Not long after the Six Day War in 1967, a young kibbutznik participated in an archaeological survey of the Golan Heights. Munching on a sandwich while on a lunch break one day, he glanced down by chance at a foliage-covered mountain. When he realized what he was looking at, he gasped in astonishment: the mountain corresponded exactly to a description of ancient Gamla in Wars of the Jews, one of Josephus Flavius’ famous books!
Archaeologists who eventually excavated the ancient Jewish city of Gamla discovered six unique coins minted by town fathers almost 2,000 years ago. The coins bore the inscription “For the Redemption” on one side; on the other — “Of Holy Jerusalem.” Like the coins, whose inscriptions have never been found anywhere else in the world, the story of Gamla is incomparable. Gamla itself has been called the Masada of the North.
Gamla’s Jewish history began in the first century B.C.E. Founded by Hasmonean (Maccabee) King Alexander Janneus between 83‑80 B.C.E., Gamla was a Jewish town with a population of 5,000 farmers. Excavations at Gamla have revealed some fascinating finds, including one of the oldest synagogues in the world. Along with the synagogue, a number of ritual baths (mikvas) were discovered, both clear indications that the city’s residents were observant Jews. Two neighborhoods have been uncovered as well, one for the middle class and another inhabited by the rich.
Like many contemporary houses in hilly Israeli cities, the dwellings on the single built-up slope of Gamla were terraced apartments. Thus each roof was the floor of the home above, saving a lot of space and contributing to the success scored by the Jews in their first major battle against the Romans during the Great Revolt.
Gamla was less than 20 years old when — in 66 C. E. — the Jews of Israel rebelled against the mighty Roman Empire that ruled the country. Soon afterwards, the Romans conquered the Galilee and most of the Golan Heights. King Agrippa II, a Jew who collaborated with the Romans, besieged Gamla for seven months. His failure to subdue the city led to the Roman assault.
Before the strike, 55,000 crack Roman troops paraded in front of the city where the parking lot is located today. Agrippa was sent into Gamla to persuade the Jews to surrender. Incensed at his cooperation with the enemy, Gamla’s inhabitants — who by now numbered nearly 10,000 residents and war refugees — responded with verbal insults. Finally, they began hurling stones at Agrippa, one of which wounded his elbow. King Agrippa retreated, and the attack commenced.
First the Romans filled in the ravine, and then they brought up their battering rams for all to see. After laying siege to Gamla for several more weeks, they entered the lower part of the city. Gamla’s Jews ran higher up the slope, then turned around and attacked the enemy. As the Romans hastily sought shelter on roofs and in houses, the terraced buildings collapsed beneath their weight. Enemy casualties were heavy and the Romans were forced to fall back.
The second time around, however, the Romans cautiously took another tack. In the darkness of night they removed boulders from the foundation of the city’s tower and the tower collapsed. Frightened families ran as far away from the Roman invaders as they could, and climbed all the way to the top of the mountain. Gamla’s Jewish soldiers continued to fight. But while Roman arrows easily hit their marks, the arrows shot by the Jews were caught in a strange wind and perversely shifted direction.
When all was lost, half of the population threw themselves into the abyss below. With the exception of two women who lived to tell the tale, all the others were slain. Gamla was devastated and remained untouched for the next 1,900 years.
From a clifftop memorial to residents of the Golan who have fallen in modern wars, there is a breathtaking view of ancient Gamla and the deep riverbeds below. It is a fascinating sight, for Gamla looks strangely like the hump of a camel. Obviously, that’s where it got its name, for camel is gamal in Hebrew. In his book Josephus — born Yosef Ben Mattatiyahu and at one time a commander of Jewish troops in the Galilee — had mentioned the resemblance to a camel in his book, and also wrote about impassible ravines and slopes covered with homes.
It is a 20-minute hike to Gamla’s ruins, but is truly worth the effort to view what remains. Located at the entrance to the city, Gamla’s ancient synagogue still features the original stone benches, set around the rectangular perimeter and facing one another. In this way, like worshipers in most Sephardic synagogues of today, all of them had an equal view of the Torah reading in the center. A ritual bath was located at the synagogue entrance.
Not surprisingly, Gamla had more than one olive press, and at least one adjacent to a ritual bath. Gamla’s Jews apparently scrupulously observed biblical commandments concerning ritual purity and, as required, they would immerse themselves before handling any oil used for religious purposes.
Of course, not everyone wants to follow the steep descent into the ancient city — because you still have to climb back up! No worries: besides the unique view of a camel-shaped mountain that hosted an ancient Jewish city, there is still plenty to see and do at the Reserve, which boasts Israel’s highest waterfall. Although it is dry in summer and fall, its flows in winter and its sheer drop can be viewed from a fairly easy trail.
A second trail, completely wheelchair accessible, circles around part of the Reserve, passing a Byzantine (4th -7th centuries) church and leading to another marvelous vista point for viewing the ancient city below. And, finally, it reaches a covered balcony where nature lovers can gaze at birds of prey.
Gamla’s impressive sheer cliffs reach a height of 250 meters and are the tallest in the Golan. Birds of prey find them an excellent protective site, as other animals have difficulty climbing the sheer walls. Besides, the crags serve as a shield from strong winds and a blaring sun.
Because of their large size, most birds of prey have trouble flapping their wings and flying long distances. To solve their dilemma, raptors and other heavy birds take advantage of rising air currents to help them glide gracefully in the sky. Called thermals, the currents begin as a stream of air from the west diverted upwards by the chimney effect of the cliff walls. What a marvelous sight it is to watch these impressive birds open their wings, circle upwards and sail with the wind! When they start losing altitude they catch a new air current, make a spiral ascent and begin to glide again.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.