Gamla Ancient Synagogue by AVRAMGR - Own work [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia
The famous historian Josephus Flavius — also known by his Hebrew name Yosef ben Matityahu — has made us familiar with the dramatic last stand of the Jewish rebels at Masada against the Roman Legions, three years after the destruction of the Second Temple.
But according to the same historian, a very similar drama took place on another isolated mountain in the very north of the country, three years before the Temple's destruction.
Gamla stands perched on a mountain on the southern end of the Golan Heights. The humpback shape of the mountain gave the site its name: gamal means camel in Hebrew. Surrounded by protective deep ravines on all sides, Gamla was a Jewish district town when the Great Revolt against Rome broke out in 66 C.E.
Around 1,400 years before the drama on the Golan, Moses had conquered this land from the Canaanite giant Og of Bashan. Part of the tribe of Menashe settled in the Biblical Bashan, which is known today as the Golan Heights.
When Joshua divided up the Promised Land among the tribes, cities of refuge for use by people guilty of accidental manslaughter were established on either side of the Jordan River. Gamla may have been one of these Biblical cities of refuge.
Fast forwarding again to the time of the Great Revolt, we find Gamla was a crucial strategic position for the Jewish rebels. Not only was it a fortified walled town that welcomed rebels and refugees fleeing the advancing Roman Legions, but it also became a symbol of the Jews’ defiance of the Roman Empire.
In addition, it was geographically situated on the northeast frontier, closest to two possible threats to Rome. First, the powerful and ever threatening Parathion empire was not far from this frontier. The Parthians would certainly grab an opportunity to weaken Roman rule on the international frontier by aiding the Jewish rebels.
Secondly, there was the possibility that the very large and influential Jewish communities within the Parthian borders would organize expeditionary armies in aid of their brothers in the Land of Israel.
For these reasons, the Romans deemed it necessary to make a convincing example of Gamla at the very outset of the rebellion.
As expected, Gamla held well against the Romans. Repeated Roman assaults were repulsed, as the Jews rained death down on the attackers. In a bold move, the Romans led by their commander managed to tunnel under one of the watchtowers and undermine it so that it crumbled down into the ravine.
The Romans then rushed into the breach, with the Jewish fighters pulling their families up the slope on the roofs towards the towering hump of the mountain.
Josephus describes how the Romans hotly pursued them on the roofs until, suddenly, due to the extreme weight of the soldiers bunching together while 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 amid clouds of dust, the stunned Romans hacked at each other in confusion as they beat a hasty retreat out through the walls.
But this was just a tactical victory for the defenders of Gamla.
The Romans filed into the ravine and brought up the entire army to the walls, careful not to repeat their earlier mistakes.
What happened next was inevitable. The Romans slowly made their way up the slope, forcing the defenders to the very top of the summit where they formed a protective ring around their families. Rather than fall into the hands of the sadistic Romans, they took their families and leaped into the depths of the ravine. One can only imagine the mass hysteria and their final cries as the ravine floor rushed up towards them.
Thus Gamla fell. Four years later, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and three years after that the last stronghold, Masada, was the scene of the Jewish rebels’ famous last stand.
For almost 2,000 years Gamla has lain in ruins, her stones sharing her dramatic story with no one.
It was only after the miraculous Six Day War of 1967 that her sons returned to her. When Israeli forces liberated the Golan from the Syrian attackers, Israeli archaeologists were thrilled at the opportunity to explore, excavate, and uncover that part of the homeland.
Uncover they did!
They found dozens of Jewish towns with synagogues, ritual baths, and Hebrew inscriptions — even one adorning the study hall of one of the authors of the Talmud, Rabbi Elazer Hakapar! On the battleground of Gamla one of the oldest synagogues in the world was found!
The story of the first brave Jewish stand against the Roman Empire was revealed by Prof. Shmaryahu Gutman, whom I had the honor of speaking with as he worked on the site in 1979. When he held up a coin found in Gamla displaying 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.”
Today, Gamla in the Golan is back where it belongs, in the possession of the Jewish people. It is no longer forlorn, an orphan occupied by waves of conquerors. Today there are dozens of modern Jewish towns on the Golan, and Gamla is visited by throngs of visitors who pay their respect and learn volumes from the stones.
It is no wonder that the residents of the Golan Heights chose to chisel the names of their sons and daughters who fell in the modern wars of Israel on stones on a dramatic perch overlooking the former Jewish stronghold of Gamla. Inscribed on the stones in bold letters is a timeless message: “GAMLA SHALL FALL NO MORE.”
Contact Shalom Pollack, veteran licensed tour guide, for upcoming tours at Shalom Pollack Tours: Personalized Tours in Israel. This article is reprinted with permission of the author. Click here to read more of this writer’s work in The Jerusalem Herald.