Gamla – Israel

Gamla is an ancient Jewish city located up on the Golan Heights overlooking the Sea of Galilee.  Built on a steep hill that looks a good bit like a camel’s hump, it was called “Gamla” – the Aramaic word for “camel.” Aramaic was the language spoken by the Jews during the time of Christ.

The site was initially a Seleucid fort built during the Syrian Wars – these were campaigns fought between the Seleucid Empire (based in Syria) and the Ptolemaic Empire (based in Egypt). The Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms were two of the successor states to Alexander the Great’s empire, during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Daniel 11 prophecies with exacting detail what took place in these wars, though it was written more than two centuries before hand. The Jewish people began to inhabit Gamla in the 2nd Century BC after it was annexed by the Hasmoneans.

Scriptural Significance

Gamla is alluded to by Gamaliel when he speak of Judas of Galilee in Acts 5: 37 as an example of someone who sought to lead people in the name of God. Judas of Galilee had founded the Zealots (of which Simon the Zealot was one) and had led an uprising in 6 A.D. that ultimately failed. That uprising took place at Gamla.

Historical Significance

Known as the “Masada of the North,” Gamla is most famous for its strong defense against the Romans in the Jewish Revolt of 66 AD. Josephus Flavius, Commander of Galilee during the Jewish Revolt against Rome, used the city as his primary stronghold. The site is bordered on all sides by deep wadis and as such, the Jews really only had to fortify along the northern ravine at the town’s eastern most extremity. It is here that the Gamla is approachable via a lone footpath.

We know from Josephus in his annals, The War of the Jews, that King Agrippa II besieged Gamla for nearly seven months. He was unsuccessful in securing the city from the Jewish rebels. Josephus was later captured by the Romans and witnessed first hand how the city fell. A Roman commander named Vespasian brought the V, X and XV Legions with an armed force of 16,000 combat troops against the town of 9,000. Josephus recounts what happened:

…the Romans brought battering rams to three places, and made the wall shake [and fall]. They then poured in over the parts of the wall that were thrown down, with a mighty sound of trumpets and noise of armor, and with a shout of the soldiers, and broke in by force upon those that were in the city….

…but these men fell upon the Romans for some time, at their first entrance, and prevented their going any further, and with great courage beat them back; and the Romans were so overpowered by the greater multitude of the people, who beat them on every side, that they were obliged to run into the upper parts of the city. Whereupon the people turned about, and fell upon their enemies, who had attacked them, and thrust them down to the lower parts, and as they were distressed by the narrowness and difficulty of the place, slew them…

… and as these Romans could neither beat those back that were above them, nor escape the force of their own men that were forcing their way forward, they were compelled to fly into their enemies’ houses, which were low; but these houses being thus full, of soldiers, whose weight they could not bear, fell down suddenly; and when one house fell, it shook down a great many of those that were under it, as did those do to such as were under them. By this means a vast number of the Romans perished; for they were so terribly distressed…”

Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book 4 Chapter 1 Section 4

The Romans first attempted to take the city by using a siege ramp, but were denied. They did finally succeed in breaching the walls at three different locations. They engaged the Jewish defenders in hand-to-hand combat up the steep hill. Fighting in cramped streets from inferior positions, the Romans attempted to defend themselves from the roofs of houses. However these collapsed, causing massive casualties and the slaughter of many Roman soldiers. A few days later, legionnaires eventually succeeded in toppling a tower further up the hill that brought about the city’s fall. Josephus estimates that 4,000 Jews died during the combat and another 5,000 or so were killed fleeing down the cliffs.

Did You Know?

Titus Flavius Josephus was a 1st century Jewish historian who is regarded as one of the great historians of all time. He initially fought against the Romans during the Jewish revolt as head of Jewish forces in Galilee. He surrendered in 67 AD to Vespasian after the six-week siege of Jotapata. Josephus claimed that certain Jewish prophecies made reference to Vespasian becoming Emperor of Rome. In response Vespasian decided to keep him as a slave and interpreter. After Vespasian became Emperor in 69 AD, he granted Josephus his freedom, at which time Josephus assumed the emperor’s family name of Flavius. Josephus fully defected to the Roman side and was granted Roman citizenship. He became an advisor and friend of Vespasian’s son, Titus. He served as his translator during the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple. Josephus recorded Jewish history, and serves as an early war correspondent. His most important works were The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews. The former recounts the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation (66–70). The latter recounts the history of the world from a Jewish perspective for an ostensibly Roman audience. These works provide valuable insight into the 1st Century and provides startling evidence concerning the Lord Jesus Christ: “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. – Josephus, Antiquities XVIII (chapter 3 paragraph 3)

Archeological Significance

After its destruction, Gamla was left in ruins for exactly 1,900 years. Its location was a mystery until 1968 when Yitzchaki Gal rediscovered it during an area survey. This came on the heels of the Six Day War when Israel captured the Golan Heights. Later archaeological excavations, directed by Shmaryahu Guttman, restored parts of the city and confirmed its location.

The Gamla excavations provide widespread evidence that a desperate battle took place here. About 100 catapult bolts have been uncovered, 1,600 arrowheads and 2,000 ballista stones, and 200 pieces of Roman army equipment. We have even identified one of the spots where a man-made breach has been made in the wall, apparently from a Roman battering ram.

Today the excavated city, and the area around it, is part of a wonderful nature reserve. This includes nature trails, the largest waterfall in Israel, a vulture observation deck, the Golan Heights memorial, and Deir Kuruch Byzantine Church.