Going for gold in Gamla

Known as the Masada of the north, both the history and topography of Gamla is astonishing.

gamla 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
gamla 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 attack commenced. 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 1,900 years. 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 Gamla cliffs. 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. Vultures 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. This article is adapted from Aviva Bar-Am's new book: Israel's Northern Landscapes - Your Guide to the Golan Heights, Upper Galilee and Lake Kinneret - scheduled for release on July 1. For more information on Aviva's books see: http://www.israeltravels.com