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Gamla was an ancient Jewish city in the Golan Heights. Inhabited since the Early Bronze Age, it is believed to have been founded as a Seleucid fort during the Syrian Wars
Syrian Wars
The Syrian Wars were a series of six wars between the Successor states of the Seleucid Empire and the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC over the region then called Coele-Syria, one of the few avenues into Egypt...

. The site of a Roman siege during the Great Revolt of the 1st century CE, Gamla is a symbol of heroism for the modern state of Israel
The State of Israel is a parliamentary republic located in the Middle East, along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea...

 and an important historical and archaeological site. It currently resides within the Gamla nature reserve
Gamla nature reserve
Gamla nature reserve is a nature reserve and archaeological site located in the center of the Golan Heights, about 20 km south to the Israeli settlement Katzrin....

 and is a prominent tourist attraction.


Situated at the southern part of the Golan, overlooking the Sea of Galilee
Sea of Galilee
The Sea of Galilee, also Kinneret, Lake of Gennesaret, or Lake Tiberias , is the largest freshwater lake in Israel, and it is approximately in circumference, about long, and wide. The lake has a total area of , and a maximum depth of approximately 43 m...

, Gamla was built on a steep hill shaped like a camel's hump, from which it derives its name (Gamla meaning 'camel' in Aramaic). The city appears to have been founded as a Seleucid fort during the Syrian Wars (3rd century BCE) which later became a civilian settlement. Jews inhabited it from the last quarter of the 2nd century BCE, and it was annexed to the Hasmonean
The Hasmonean dynasty , was the ruling dynasty of Judea and surrounding regions during classical antiquity. Between c. 140 and c. 116 BCE, the dynasty ruled semi-autonomously from the Seleucids in the region of Judea...

 state under king Alexander Jannaeus
Alexander Jannaeus
Alexander Jannaeus was king of Judea from 103 BC to 76 BC. The son of John Hyrcanus, he inherited the throne from his brother Aristobulus I, and appears to have married his brother's widow, Shlomtzion or "Shelomit", also known as Salome Alexandra, according to the Biblical law of Yibbum...

 in c. 81 BCE.

Josephus Flavius, Commander of Galilee
Galilee , is a large region in northern Israel which overlaps with much of the administrative North District of the country. Traditionally divided into Upper Galilee , Lower Galilee , and Western Galilee , extending from Dan to the north, at the base of Mount Hermon, along Mount Lebanon to the...

 during the Jewish Revolt
First Jewish-Roman War
The First Jewish–Roman War , sometimes called The Great Revolt , was the first of three major rebellions by the Jews of Judaea Province , against the Roman Empire...

 against Rome, in 66
Year 66 was a common year starting on Wednesday of the Julian calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Telesinus and Paullinus...

 CE fortified Gamla as his main stronghold on the Golan
Golan was a biblical city in Land of Israel. It was in the territory of Manasseh in the Bashan.Golan was the most northerly of the three cities of refuge east of the Jordan River . Manasseh gave this city to the Gershonite Levites .According to the Bible, the Israelites conquered Golan from the...

. Josephus gives a very detailed topographical description of the city and the steep ravines which precluded the need to build a wall around it. Only along the northern saddle, at the town's eastern extremity, was a 350 meters-long wall built. It was constructed by blocking gaps between existing houses and destroying houses that lay in its way.

Initially loyal to the Romans, Gamla turned rebellious under the influence of refugees from other locations. It was one of only five cities in the Galilee
Galilee , is a large region in northern Israel which overlaps with much of the administrative North District of the country. Traditionally divided into Upper Galilee , Lower Galilee , and Western Galilee , extending from Dan to the north, at the base of Mount Hermon, along Mount Lebanon to the...

 and Golan who stood against Vespasian
Vespasian , was Roman Emperor from 69 AD to 79 AD. Vespasian was the founder of the Flavian dynasty, which ruled the Empire for a quarter century. Vespasian was descended from a family of equestrians, who rose into the senatorial rank under the Emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty...

's legions, reflecting the cooperation between the local population and the rebels. At the time of the revolt, the town minted its own coins, probably more as a means of propaganda than as currency. Bearing the inscription "For the redemption of Jerusalem the H(oly)" in a mixture of paleo-Hebrew (biblical) and Aramaic, only 6 of these coins have ever been found.

Josephus also provides a detailed description of the Roman siege and conquest of Gamla in 67
Year 67 was a common year starting on Thursday of the Julian calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Rufus and Capito...

 CE by components of legions X Fretensis
Legio X Fretensis
Legio X Fretensis was a Roman legion levied by Augustus Caesar in 41/40 BC to fight during the period of civil war that started the dissolution of the Roman Republic...

, XV Apollinaris
Legio XV Apollinaris
Legio quinta decima Apollinaris was a Roman legion. It was recruited by Octavian in 41/40 BC. The emblem of this legion was probably a picture of Apollo, or of one of his holy animals....

 and V Macedonica
Legio V Macedonica
Legio quinta Macedonica was a Roman legion. It was probably originally levied by consul Gaius Vibius Pansa Caetronianus and Octavian in 43 BC, and it was stationed in Moesia at least until 5th century. Its symbol was the bull, but the eagle was used as well...

. The Romans first attempted to take the city by means of a siege ramp, but were repulsed by the defenders. Only on the second attempt did the Romans succeed in breaching the walls at three different locations and invading the city. They then engaged the Jewish defenders in hand-to-hand combat up the steep hill. Fighting in the cramped streets from an inferior position, the Roman soldiers attempted to defend themselves from the roofs. These subsequently collapsed under the heavy weight, killing many soldiers and forcing a Roman retreat. The legionnaires re-entered the town a few days later, eventually beating Jewish resistance and completing the capture of Gamla.

According to Josephus, some 4,000 inhabitants were slaughtered, while 5,000, trying to escape down the steep northern slope, were either trampled to death, fell or perhaps threw themselves down a ravine. These appear to be exaggerated and the number of inhabitants on the eve of the revolt has been estimated at 3,000 - 4,000. The notion that these inhabitants committed mass suicide has also been questioned, as the account appears to force an analogy with the story of the end of the siege of Masada
Masada is the name for a site of ancient palaces and fortifications in the South District of Israel, on top of an isolated rock plateau, or horst, on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. Masada is best known for the violence that occurred there in the first century CE...

, also recounted by Josephus. The Greek word Josephus used implies a hasty, clumsy flight while suicide is forbidden under most circumstances by Jewish law.


Abandoned after its destruction, Gamla was identified in 1889 by Konrad Furrer with the site of Tel ed-Dra', in the Rukkad river-bed. It was only properly identified in 1968 by surveyor Itzhaki Gal, after the Israeli conquest of the Golan Heights during the Six Day War. It was excavated by Shemaryahu Gutmann and Danny Sion on behalf of the Israeli Department of Antiquities between 1978 and 2000. The excavations have uncovered 7.5 dunnams, about 5% of the site, revealing a typical Jewish city featuring ritual baths, Herodian lamps, limestone cups and thousands of Hasmonean coins.

The Gamla excavations also revealed widespread evidence for the battle that took place at the site. About 100 catapult
A catapult is a device used to throw or hurl a projectile a great distance without the aid of explosive devices—particularly various types of ancient and medieval siege engines. Although the catapult has been used since ancient times, it has proven to be one of the most effective mechanisms during...

 bolts have been uncovered, as well as 1,600 arrowheads and 2,000 ballista
The ballista , plural ballistae, was an ancient missile weapon which launched a large projectile at a distant target....

 stones, the latter all made from local basalt
Basalt is a common extrusive volcanic rock. It is usually grey to black and fine-grained due to rapid cooling of lava at the surface of a planet. It may be porphyritic containing larger crystals in a fine matrix, or vesicular, or frothy scoria. Unweathered basalt is black or grey...

. This is a quantity unsurpassed anywhere in the Roman Empire. Most were colleced along and in close proximity to the wall, placing the heavy fighting in the vicinity and the Roman siegecraft to the north east of the town. Next to a heavy concentration of the stones, the excavators have identified a man-made breach in wall, probably made by a battering ram.

About 200 artifacts excavated at Gamla have been identified as the remains of Roman army equipment. These include parts of Roman lorica segmentata
Lorica segmentata
The lōrīca segmentāta was a type of segmented armour almost exclusively used in the Roman Empire, but the Latin name was first used in the 16th century...

, an officer's helmet visor and cheek-guard, bronze scales of another type of armor, as well as Roman identification tags. A Roman siege-hook, used both for stabbing and hooking onto the wall, was found in the breach.

Only one human jawbone was identified during the exploration of Gamla, raising questions regarding the absence of human remains despite the widepsread evidence of a battle. A tentative answer is discussed by archaeologist Danny Syon, who suggests that the dead would have been buried at nearby mass graves that are yet to be found. One such mass grave has been found at Yodfat
Yodfat , is a moshav shitufi in the Lower Galilee, south of Carmiel, Israel. Part of the Misgav Regional Council and located in the vicinity of the Atzmon mountain ridge, north of the Beit Netofa Valley, Yodfat is named after the Second Temple-era town of the same name. It is situated north of the...

, which had suffered the same fate as Gamla at the hands of Vespasian's legions.

Artifacts from Gamla are on the display at the Golan Archaeological Museum
Golan Archaeological Museum
The Golan Archaeological Museum is a museum of the archaeological finds of the Golan Heights, located in Katzrin.The museum features artifacts from all historical periods...

, including arrowheads, ballista stones, clay oil lamps and coins minted in the town during the siege. A scale model and film are used to describe the conquest and destruction of the Jewish town and all of its inhabitants.


The remains of one of the earliest synagogues
Palestinian synagogues
Palestinian synagogues refers to synagogues which existed in ancient Palestine from antiquity up till the beginning of the Middle Ages.Most date from the Roman and Byzantine periods, from the third to seventh centuries, and relatively few synagogues have been found in from before the destruction of...

 is situated inside the city walls. It was built of dressed stone with pillared aisles. Measuring 22 by 17 meters, its main hall was surrounded by a Doric
Doric order
The Doric order was one of the three orders or organizational systems of ancient Greek or classical architecture; the other two canonical orders were the Ionic and the Corinthian.-History:...

 colonnade, its corner columns were heart-shaped, and it was entered by twin doors at the south west. A ritual bath
Mikveh is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism...

 was unearthed next to it. On the eve of Gamla's destruction, the synagogue appears to have been converted to a dwelling for refugees, as testified by a number of meager fireplaces and large quantities of cookpots and storage jars found along its northern wall. Situated next to the city wall, 157 ballista stones were collected from the synagogue's hall alone and 120 arrowhead from its vicinity. The synagogue is thought to date from the late 1st century BCE and is among the oldest synagogues in the world
Oldest synagogues in the world
The designation oldest synagogue in the world requires careful definition. Many very old synagogues have been discovered in archaeological digs. Some synagogues have been destroyed and rebuilt several times on the same site, so, while the site or congregation may be ancient, the building may be...


Present-day Gamla

Today Gamla is an archaeological site and a nature reserve
Nature reserve
A nature reserve is a protected area of importance for wildlife, flora, fauna or features of geological or other special interest, which is reserved and managed for conservation and to provide special opportunities for study or research...

. It is also home to a large nesting population of Griffon vulture
Griffon Vulture
The Griffon Vulture is a large Old World vulture in the bird of prey family Accipitridae.The Griffon Vulture is long with a wingspan. In the nominate race the males weigh and females typically weigh , while in the Indian subspecies the vultures average...

s. The nature reserve also contains some 700 Neolithic Dolmen
A dolmen—also known as a portal tomb, portal grave, dolmain , cromlech , anta , Hünengrab/Hünenbett , Adamra , Ispun , Hunebed , dös , goindol or quoit—is a type of single-chamber megalithic tomb, usually consisting of...

s, several of which can be viewed from the entry road.

External links

  • Gamla on the Israel Antiquities Authority website.
  • Gamla on the Israel Nature and Parks Authority website.