By December 7, 2015 Read More →

Danny Syon. “Gamla- Portrait of a Rebellion.” Biblical Archaeology Review 18, 1 (1992).

GamlaRarely do literary sources and archaeology supplement one another so beautifully as in the case of Gamla. This is all the more exciting because Gamla is immensely rich both historically and now, after 14 years of excavation, archaeologically.1

Long before the actual site was identified, Gamla was well known from the writings of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus as the place of a crucial battle between Jews and Romans. The battle occurred at the beginning of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple in 70 C.E.a

To understand the battle at Gamla, we must first understand the topography that provides its breathtaking setting. Gamla is located on the Golan Heights, on a narrow, pointy spur high above the Sea of Galilee.b It is enclosed on all sides by steep ravines, except to the east, where it is connected by a slim saddle to the plateau above. Huge boulders on top of the hill make the spur resemble a gigantic reclining camel with a hump, which doubtless led early settlers in about 150 B.C.E. to name the site Gamla—“camel” in Aramaic.

The early houses of these settlers stood on top of the hill, where the inhabitants could easily look to the east—the only direction from which friend or foe would approach. All other directions were well protected by nature.
It was important for the Romans to destroy Gamla because it was the central Zealot stronghold east of the Sea of Galilee. The Zealots were among the most radical of the Jewish groups supporting the revolt. Moreover, since Gamla was near the main road connecting Israel to the great Jewish centers in Babylon, it was the natural entry point for any help the Zealots hoped for from their brethren in Mesopotamia.2 For this reason, too, it was important for the Romans to destroy Gamla at the outset.

The Jewish revolt was no small matter for Rome. If the Jews could revolt, the allegiance of no province could be counted on. The Romans sent some of their best legions to Palestine to quell the rebellion. Leading the Roman troops were Vespasian and his son Titus, both of whom would later become emperors—in large part on the basis of their victories over the Jews. The Roman legions landed at the seaport of Acco. Vespasian decided that the best way to break the resistance would be to take the rear first—the Galilee and the Golan—and only then to proceed on to the heart of the rebellion—Judea and its capital, Jerusalem. The Romans marched through the Galilee, systematically taking city after city and village after village, continuing on toward Gamla.

The authorities in Jerusalem had sent a young aristocrat named Joseph ben Matthias to lead the Jewish forces in the Galilee. Joseph came from a priestly Jerusalem family and had little previous military experience. Eventually he surrendered to the Romans and lived in Rome under imperial patronage, where he wrote his famous history of the rebellion (The Jewish War) and a history of his people (The Antiquities of the Jews). In this guise Joseph ben Matthias is known as Flavius Josephus the historian, one of the most controversial figures in Jewish history.

In the early stage of the rebellion, Josephus, as we may somewhat anachronistically call him for convenience, traveled from city to city in the Galilee and the Golan counseling the inhabitants and helping them to fortify themselves and their cities against an imminent Roman attack.

At Gamla, he found the city’s eastern wall, from which direction any attack had to come, far from satisfactory. We excavated this wall, which crosses the narrow saddle that led to Gamla, and I suspect we understand it even better than Josephus did.

Under the Second Temple-period wall, we found traces of an earlier wall, built by an earlier people who had also decided that this was the best place—really the only place—to build a wall. We were astounded to find that the pottery by which this earlier wall was dated was 3,000 years older! The pottery dated to the Early Bronze Age I and II (c. 3200–2500 B.C.E.). Gamla is known mainly for the dramatic events that occurred here during the Jewish Revolt against Rome. But it turned out that Gamla was also the largest settlement on the Golan in the Early Bronze Age.

Relatively few architectural remains from the Early Bronze Age were found because the Second Temple-period settlers used the building stones from the earlier structures to build their own houses. The few Early Bronze structures that did survive stand out, however, because they used massive building stones, several times larger than the stones used by the Second Temple-period builders.

Although we did not find much architecture from the Early Bronze Age, we did find a great deal of pottery, including a number of complete holemouth and painted jars. We also found more than 1,000 flint implements, including over 600 sickle blades, many sporting the sheen that comes from wear.3 This sickle-blade collection is one of the largest ever discovered. The sickle blades were no doubt used to cut plants of the wheat family. Once the grain was harvested it was turned into flour; we also found a multitude of basalt mortars used in the milling process. Other basalt vessels that we found included ordinary bowls and finely worked, three-legged, religious offering bowls.

The only metal artifact from the Early Bronze Age was a fragment of what appears to be a copper votive ax with a rearing cobra in Egyptian style depicted on both sides. An analysis of the metal indicates a high level of metallurgical knowledge and that the copper was imported.

A rare stone seal, probably from Syria, dates to the end of the fourth millennium B.C.E., thus making it the earliest seal ever found in Israel. It depicts, in a very stylized form, a snake, a horned animal and a deity.4

Whether the Early Bronze Age settlement was ever attacked, we do not know. The settlement came to an end—either abandoned or destroyed—around 2500 B.C.E., and the site was not resettled until about 150 B.C.E. We do not know why no one settled here for so long.

We speculate that the new settlers around 150 B.C.E. were a group of Jews who decided to emigrate from Babylon to the land of their ancestors. After the declaration of the Persian king Cyrus in 538 B.C.E. allowing Jews to return from the Babylonian Exile, large and small waves of immigrants came to Israel in all periods. As they passed through the Bashan (present-day Syria) on their way to Judea and the Temple in Jerusalem, they began to fear for their safety.

Brigands often dominated the poor roads at this time. So perhaps they decided not to continue south but instead to settle on a steep spur overlooking the Sea of Galilee. To catch rainwater they dug cisterns in the soft chalk underlying the hard black basalt and utilized the perennial stream flowing at the foot of the hill. Their houses were terraced, so that the roof of one house was the balcony of the house above. Narrow alleys divided building clusters. These alleys sometimes opened into small squares; in other places, they turned into steps connecting the various levels.

Over the years, the city expanded. Olive oil production became an important industry. Olive oil from Gamla was even sold abroad and taken to the Temple in Jerusalem for use in its rituals.5 A class of rich merchants developed who built a new neighborhood of large and beautiful homes on the previously uninhabited western part of the hill. Colored frescoes covered the interior walls of their houses. In their homes the merchants used imported pottery vessels, bronze implements and glassware. Their wives adorned themselves with jewelry and rare perfumes. Their cosmetics were applied with bone and ivory utensils. In their leisure time, the men played games with dice made from the hucklebones of sheep, called astragali.

Of course the community built a handsome synagogue—perhaps more than one.

The effect of the continuous power struggles between the late Seleucid princes of Syria was felt here too. A local tyrant named Demetrius gained control of the region and established his headquarters in Gamla. At the request of the citizens, a military campaign by the Hasmonean king Alexander Janneus ousted Demetrius in 80 B.C.E.6

Around 20 B.C.E., the Roman emperor Augustus gave the Golan region to King Herod, the half-Jewish and half-Idumean vassal king of Rome. As Herod offered tax advantages to prospective settlers, more and more Jews came to live in Gamla.7 Herod, well known for his magnificent buildings all around the country, may have financed the redecorating of Gamla’s central synagogue.

As the Roman grip on the country tightened in the years following Herod’s death in 4 B.C.E., Gamla became a Zealot center, turning out generations of leaders who actively and often violently contested Roman influence and rule, whether through Jewish puppet rulers or Roman procurators. Eleazar ben Yair, the famous Sicarii leader of Masada, was a descendant of Hezekiah of Gamla.8

Exactly when the Second Temple-period inhabitants of Gamla first built their defense wall east of the city, on top of the Early Bronze Age wall, is not certain. But they were well aware that an earlier wall existed here. In their tradition,9 this Early Bronze Age wall was built by Joshua when the Israelites first conquered the land. Although factually inaccurate, this tradition served to explain the existence of these ancient remains and linked the land with their ancestors.

When Josephus examined the city’s defenses in anticipation of a Roman attack, he found that the wall was not even continuous. It consisted largely of a line of buildings with open passageways between them. Under Josephus’ command, this situation was remedied. The passages between the buildings were sealed, the existing walls were thickened, and some rooms were even filled with stones. Josephus also had a trench cut along the outside base of the wall. The high tower on top of the ridge was incorporated into the wall to provide advance warning of the enemy’s approach.

Gamla was thus prepared for attack.

Vespasian did not underestimate the difficulty of taking Gamla. His troops included three entire legions, plus auxiliaries—a total of about 30,000 people. As he cut a swath across the Galilee, thousands of Jews from surrounding areas fled to Gamla seeking refuge. Thus, before the Roman siege some 10,000 people had crowded into the city. Most of the people in Gamla were citizens and farmers with their families; few of them were warriors.
According to Josephus’ account, Vespasian succeeded in breaching the wall in three places. His troops “poured in through the breaches with a great blare of trumpets and din of weapons, and, shouting themselves hoarse, flung themselves upon the defenders.”10 The Jews retreated to higher ground, but then suddenly turned around and attacked the Romans, sending them fleeing downhill. In a panic the retreating Romans “climbed onto the roofs of the houses … which, crowded with men and unequal to the weight, quickly collapsed. As one fell it knocked down many of those underneath and so on to the bottom. The effect on the Romans was devastating. Seeing in this the hand of God … the men of Gamla pressed their attack.”11

Vespasian saved his own skin thanks only to his bodyguards. Humiliated, he barely escaped from the city with his life.

Although embarrassed by their surprise defeat, the Romans licked their wounds and a few days later decided to try again, having learned from their mistakes. This time three Roman soldiers, working at night, undermined the great round tower that had been incorporated into the wall:

“Working in silence, the [Roman] soldiers rolled away five stones forming the base. As they jumped out of the way, the tower fell with a resounding crash, bringing the sentries down with it … Bewildered by the crash the whole population [of Gamla] lost their heads and ran in all directions as if the entire Roman army had broken in.”12

This time, however, Vespasian waited until dawn and only then stormed the city, with Titus leading the troops instead of his father. The fighting was fiercest in the narrow alleys between the houses. Steadily the Romans pushed the defenders uphill, to the summit from which there was no retreat. The Jews who escaped to the summit shot their arrows and threw their stones at the Romans, but defeat was inevitable. Even the wind worked against the Jews this time: “To ensure their destruction, they were struck full in the face by a miraculous tempest, which carried the Roman shafts up to them but checked their own and turned them aside.”13

At this point, the entire crowd—men, women and children—fled down the steep slope. The pressure and the panic caused most of them to lose their footing. They fell down, crushing each other, and died. According to Josephus, “Four thousand fell by Roman swords, but those who plunged to destruction proved to be over five thousand.”14

The date was October 20, 67 C.E. Gamla was never settled again. The houses slowly disintegrated, the walls crumbled, and dust and rubble covered the once great city. Even its location was forgotten. The Golan was densely populated in the talmudic period (fourth-seventh centuries C.E.), but not Gamla.15

Our excavations have proved that Josephus was remarkably accurate and very precise in his description. He had become a Roman prisoner, perhaps surrendering too eagerly, a few months before the attack on Gamla,16 and may even have been an eyewitness to its fall.

We discovered that the city wall was, in fact, made up of patches and filled-in buildings, as Josephus said. The major breach in the wall, just south of the synagogue, was at one of the weakest points in the wall. This led us to wonder whether the Romans may have had “inside information.” Could it have come from Josephus himself, whom many regard as a traitor?

We also excavated the round tower, which was nearly all in ruins, unlike the wall adjacent to it. It is clear that the tower had been built without a very solid foundation, thus adding credibility to Josephus’ story about the Roman soldiers’ undermining of it.

Gamla is one of very few places in the Roman empire where a battle site was abandoned and never resettled. This enables us to gather unprecedented information on strategy, tactics and troop deployment, of both Roman and Jewish forces. So far over 1,000 basalt ballista stones and 1,600 iron arrowheads have been found, an incredible number in comparison with other sites.17 The number of arrowheads is especially surprising because after the battle the Romans would have collected spent arrows for reuse. The concentration of ballista stones and arrowheads was especially great in and around the breach in the wall. Clearly an artillery barrage took place here.

At one place inside the wall, we found a concentration of several dozen Roman ballista stones; apparently during the night the defenders would gather the ballista stones that had fallen on the city and hurl them back at the Romans the following day.

A preliminary study indicates that different types of arrowheads were used along different stretches of the wall. The Romans themselves were not very good archers, as we know from ancient literary sources.18 Therefore they often used auxiliary units composed of different ethnic groups from the East who were excellent archers. This was apparently the case at Gamla; each of the different ethnic units seems to have used differently shaped arrowheads as well as the “standard” Roman issue.19

Other battle artifacts we recovered include pieces of scale-armor, a silver-plated helmet cheek-guard and a gold-plated sword-sheath decoration. Among the more intriguing finds were some catapult bolts used in a large mechanical bow—the ancient equivalent of a modern machine gun.

But in 14 years of excavation, not a single human skeleton nor even a bone was found. This may seem surprising, given the number of casualties Josephus reported. The burial of the dead is a religious command of such importance, however, that the Jews apparently returned after the battle, perhaps by Roman permission, and buried their dead. The Romans too would have buried their own dead, not so much for religious reasons, but for reasons of morale and of sanitation. A small Roman garrison no doubt remained in the city and carried out this grisly task.

Gamla is often compared to Masada—some even call it the Masada of the North,c but excavation director Shmarya Gutmann rejects this comparison. True, both sites are extremely important, and both have become symbols of Jewish heroism,d but here the similarities end. Masada was conceived and built as a desert fortress and served as such throughout its existence. During the revolt, it was occupied by a group of several hundred Sicarii and their families, even more extremist than the Zealots. Gamla, on the other hand, had evolved as a city; during the siege, it was jammed full of people.

Gamla was among the first cities to fall, three years before Jerusalem. Masada was taken only three years after the destruction of Jerusalem; thus it remained a symbol of independence after the rest of the land had been laid waste.
No battle was fought on Masada. After a long siege, the Romans succeeded in burning its fortified gate and were preparing to enter the fortress the following day. When they did, they found the defenders dead—they had committed mass suicide during the night.20

At Gamla, a very real and terrible battle was fought. The Jews even gained an initial victory. At the end of the second battle, they were all pushed back toward the pinnacle of the city. It is commonly believed that at this point all who remained, some 5,000 men, women and children, committed mass suicide by jumping down from the ridge on the steep northern slope. In fact, there are very few places along the ridge where a person can jump, even head first, and kill himself. It is also hard to believe that in the heat of the battle anyone would be able to persuade this motley crowd to jump to their deaths—if he could be heard at all. It seems more likely that in sheer panic the crowds tried to escape by running down the steep slope and that most were crushed to death by others trying to escape.

In his description of the battle, Josephus does not explicitly use terminology describing suicide. The crucial words are usually translated “flung themselves down.”21 This could as easily be taken to mean that the defenders plunged forward recklessly in a panic to save themselves. Moreover, Josephus may have allowed himself some artistic or literary liberty in his description. At both Gamla and Masada, he tells of two women who survived by hiding in caves or water cisterns; in both cases the women were relatives of important persons. At Gamla, it is likely that many Jews survived to bury their dead, especially the young and agile.

The city the Romans destroyed was inhabited mostly by observant Jews. We know this because we have excavated one of their synagogues and four mikva’ot or ritual baths.

In the very first season of excavation, we uncovered near the wall a magnificent ancient synagogue, the oldest yet found in a city in Israel. At first, some questions were raised as to whether it was actually a synagogue; perhaps it was simply a large public building. No specifically Jewish artifacts were found in it, nor were Jewish symbols, such as a menorah (seven-branched candelabrum), found as any part of its decoration. However, the discovery of a mikveh (ritual bath) adjacent to it proved that it functioned as a communal religious center. Incidentally, the building is again being used for bar mitzvahs by neighboring kibbutzim and moshavim (farms in which the fields are owned collectively). Even a wedding took place in the now-partially restored synagogue.

But there are also other, more subtle telltale signs that Gamla was a Jewish community. They present themselves to the archaeologist only after years of excavation and pondering over the finds. Among the fresco fragments found in the luxurious homes on the west side of the city, for example, there is not a single fragment with a figure on it. The fragments have only geometric designs. During this period, the Second Commandment’s proscription against graven images was interpreted very strictly.

The hundreds of fragments of oil lamps found all over the site provide another example. Almost all of the lamps are of the Herodian type, decorated only with dots, circles and lines, yet they were made at a time when lamp makers all over the Roman world were trying to outdo each other in the elaboration of the designs on their lamps, including all kinds of human faces and animals.

Another relevant fact is that only three lamps were found intact. The rest were found in pieces. Most of the fragments are spouts, many still with soot from the burning wicks. So many of these spouts were found, no doubt, because the lamps were deliberately broken after having sustained some minor damage. In Jewish law, any hollow ceramic container is susceptible to uncleanness and must be destroyed if it is damaged.22

A few lamp fragments did have a winged Eros figure and other Hellenistic designs. It is possible that these came from the early years of the city, when the law was less scrupulously observed, or perhaps they date to the short period when Demetrius the tyrant, who was undoubtedly a pagan, ruled the city.

Another puzzling find can also be understood if considered in terms of Jewish observance. In a narrow alley, we found two freestanding pillars, one on each side, that effectively made the alley still narrower. The passageway between the pillars was only about 2 feet wide. The pillars have no apparent structural purpose. They may have been placed here to circumvent the prohibition against carrying anything in public areas on the Sabbath. By narrowing the alley to the width of a normal doorway, the alley was converted from a public to a private area, and the Sabbath prohibition against carrying anything was inapplicable.23

Over 6,200 coins have been found at Gamla to date.24 The variety is enormous, clearly reflecting the city’s widespread mercantile relations. Over half the coins (about 60 percent) were Jewish coins minted in the time of Alexander Janneus, who ruled from 103 to 76 B.C.E. About 20 percent of the coins (1,200 of them) were minted in the Phoenician city of Tyre. Some of these were silver Tyrian shekels dating from the end of the second century B.C.E. to the first half of the first century C.E. These were the hard currency of the day, comparable to the dollar today. They have a very high silver content and were accepted even in the Temple in Jerusalem in payment of the yearly half-shekel tax on every Jewish male. This is all the more surprising because these shekels portray the Phoenician god Melqart.25 Royal issues of many of the Seleucid kings, minted in various cities, were also found, as were coins of all the Jewish Hasmonean rulers, of King Herod and his sons, of the Roman procurators who ruled Judea after 6 C.E. and, of course, of all the Roman emperors up to Nero, during whose reign Gamla was destroyed. Still other coins represent autonomous issues of cities in the surrounding area, such as Acco, Gadara and Sidon.

The rarest coins were doubtless part of a propaganda effort during the Roman siege of Gamla, presenting a political message to both Romans and Jews. Only six of these coins have ever been found—all at Gamla. They are very crudely made bronze coins, minted under obviously improvised conditions by artisans of very limited skill. The obverse shows a cup, a clear imitation of the famous Jerusalem silver shekels that made their appearance just about this time; on both the Jerusalem and the Gamla coins the cup is generally accepted as being one of the Temple utensils.

An inscription on the Gamla coins begins near the cup and continues on the reverse. In a mixture of Hebrew characters—some in paleo-Hebrew (the script used before the Babylonian Exile) and some in the square Aramaic script used at the time—the inscription reads: “For the redemption of Jerusalem the H(oly)” (Legeulat Yerushalem Hak[dosha], [hd]qh µlry tlagl).26

Much of the wealth suggested by such a huge number of coins probably was obtained from the city’s thriving olive oil production. In the western part of the city, where the wealthy homes were found, we excavated an industrial zone featuring an extremely well-preserved olive-press compound. It was complete with two arches supporting a roof made of 6-foot-long basalt slabs and a fireplace to heat the hall in the early winter when the olives were gathered (the heat made the oil less viscous). The olive-press compound also had a built-in ritual bath, to comply with the regulation for producing ritually clean oil.27

In this same area we found a lintel stone decorated with two palm trees and a stylized rosette. This stone may well come from another synagogue that still lies hidden somewhere nearby.

Thousands of other artifacts, too numerous even to describe, were also found: household items, ornaments, farming implements, fashion accessories, hardware and weaponry. These artifacts were made of bronze, lead, iron, glass, bone, ivory, precious and semiprecious stones, seashells, limestone and basalt.

We recovered hundreds of thousands of potsherds, many of which have been restored to the shape of the original vessels. In addition, we found many intact vessels. The pottery reflects the diversity of household wares of the period: cooking pots, storage jars of different sizes, plates, saucers, jugs, juglets, perfume vials and, as mentioned, hundreds of oil lamps. Many of the finds are on display at the Golan Archaeological Museume in nearby Qatzrin.

Our excavations are continuing, and both visitors and diggers are welcome at Gamla. But, I warn you, beware of the Gamla bug.

Our plans for the next few years include small-scale excavations, but mainly we will prepare a scientific report of the first 14 seasons. Our funding has been sporadic and inadequate. It has come mostly from the Golan Regional Council and from the National Committee for Research and Development. The Israel Nature Reserves Authority has also helped with funds for preservation and restoration. We are desperately looking for sponsors to help us continue our work. I would be glad to hear from any of you at our address: Gamla Excavations, Golan Museum, P.O. Box 30, Qatzrin 12900, Israel; Telephone: 6961–350; FAX: 6–962-277.

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