Ramallah: Past and Present

Ramallah, built on 19,000 dunums of land and located 16 kilometres north of Jerusalem, was known as “Ramalie” in 1186, when the king-consort of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan, offered this little village in trust to the German hospital in return for a one-year loan.

The name Ramallah is composed of “ram,” an Aramaic word that means “hill” and “Allah,” the Arabic word for God. Thus, it means “the hill of God.” Most probably it was originally called “Ram” and, only after the Arab conquest of the area, the word “Allah” was added. Another possible explanation of the word Ramallah is “God-willing” or “God wished” or “wanted,” as “rama” means “wanted” in Arabic, though the first explanation is more likely.

How Was Ramallah Settled?

Ramallah was founded as a result of a dispute over a girl; that was around the year 1550. Mr. Kaddoura’s, History of Ramallah, published in New York in 1954, relates the story as follows:

A small Christian tribe called Haddadin was living in the vicinity of Karak, in southern Jordan. One day, Sheikh Ibn Qaysum, the head of a large Islamic tribe in the area, was paying a visit to Rashed Haddadin, the head of the Christian tribe. Someone came to the madafeh, where both men and their followers were having coffee, and told Rashed that his wife had given birth to a baby girl. Ibn Qaysum took the opportunity to ask for her hand for his son. Rashed agreed. Twelve years later, when Ibn Qaysum came to remind Rashed of his promise, Rashed replied: “But we are Christians and your son is a Muslim.” Ibn Qaysum flew into a rage and warned Rashed to honour the deepest of Arab traditions: fulfil his promise. Or else..

Rashed asked him for some time to prepare the bride, but instead, he decided to flee, with the help of Tamash Taweel, a member of a smaller Muslim tribe in Karak. They fled with their families, crossed the Dead Sea near the shallow part called “Makhadet Allisam” and planted scythes, spears, and swords after they crossed.

The next morning, Ibn Qaysum learned what happened and followed in their footsteps, but it was too late.

Rashed’s five sons – Sabra, Ibrahim, Jiryes, Shkeir, and Hassan – settled in Ramallah. The eldest son, Sabra, gave birth to five other sons: Yousef, Awwad, Issa, Khalid, and Azeez. The land was divided evenly among all, and they started working in agriculture.

A census taken in 1562, during the Turkish reign over Palestine (1517-1917), showed that the inhabitants of Ramallah consisted of 63 Christian families, 8 Christian single men, and 8 Muslim families. The aim of the census was to collect taxes.

More Immigrants Flow to Ramallah

Immigration to Ramallah can be divided into a number of stages. First, there was the immigration of Rashed Haddadin and families from Karak. Then came the immigration of the Ajlouny families in 1750, the Hishmeh families in 1775, and the Araj, Zagroot, and Shahla families, who left Deir Aban near Jerusalem around 1810, for both religious and economic reasons. Later, around 1855, some smaller families, such as the Yousef Audi family, immigrated to Ramallah. And finally, the Palestinian refugee population fled to Ramallah in 1948 as a result of the Nakba.

On May 15, 1948, the British Mandate of Palestine expired, and their forces pulled out,  leaving the country in turmoil. As a result, thousands of refugees fled their towns and cities. Many were driven out by the Stern Gang and the Irgun, both of which were Israeli terrorist groups. The refugees went east and settled in the hilly countryside in and around Ramallah.

According to the 1953 census, there were 13,500 people in Ramallah – 5,000 Ramallah natives and 8,500 refugees. That was the largest influx of people to come and settle in Ramallah during any one period of time.

Ramallah Today

Al-Manara Square is an important landmark of the city. It took its name when, between 1930 and 1940, the power station that provided Ramallah with electricity was fixed in the centre of Al-Manara. The man in charge of lighting the city used to switch on the lights of the main streets and the few nearby houses in the evening. Things changed later when the Jerusalem Electric Company was founded.

Ramallah was incorporated as a city in the year 1908, with Elias Audi as its first mayor. The 24th mayor was an Israeli who was appointed by the Israeli military governor. In 1994, the Palestinian Authority took over and, later, Dr. Issa Ziadeh was appointed mayor of the city. After he passed away, Mr. Ayoub Rabah took over until a new election was held. At present, Mousa Hadid is the city’s mayor.

Ramallah has expanded in all directions, especially to the west where thousands of new houses and buildings cover the al-Tireh area and surroundings. Ramallah today is not only the home of its inhabitants but also the temporary administrative capital of Palestine. People there enjoy openness, tolerance, and a multitude of cultural and educational activities. 

Kadoura, Yousef. The History of Ramallah, New York, 1954 (in Arabic).
Shaheen, Azeez. Ramallah: Its History and Its Genealogies, Birzeit, 1982.
Issa Jamil Shihadeh is an ex-council member of the Ramallah Municipality and a former English school supervisor at UNRWA. 

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