Gamla, Archaeology in Israel

    February 2001            
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Gamla, Archaeology in Israel


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By Jacqueline Schaalje

Archaeology in Israel

The name of Gamla comes from the Arabic word for camel, gamal, because of its curious location on a narrow ridge 10 kilometers due north of the Lake of Galilee. The ridge is surrounded on three sides by ravines and looks a bit like the back of a camel. The eastern end of the ridge has a high hump. Gamla was established on the southern side, in the "saddle."

The city existed already in the Early Bronze time (about 5000 years ago), but it is mostly known as a rebel town in the First Jewish War. After a fierce fight against the Romans all its 9000 citizens were killed.

Because of this harrowing event, Gamla sometimes received the nickname "the Massada of the North." To readers of the story in Josephus' Wars it seemed that a large part of the Gamla citizens found their death when they jumped from the rock, which vaguely parallels the collective suicide in Massada. However, most scientists now put the Gamla story in a completely different perspective. Archaeology has contributed most to the change of angle on Gamla. It is now understood how a fierce fight must have taken place against the Romans; not like a suicide at all.

Gamla Re-found

That Gamla corresponded to the historic Gamla was first discovered after 1967 when Israel annexed the Golan. The self-taught archaeologist Shmarya Gutmann, who remained one of the main excavators of the site, tried to convince others of the likeness to the description by Josephus, who described the camel-like mountain and the rebellion against the Romans (Wars, Book 4,1). For six years Guttman sought funding for excavations of the site. When they finally took place, they confirmed that Gamla was indeed the tragic rebel town. Many traces of battle were found, and recently one building was uncovered where cooking pots and other gear were left as if the inhabitants had suddenly fled. The city was abandoned after 67 AD.


Josephus describes Gamla's natural defence on three sides by steep ravines. Other natural advantages were a perennial spring and its location on the route to Babylon. The earliest inhabitants came to Gamla in the Early Bronze Age, but not much of their city is left. The stones of their buildings were used again in the Roman period.

Some artefacts were found in the form of pottery bowls. One bowl was made from imported copper fashioned in the Egyptian style. The earliest seal found in Israel was discovered in Gamla, it depicts animals and a deity.

The main find consisted of the largest hoard in Israel of sickle blades, which were used for harvesting wheat. There were 600 of these, so Gamla must have been some agricultural centre. The wheat was ground into flour in basalt mortars, which were also found. After the Bronze Age the city was abandoned.

New settlers arrived at Gamla around 150 BCE. They may have been Babylonian Jews who returned to their homeland, after the Persian emperor Cyrus allowed the return of imprisoned peoples. Although the aim of most Jews would have been to reach Juda, maybe they found Gamla a convenient place to maintain their connections with the East.

After a brief spell under a foreign tyrant, the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus captured Gamla. The town prospered during the rule of king Herod, who offered tax cuts to new settlers; a nice resemblance to modern policies which stimulate living in unpopular areas. Its main industry during this period was olive, this is concluded from the large amount of oil presses found in Gamla. Olive oil was produced for food, cooking, light and for religious purposes. Gamla also sold oil to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Rich oil merchants also lived in the city. Some of their mansions that lay on the western hilltop of Gamla were excavated in recent years. They contained numerous beautiful objects, such as jewellery and precious stones carved with images of animals or a portrait of a woman. There were ivory and bone dice games and containers for perfume and make-up.

The houses were well built. One recently excavated luxurious villa had a granite facade. Inside, the walls were decorated with frescoes. They were all geometrical, because the Jewish tradition of the time forbade pictorial images in keeping with the second commandment of the Torah. If this is one clue that the inhabitants of Gamla were observant Jews, also the four mikves (ritual baths) that were found indicate it.

Gamla has a first Century synagogue in the eastern part of the city. Today it has been restored and bar mitzvahs are popularly held here. The building is a rectangle that is orientated towards Jerusalem. A lintel with the decoration of a rosette typifies a symbol from Jewish art. The hall itself has three-stepped benches on the side (there used to be four originally), while the space is dotted with the stumps of columns that once supported a wooden roof. In the courtyard, steps lead down to a mikve. The synagogue is one of the most ancient in Israel. It was not the first synagogue in Gamla, and archaeologists are still digging for older remains.

In the same section with the synagogue the common folk of Gamla used to live. There was not much space on the ridge so maybe this explains why the houses were closely built together on terraces: the roof of the next house reached the terrace of the first. In between were narrow alleys and small squares. The city was protected with a 6-meter thick wall, which used the foundation of the Bronze Age wall.


In the wall, made of square basalt stones, signs of battle can be observed until today. In the section next to the synagogue, a little bit down the hill, the wall was breached in a 'v'-shape. This is a result of the Roman siege in 67, a few years after the Romans and Jews had started the First Jewish War.

Gamla fell three years before Jerusalem (70 CE). The Romans first directed their war effort to the north, their aim was to conquer Galilee and the Golan and then move south to Juda and Jerusalem. Vespasianus and his son Titus commanded the Romans, they would both become emperors after their successes in Israel. The Jewish commander in Gamla was Josephus, the same as the writer. Not that he possessed an awful lot of military experience. On the contrary, he was a learned descendant of a priestly family from Jerusalem. In 66 he was appointed as military leader of the Jews in the Galilee.

In this function he travelled to different towns in the region for inspection. When he arrived at Gamla in the spring of 66, the city was preparing for the expected battle against the Romans. Vespasianus and his legions had landed at the port of Acco and, according to their plans, swept through the north of the country, quickly overcoming every village and town on their route.

The Romans had good reason to destroy Gamla: it was the central stronghold of the Zealots (fanatic Jews who opposed the Roman occupiers with force) east of the Sea of Galilee. The Romans later sacked the other Zealot strongholds, of Jerusalem in 70, followed by Massada in 73. Although Gamla was not a refuge like the other cities, it had a reputation as a breeding nest for troublemakers. The leader of the Zealots in Massada, Eleazar ben Yair, was a descendant of a Jew from Gamla.

Even Josephus with his meagre fighting experience could see that the wall that protected Gamla on the eastern side was not satisfactory. It was broken in some places in order to accommodate several houses. These homes were evacuated and some were completely filled with stones to secure the wall. The northern tower was incorporated to the wall and used as watchtower. The wall was thickened over the whole length.

The armies of Vespasianus arrived at Gamla in September 67. Vespasianus knew that the siege would be a heady task; a half year before him, in the spring, King Agrippa had already tried a botched attempt at besieging the city. Vespasianus had therefore taken some precautions and brought 3 legions with him (a total of 30,000 people, including subsidiaries). Gamla itself was also crammed with people, as the Zealots from the region had fled to the city before the arrival of the Romans.

Vespasianus' army breached the wall of Gamla in three places, by hurling balls from ballistas (a sort of catapult). One breach is the v-shaped wedge that is still in place. The Romans then entered the city under a blare of trumpets and the din of weapons (as Josephus describes it). The Jews had fled uphill and when the Romans followed them on the roofs of the houses, they collapsed, and the Romans fell with them. They were barely able to get out, Vespasianus himself escaped narrowly under the protection of his bodyguards.

A few days later in October, the Romans tried to enter the city again. This time they first dismantled the tower. At night three Roman soldiers encroached on the tower and pulled out five of the heavy ground stones. The tower came crashing down in a frightful noise, which awoke the Gamla citizens from their sleep. In their panic they started to run round wildly.

Vespasianus waited until the dawn of 20 October 67 before he entered the city. This time Titus, his son, led the troops. Fierce fighting broke out between the houses in the narrow alleys. The Romans pushed the Gamla citizens slowly back to the summit of the hill on the western side of the city. There, on the tip of the ridge, the Jews were stuck. The Gamla Jews threw arrows and stones, but also the wind seemed against them. On that day there was a storm blowing west, so the projectiles went dead and did not reach the Romans, while the Roman arrows hit them with added force.

At a certain point the Gamla crowd, including men, women and children, must have started jumping from the rock. The ravine is not so steep that it was possible to plunge very deep. People stumbled a few meters, lost their footing and crashed on top of each other. At least, this is what must have happened when Josephus writes that the Gamla defenders "flung themselves down." That it was a mass suicide attempt or a reckless jump to the depths seems less likely. It was more likely a desperate last attempt at escape. Another argument is that Gamla was a normal city, not a place where Zealots had come to their last resort. The will to die cannot have been so great that a whole population would be willing to jump from a rock.

Josephus writes that 4000 citizens died by the Roman sword and 5000 by falling from the rock. Only 2 women who were relatives of important persons survived, and told the story to Josephus (Josephus himself was not present). Because of the curious parallel with the siege of Massada, where also 2 women of the upper classes survived, it could be that there were probably more survivors in Gamla, who would have buried the dead.

Ballista stones, made of local basalt stone, found near the wall, prove that there was an intense battle. Many were dug up just behind the v-shaped wedge in the wall and on the inside. The Gamla defenders probably assembled the stones at night so they could be used for throwing them at the Romans.

Large amounts of arrow points were scattered all over the place. These were many different kinds, which indicates that the Romans employed archers of various nationalities; they themselves were not skilful with the bow. A bit larger than the arrow points were catapult bolts. Right on top of the wall breach a lance tip with a hook was left, it looks like it was used for climbing the wall. A few rarer finds include a gold-plated tip of a sword sheath, probably of a Roman officer, and a silver cheek protector of a war helmet.


Apart from the wall, the synagogue is the most interesting remainder of old Gamla. Also there is an ancient oil press. The excavations are still continuing. In a recent dig a rare first Century bronze coin was found, with the text: "for the redemption" on one side and on the flip side "of Jerusalem." It is a moving reference to the revolt against the Romans.

The remains of Gamla are part of the Yehudiya Nature Reserve, which is also well worth a stroll. Dolmens (giant stones from prehistoric times) are strewn in parts of the park, the function of which is not understood yet. In the winter and early spring, flowers burst out of the ground in great variety.

Gamla has a unique eagle reserve, whose inhabitants may be spotted soaring around in the canyon from a newly built observation point. Video cameras enable an intimate peek into the predators' cliff nests. New chicks are usually guarded from unwanted looks and the sun by the wings of its mother who spends the day hovering before the nest with outspread wings.

A last sight of Gamla is the largest waterfall of Israel. Don't expect something like Niagara Falls, because the water spreads rather thin, but its height spans 50 meters.


from the February 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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