The Gamla hill and ruins of Gamla

The ancient city of Gamla is located in the lower Golan, on a steep ridge that rises to a height of 330 meters above the surrounding terrain. It is sometimes called "the Masada of the north", though it is most remembered for the catastrofic defeat during the Great Jewish Revolt against the Romans.







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The ancient city of Gamla

The city of Gamla is mentioned in Talmudic sources as a walled city dating back to the time of Joshua Bin-Nun. These passages apparently refer to a fortified settlement from the Early Bronze Age, whose remains were found here. Gamla was destroyed in ancient times and rebuilt during the Hellenistic period when Jews returning from exile in Babylon populated this area.

Alexander Yannai seized Gamla, probably from Hellenistic rulers who occupied it in its day. Later king Herod settled Jews in Gamla as part of his efforts to populate the frontier regions of his kingdom.

Josephus has documented the city of Gamla, its siege and fall. He describes Gamla as the city situated atop a hill resembling a camel, surrounded by high cliffs. On its steep slopes houses were built very close to one another, and the city seemed to be hung in the air at a sharp summit, ready to fall down on itself.

In 66 CE the residents of Gamla joined the Jewish Revolt against the Romans. Under the direction of Josephus, they expeditiously constructed a wall. In the eastern side of the city, the wall descended from a circular watchtower on top of the hill, and continued downwards until it approached Nahal Daliot. It encircled the city's eastern buildings, including Gamla's magnificent synagogue.

In 68 CE, when Josephus was already a Roman prisoner, King Agrippa II's army came to Gamla and besieged the city for seven months, with no success. The Romans, however, did not give up. Vespasian arrived at Gamla at the head of three Roman legions, and once again laid siege to the city. A month later, the Romans breached the wall and entered Gamla. However, the defenders succeeded in turning this battle into an overwhelming victory over the Romans, in which many of the attackers were killed.

A few days later Roman soldiers managed to creep unnoticed to the bottom of the watchtower. They rolled five stones from its base, and the whole construction fell down with terrible noise, causing panic among the defenders. In a few more days Romans succeeded to seize the city. They killed four thousand of its defenders, and five thousand people threw themselves into the precipices in despair.

Archaeology in Gamla

When in our times archaeologists started to search for the legendary Gamla, it took them almost a century to find the place. For a long time it was believed that a Gamla is a place near Syrian village of Jamileh, fifteen kilometers to the south of the correct place.

In 1968, Itzhak Gal -- a participant in a Sites and Landscapes Survey in the Golan -- first suggested that an isolated cliff near Nahal Dalyot is a site of Gamla.In 1976, the archaeologist Shemaryahu Gutmann, together with Gal, began to excavate here. His excavations not only verified that this was Gamla; they also uncovered many amazing finds. Gutmann discovered the remains of the wall from the time of the Great Revolt; the place where the Romans breached the wall; the city's exquisite synagogue; several houses from one of Gamla's residential neighborhoods; and evidence of the fierce battle that took place here -- hundred of ballista stones and thousands of arrow heads and nails.

Until now, only relatively small area in the eastern and western parts of Gamla have been excavated and restored. The archaeologists continue to work at the site.

The remains of the wall built during the Jewish Revolt were discovered. A breach in the wall that was found is apparently at a place where Romans succeeded to break into the city during their first unsuccessful attack.

The ruins of a synagogue were unearthed near the city entrance. What we see now is the lower parts of walls and columns, but the original building was apparently splendid. Four rows of ornamented pillars supported the synagogue's roof and partitioned the structure into a central hall and staves. An additional row of pillars divided the hall in two. The corner pillars are especially interesting because they have a heart-shaped cross-section. An alcove, which resembles a built-in closet, was discovered near the northwestern corner of the hall, supposedly a place where Torah scrolls were kept.

The synagogue was apparently built during Herod's lifetime. This means that this is the only synagogue uncovered in Israel that was built within city limits while the Temple in Jerusalem was still in existence.

Ballista stones and arrowheads were discovered in the synagogue. This shows that the battle against the Romans was fought even here. A mikve which served the worshipers was discovered next to the synagogue.

The watchtower undermined by Romans has been restored, and visitors can enjoy a breathtaking view of the surrounding cliffs and deep canyons opening from there.

The excavations also uncovered the ruins of an ancient settlement dating back to the Early Bronze Age (c. 5000 years ago). During the Second Temple Period, an olive press with an adjoining mikvah was built on top of the Bronze Age ruins. Gamla's most magnificent buildings were discovered at the westernmost part of the city, which appears to be where the wealthy inhabitants lived. The most interesting and impressive building is the western olive press. Its ceiling is supported by two large stone arches, which were restored.

The ancient watchtower

The Yehudia Reserve

The Gamla area is part of the Yehudiya Reserve on the Golan Plateau, and is bounded by Nahal Gamla in the north, Nahal Dalyot in the South, Gamla ruins in the west and the Mapalim Road in the east.

The Golan is a flat basaltic plateau with a series of volcanic mountains rising from it. The plateau was created by volcanic eruptions which covered the continental and oceanic sedimentary rocks with lava. The running streams eroded the hard basalt rocks, thus creating picturesque deep canyons. The vegetation changes with the seasons, and in the winter and spring the place looks especially green and beautiful.

Many wild animals live in the reserve, including gazelles, porcupines, boars, jackals, foxes and wild cats. The place is mostly famous for a large population of birds of prey: Griffon vultures, Egyptian vultures, eagles and more. In 1998 their nesting places were destroyed by forest fires, and special efforts were mad to re-establish their population. In April 1999 I've seen a lot of vultures flying over Gamla - a sign of a success for this operation.

The Vultures observation point is along the path leading to the ancient Gamla. A short distance further, there is an observation point overlooking Gamla Hill. Form this point ruins of Gamla look very much like an undistinguished pile of dark stones. However, it is highly worth descending there, despite the difficult descent (lately they started a shuttle bus service from the reserve entrance to the ruins - hopefully this will continue). Not only that you can walk trough the ruins; you find yourself in a fascinatingly wild place surrounded with high and steep cliffs, almost no signs of civilization visible.

The path descends along that very ancient trail which was the only access to Gamla two thousand years ago. The way is not easy and takes some 45 minutes. When you descend, you see the ruins and the whole panorama from different points of view; the picture changes fantastically every minute.

Another point of interest not far from a parking lot is Deir Quruh - the ruins of a village once inhabited by early Christians. The remains of a Bysantine church, built approximately 1,500 years ago, were found here. Natural stone beams were used in erecting the church. This is an ancient construction technique, once typical of buildings in the Bashan and Golan. The construction material was a dark volcanic stone, which gives the building a somewhat unusual look. An ancient olive press was also discovered here. The base of a screw-press used in the extraction of olive oil, and the press's basin and crushing stone are all fairly well-preserved.

There are also about 200 dolmens in the area - structures built of massive rocks, dating to the Middle Bronze Age. Natural basalt stones were arranged one atop the other to form rectangles or trapezoids, with one or two short sides open. Dolmens served usually as graves.

The bounding rivers of the reserve form spectacular waterfalls. In the south, Nahal Gamla drops into a deep canyon and forms the highest perennial waterfall in Israel -- the 51 m. high Gamla Waterfall. The northern waterfall formed by Nahal Dalyot is about 15 m. high, and is dry in the summer.

Getting There

The Yehudia reserve is on the west of Road 808. To get there, drive on Road 869 from the Maale Gamla junction at Road 92 (on the north-eastern shore of Kineret). At the Daliot Junction, where Road 869 ends, turn left. Drive about a kilometer till the road sign showing the left turn to Gamla.

Shemariyahu Gutman, "Gamla" (in Hebrew)
Encyclopedia Judaica

Related Links



Rosh Ha-Niqra -- Banyas -- Gamla -- Qumran -- The Western Wall

Masada -- Ein-Avdat -- Avdat -- Ramon Crater -- Eilat