The Masada of the North

For almost 2,000 years Gamla lay in ruins; however today it is no longer lays is ruins as thousands of tourists flock to visit the ancient town to learn its history and secrets.

Gamla 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gamla 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
We’re all familiar with the dramatic last stand of the Jewish rebels at 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 the fall of Masada, a very similar drama took place on another isolated mountain in the very north of the country.
On the southern end of the Golan Heights stands an isolated hump-backed mountain. The name Gamla means camel, as the mountain looks like an isolated camel’s hump surrounded by deep ravines. Gamla was a Jewish district town when the great revolt against Rome broke out in 66 CE.
One thousand four hundred years earlier, Moses had 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 Heights. Or the Bashan.
When Joshua divided the Promised Land among the tribes, cities of refuge to be used by people guilty of manslaughter were established on either side of the Jordan.
Gamla may have been one of these cities.
Fast forwarding again to the time of the Great Revolt, we find Gamla as a pivotal point in the struggle. Not only was it an isolated, walled town that received rebels and refugees from the advancing Roman armies. It was a symbol of and headquarters for the rebels, defying the Roman campaign to put down the revolt. It was geographically on the northeast frontier closest to two possible threats to Rome. First, the Parthian empire was not far from this frontier. The Parthians would grab any opportunity to weaken Roman rule on the frontier, and aid the rebels.
Secondly, there was the possibility that the very large 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 at the very outset.
As expected, Gamla held well against the Romans. Roman assualts were repulsed as the Jews rained death down on their 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 into the ravine.
The Romans then rushed into the gap, with the Jewish fighters pulling their families up the sloped roofs toward the top of the mountain’s hump. Josephus describes how the Romans pursued them on the roofs until suddenly, due to the extreme weight of the soldiers bunching together, 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.
But this was just a tactical victory.
The Romans filled in the ravine and brought the entire army up to the walls, not repeating 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. Rather than fall into the hands of the sadistic Romans, they took their families by the hand and leaped to the depths of the ravine. One can guess what their last words were as they faced certain death... Shema yisroel.
Thus Gamla fell. Two years later, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and two years after that, the last stronghold, Masada, was the scene of the famous final drama.
For almost 2,000 years Gamla lay in ruins, her stones sharing their 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 archeologists were thrilled at the opportunity to explore and uncover. And uncover they did! Dozens of Jewish towns with ritual baths and Hebrew inscriptions mentioning the name of one of the authors of the Talmud! Rabbi Ekiezer Hakapar’s study hall! In Gamla was found the oldest synagouge in the world! And the story of the first brave stand against the Roman Empire was revealed by Prof. Shmirayu Gutman, who I had the honor of speaking with as he uncovered the site in 1980. As he held up a coin found in Gamla which displayed the word “redemption” and a vessel from the Temple, tears came to his eyes as he exclaimed: Now I understand what all this sacrifice was for. It was not for Gamla alone, but rather it was for the “Redemption.”
The Redemption of Jerusalem and the Jewish People.
It was for this they gave their lives.
And today, Gamla and the Golan are back where they belong. Gamla is no longer forlorn, an orphan occupied by conquerers. Today there are dozens of modern Jewish towns on the Golan, and Gamla is visited by throngs of visitors who pay their respects and learn the lessons from the stones that have been redeemed from the dust by her sons and daughters.
No wonder residents of the Golan Heights chose to list the names of her sons who fell in the modern wars of Israel on a perch overlooking Gamla.
Each village and town today has its name engraved in the stones overlooking Gamla.
And there, in bold letters: GAMLA SHALL FALL NO MORE.”