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Travel: Gamla, the Masada of the North

Josephus records a courageous stand against the Roman Legion at Gamla, an isolated mountain in the north of the country.
By Shalom Pollack
First Publish: 8/8/2009, 11:15 PM

(Wikimedia Commons)

Many are familiar with the dramatic last stand of the Jewish rebels on Masada against the Roman Legions after the destruction of the Second Temple. But according to the same historian, Josephus Flavius (or Yosef ben Matityahu – his Hebrew name) who described Masada, a very similar drama took place at Gamla, another isolated mountain in the north of the country.

View of the top of Gamla
Wikimedia Commons


On the southern end of the Golan Heights stands Gamla, an isolated hump-backed mountain. The name Gamla means 'camel' as the mountain looks like an isolated camel’s hump surrounded by deep ravines on all sides. Gamla was a Jewish district town when the great revolt against Rome broke out in 66 CE.
 
Over 1,400 years earlier, Moses conquered this land from Og the giant of Bashan. Two and a half tribes requested the lands to the east of the Jordan river for their inheritance and so a part of the tribe of Menashe settled on what is today the Golan, otherwise know as the Bashan.
 
When Joshua divided up the Promised Land amongst the tribes, cities of refuge used by people guilty of manslaughter,were established on either side of the Jordan. Gamla may have been one of these Biblical cities of refuge. 
 
Now I understand what all this sacrifice was for. It was not for Gamla alone, but it was rather for the 'redemption'...

Upon fast-forward to the time of the Great Revolt, we find Gamla as a very strategic point of struggle. It wasn’t just an isolated walled town that received rebels and refugees from the advancing Roman armies. It was a symbol and headquarters of the rebels defying their quest to put down the revolt. It was geographically on the northeast frontier closest to two possible threats to Rome.

Firstly, the Parthian empire was not far from this frontier. The Parthians would grab an opportunity to weaken Roman rule on the international frontier and aid the rebels.
 
Secondly, there was the possibility that the very large and influential Jewish communities to the east of the Roman boundaries would come to their brothers’ aid.
 
For these reasons it was deemed necessary to make an example of Gamla from the very outset.
 
As expected, Gamla held well against the Romans. Roman assaults were repulsed as the Jews rained death down on the attackers. In a bold move, the Romans led by their commaner managed to tunnel under one of the watch towers and undermine it so that it crumbled down into the ravine.

The Romans then rushed into the gap with the Jewish fighters pulling their families on the slope on the roofs towards the top of the hump of a mountain. Josephus describes how the Romans pursued them on the roofs. Due to the extreme weight of the soldiers charging up, the roofs buckled and the soldiers fell into the buildings and down the slope. Panic broke out. In the thick of the night and clouds of dust, the stunned Romans hacked at each other as they beat a hasty retreat out the walls.
 
The Romans subsequently filled in the ravine and led the entire army to the walls in order to not repeat their earlier mistakes. What happened next was inevitable. The Romans slowly made their way up the slope, forcing the defenders to the summit as they formed a protective ring around their families at the very top. Josephus writes that rather than fall into the hands of the sadistic Romans, the Jews took their families by their hand and leaped to the depths of the ravine.

However, some archaeologists have disputed Josephus’s claim of mass suicide. Firstly, suicide is against Jewish law. Secondly, only one human remain, a jawbone, was found in the area.

Gamla was no more. Four years later, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and three years after that, the last stronghold, Masada was the scene of the famous last drama.

Buildings and Gamla's wall are clearly visible
Wikimedia Commons


For almost 2,000 years, Gamla lay in ruins. Her stones shared the story with no one. It was only after the miraculous Six Day War of 1967 that her sons returned. When Israel liberated the Golan from the Syrian attackers above, Israeli archaeologists were thrilled at the opportunity to explore and uncover. And uncover they did! The archaeologists discovered dozens of Jewish towns with synagogues, ritual baths, and Hebrew inscriptions mentioning the name of one of the authors of the Talmud, Rabbi Ekiezer Hakapar’s study hall.

In Gamla, archaeologists found one of the oldest synagogues in the world. The story of the first brave stand against the Roman Empire was revealed by Prof Shmarya Gutmann, who I had the honor of speaking with as he uncovered the site in 1980. Tears came to his eyes as he held a coin found in Gamla displaying the word “redemption” and a vessel from the Temple. He subsequently exclaimed, “Now I understand what all this sacrifice was for. It was not for Gamla alone, but it was rather for the “redemption” – the redemption of Jerusalem and the Jewish People. It was for this they gave their lives.”

Gamla' ancient synagogue
Ministry of Tourism


Today, Gamla and the Golan is back where it belongs. It is no longer forlorn as an orphan occupied by conquerers. Today there are dozens of modern Jewish towns in the Golan. Gamla is visited by throngs of visitors who pay their respect and learn the lessons from the stones that have been redeemed from the dust by her sons and daughters.
The residents of the Golan even chose to list the names of their sons who fell in the modern wars of Israel on a perch overlooking Gamla.

Gamla waterfall
Ministry of Tourism

Each village and town today has its name engraved in the stones overlooking Gamla. The stones are engraved with an inscription in bold letters, “Gamla shall never again fall.”

Shalom Pollack is a veteran Israel tour guide, who guides and plans tours for families and groups. He also writes and lectures on Israel and will be on a lecture tour in the US this coming October-November. Pollack recently produced a DVD, "Israel - Ancient Roots, Modern Miracle.” Clips can be seen on his website, www.shalompollacktours.co.il