On November 10, in the year 67 C.E., the Roman forces of Vespasian broke through the fortifications protecting the Jewish settlement of Gamla, and conquered the town. In the ensuing melee, all of people of Gamla are said to have died – a little under half of them at the hands of the Romans, and the majority by jumping to their deaths into the steep ravines that encompass the site from three sides.
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Gamla is situated in the southern part of the Golan Heights, which has been under Israeli control since 1967. Archaeological evidence suggests that it was inhabited during the early Bronze Age (approximately 3000-2000 B.C.E.), and in fact it is mentioned in the Talmud as having been a walled town during the time of Joshua Ben-Nun.
The original town on the windy clifftop was destroyed some time in antiquity. The site would remain uninhabited until the Hellenistic period. the first century B.C.E., when the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Yannai made it a Jewish town.
Gamla was capital of the Golan district of the Galilee, and most of its residents were farmers. It was one of five settlements in the Galilee that joined the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in the years 66-73 C.E..
The town benefits from the natural defense of being perched on a ridge that falls off steeply on the north, south and west, and is thus very difficult to attack, but also extremely tough to approach for more pacific purposes, such as with building materials. Access to it today is limited to a single path. The village received its name, which means “camel” in Aramaic, because the ridge on which is sits is said to resemble a camel’s hump.
Josephus fortifies Gamla
Most of what is known about the siege of Gamla comes from the historian Josephus Flavius, who before he went over to the Roman camp, was commander of the Jewish forces in the Galilee and was known as Joseph ben Matityahu. It was he who had overseen the fortification of Gamla, which included construction of a wall on its eastern side. He recorded the history of the revolt in his “Wars of the Jews.”
The siege of Gamla was led by Vespasian, who arrived from Rome in 66, and who required three attempts before he succeeded in conquering the village.
The first of these attempts took place on September 26, in the year 67. Vespasian’s forces, approaching Gamla via a ramp built for the purpose, arrived at the village, but their operation was foiled when the buildings on whose roofs they stood collapsed under their weight. "By this means,” wrote Josephus, “a vast number of the Romans perished in this war").
A second attempt was also turned back by the defenders. Finally, on November 9, three Romans from the 15th Legion, entered the city quietly at dawn, taking over a guard tower. Panic ensued among the Jews, and two of their leaders, Joseph and Chares by name, died.
Only the following day, however, did the Romans enter the village en masse. Josephus records what happened then: “Despairing of their lives and hemmed in on every side, multitudes plunged headlong with their wives and children into the ravine which had been excavated to a vast depth beneath the citadel. Indeed, the rage of the Romans was thus made to appear milder than the frantic self-immolation of the vanquished.” Nine thousand Jews died that day, according to the historian.
Gamla has remained uninhabited during the intervening two millennia. In 1968, the year after the Golan was conquered by Israel, the geographer Itzhaki Gal, who undertook a survey of the area for the Nature Reserves Authority, proposed that the site might be the location of ancient Gamla. Eight years later, archaeologist Shmarya Guttman began an excavation, which led to the unearthing of the village.
Guttman’s dig yielded extensive evidence of the battle for Gamla, as well as the remains of the town’s residences. It also led to the exposing and restoration of a first century C.E. synagogue, believed to be only one of six synagogues to have been built while the Second Temple still stood in Jerusalem.
The excavation also turned up several coins produced specifically for the Jewish Revolt, which bear an inscription reading, “For the redemption of Jerusalem the H[oly.]”