Going for gold in Gamla

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.

Gamla (photo credit: Gamla)
(photo credit: Gamla)

Not long after the Six Day War in 1967, a young kibbutznik participated inan archeological survey of the Golan Heights. Munching on a sandwich whileon a lunch break one day, he glanced down by chance at a foliage-coveredmountain. When he realized what he was looking at, he gasped inastonishment: the mountain corresponded exactly to a description of ancientGamla in one of Josephus Flavius’s famous books!

Archeologists who eventually excavated the ancient Jewish city of Gamladiscovered six unique coins minted by town fathers almost 2,000 years ago.The coins bore the inscription ’For the Redemption’ on one side; on theother, ’Of Holy Jerusalem.’ Like the coins, whose inscriptions have neverbeen 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, wheelchairaccessible route and splendiferous views. From Highway 92 turn onto Route869 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 aJewish 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 whatmay be the oldest synagogue in Israel and rivaling the claim for this honorheld previously by the Dead Sea’s Masada. The presence of ritual baths(mikvaot) indicates that city residents were observant Jews. Twoneighborhoods have been uncovered as well, one for the middle class andanother inhabited by the rich.

Like many contemporary houses in hilly Israeli cities, the dwellings on thesingle built-up slope of Gamla were terraced apartments. Thus each roof wasthe floor of the home above, saving a lot of space and contributing to thesuccess scored by the Jews in their first major battle against the Romans.

Following the outbreak of the Jewish revolt in 66 CE the Romans conqueredGalilee and most of the Golan Heights. King Agrippa II, a Jew whocollaborated with the Romans, besieged Gamla for seven months. His failureto subdue the city led to the Roman attack.

Before the assault, 55,000 crack Roman troops paraded in front of the citywhere the parking lot is located today. Agrippa was sent into Gamla topersuade the Jews to surrender. Incensed at his cooperation with the enemy,Gamla’s inhabitants — who by now numbered nearly 10,000 residents and warrefugees — responded with verbal insults. Finally, they began hurling stonesat Agrippa, one of which wounded his elbow. King Agrippa retreated, and theattack commenced.

First the Romans filled in the ravine, and then they brought up theirbattering rams. After laying siege to Gamla for several weeks they enteredthe lower part of the city. Gamla’s Jews ran higher up the slope, thenturned around and attacked the enemy. As the Romans hastily sought shelteron roofs and in houses, the terraced buildings collapsed beneath theirweight. Enemy casualties were heavy and the Romans were forced to fall back.

The second time around the Romans cautiously took another tack. In thedarkness of night they removed boulders from the foundation of the city’stower and the tower collapsed. Frightened families ran as far away from theRoman invaders as they could, and climbed all the way to the top of themountain. Gamla’s Jewish soldiers continued to fight. But while Roman arrowseasily hit their marks, the arrows shot by the Jews were caught in a strangewind and perversely shifted direction.

When all was lost, half of the population threw themselves into the abyssbelow. With the exception of two women, who lived to tell the tale, all theothers were slain. Gamla was devastated and remained untouched for the next1,900 years.

For an excellent look at Gamla, take a short dirt path next to the DaliyotTrail and stop at a cliff top memorial to fallen Golan residents. Enjoy abreathtaking view of ancient Gamla and the deep riverbeds below.

Does Gamla remind you of anything? Josephus described Gamla as a highmountain resembling a camel’s hump — hence its name, for camel is gamal inHebrew. Also mentioned in his book were impassible ravines and slopescovered 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 willbe following in the footsteps of the Roman soldiers as you walk the batteryfrom which they stormed the rebel enclave. Past the walls of the city turnleft with the trail until you reach the synagogue. At the time, worshiperssat on stone benches around the perimeter of the rectangular building sothat they were facing one another. In this way they could all see thecenter, where the Torah was read, equally well. A ritual bath was located atthe synagogue entrance.

As you continue along the trail, you will come to an olive press, one ofseveral found in Gamla. What makes it unusual is the discovery of a ritualbath right next door. Gamla’s Jews apparently scrupulously observed biblicalcommandments concerning ritual purity and, as required, they would immersethemselves 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.


Gamla’s impressive sheer cliffs reach a height of 250 meters and are thetallest in the Golan. Birds of prey find them a good protective site, asother animals have difficulty climbing the sheer walls. Besides, the cragsoffer protection from strong wind and sun. Two easy trails give you anexcellent look at the numerous birds of prey (raptors) that live in theGamla cliffs.

One slightly rocky trail takes about 45 minutes each way. It leads toIsrael’s highest waterfall — dry in summer and fall — and to an observationpoint above the Gamla Riverbed to view the birds. An extra attraction is afield of enormous dolmens next to the trail.

Vultures Trail:

Easy (and wheelchair accessible)

A second trail, to the Bird Balcony, takes about 30 minutes. It circlesaround part of the reserve, passing a Byzantine (fourth to seventhcenturies) church and leading to a fantastic vista point for viewing theancient city below. Finally, you reach a covered balcony across from thecliffs for bird-watching.

Because of their large size, most birds of prey have trouble flapping theirwings and flying long distances. To solve their problem, raptors and otherheavy birds take advantage of rising air currents to help them glidegracefully in the sky. Called thermals, the currents begin as a stream ofair 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 theycatch 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, aswell as vultures, buzzards, falcons and eagles. What a marvelous sight it isto see these impressive birds open their wings, circle upwards and sail withthe wind. When they start losing altitude they catch a new air current, makea spiral ascent and begin to glide again.

Hours: Sat. to Thurs. 8 to 5 (entrance until 4); Fri. 8 to 4 (entrance until3). Fee: NIS Adults 23, Israeli seniors NIS 11:50, children up to 18 arefree 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 viewexhibits from ancient Gamla — including the famous coin. Also on display arearmor, vases, colored glass and weapons left from Roman-Jewish Battles. Anddon’t miss the stirring movie about Gamla.