go underground to see it.”