Not long after the Six Day War in 1967, a young kibbutznik participated in
an archeological 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 one of Josephus Flavius’s famous books!
Archeologists 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.
A fantastic half-day outing in the Golan Heights has absolutely everything:
ancient history, a challenging hike, bird-watching, a pleasant, wheelchair
accessible route and splendiferous views. From Highway 92 turn onto Route
869 at Ma’aleh Gamla Junction, and left onto Route 808 at Daliyot Junction.
You will see the sign for Gamla two kilometers north of Daliyot Junction.
Gamla’s Jewish history began in the first century BCE.
Founded by Hasmonean King Alexander Janneus between 83-80 BCE, Gamla was a
Jewish town with a population of 5,000 farmers. Less than 20 years later,
Gamla and all of the rest of Israel fell under Roman rule.
Excavations at Gamla have revealed some fascinating finds, including what
may be the oldest synagogue in Israel and rivaling the claim for this honor
held previously by the Dead Sea’s Masada. The presence of ritual baths
(mikvaot) indicates that city 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.
Following the outbreak of the Jewish revolt in 66 CE the Romans conquered
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 attack.
Before the assault, 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
First the Romans filled in the ravine, and then they brought up their
battering rams. After laying siege to Gamla for several 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 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
For an excellent look at Gamla, take a short dirt path next to the Daliyot
Trail and stop at a cliff top memorial to fallen Golan residents. Enjoy a
breathtaking view of ancient Gamla and the deep riverbeds below.
Does Gamla remind you of anything? Josephus described Gamla as a high
mountain resembling a camel’s hump — hence its name, for camel is gamal in
Hebrew. Also mentioned in his book were impassible ravines and slopes
covered with homes. You will see their remains on your hike.
Historical hike to the ancient city
Begin your descent at the Gamla Lookout, along the Vulture Trail. You will
be following in the footsteps of the Roman soldiers as you walk the battery
from which they stormed the rebel enclave. Past the walls of the city turn
left with the trail until you reach the synagogue. At the time, worshipers
sat on stone benches around the perimeter of the rectangular building so
that they were facing one another. In this way they could all see the
center, where the Torah was read, equally well. A ritual bath was located at
the synagogue entrance.
As you continue along the trail, you will come to an olive press, one of
several found in Gamla. What makes it unusual is the discovery of a ritual
bath right next door. 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.
Explore the site and all its fascinating ruins. Then walk up to the tower,
back to where you entered the city, and ascend the hill to the parking lot.
NATURE HIKE TO THE WATERFALL AND BIRD OVERLOOK
Gamla’s impressive sheer cliffs reach a height of 250 meters and are the
tallest in the Golan. Birds of prey find them a good protective site, as
other animals have difficulty climbing the sheer walls. Besides, the crags
offer protection from strong wind and sun. Two easy trails give you an
excellent look at the numerous birds of prey (raptors) that live in the
One slightly rocky trail takes about 45 minutes each way. It leads to
Israel’s highest waterfall — dry in summer and fall — and to an observation
point above the Gamla Riverbed to view the birds. An extra attraction is a
field of enormous dolmens next to the trail.
Easy (and wheelchair accessible)
A second trail, to the Bird Balcony, takes about 30 minutes. It circles
around part of the reserve, passing a Byzantine (fourth to seventh
centuries) church and leading to a fantastic vista point for viewing the
ancient city below. Finally, you reach a covered balcony across from the
cliffs for bird-watching.
Because of their large size, most birds of prey have trouble flapping their
wings and flying long distances. To solve their problem, 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 see 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.
Visitors to Gamla may spot non-raptors like pelicans, cranes and storks, as
well as vultures, buzzards, falcons and eagles. What a marvelous sight it is
to see 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.
Hours: Sat. to Thurs. 8 to 5 (entrance until 4); Fri. 8 to 4 (entrance until
3). Fee: NIS Adults 23, Israeli seniors NIS 11:50, children up to 18 are
free until the end of June (in the framework of Israel’s 60th anniversary).
Phone: (04) 682-2282
Extra: Head for Katzrin (route 9088) and its commercial center to view
exhibits from ancient Gamla — including the famous coin. Also on display are
armor, vases, colored glass and weapons left from Roman-Jewish Battles. And
don’t miss the stirring movie about Gamla.
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