Israelis are calling it the Masada of the north. Masada, south of Jerusalem in the Judean wilderness, was the last Jewish outpost to fall to the Romans thus ending, in 73 A.D., the First Jewish Revolt against Rome. Jews at Masada committed suicide rather than surrender to the Romans.
Gamla, on the Golan Heights, was among the first Jewish strongholds to fall to the Roman military machine that crushed the Jewish revolt. The Romans destroyed Gamla in 67 A.D.
As with Masada, we learn of Gamla from the first century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. Gamla is located on top of a high, pointed mountain that sits in a wadi—a dry river bed. The mountain is surrounded by “inaccessible ravines”—except on one side where the mountain is joined by a slender neck to the high ranges on either side of the wadi.a But, in the first century, even this ascent to Gamla was treacherous because, as Josephus tells us, the Jews cut a ditch across the connecting neck to prevent the Romans from reaching the city.
Despite the difficult approach, the Roman legions succeeded in bringing battering rams to three points of the city wall. These broke through the wall and then, Josephus says, the Romans poured “through the breach with loud trumpet-blasts, clash of arms and the soldiers’ battle-cries.”
If the Romans thought the Jewish inhabitants of Gamla would surrender, they were badly mistaken. The Jews stood their ground against the Romans until finally forced by overpowering numbers to retreat to the upper part of the city. Then the Jews turned on their pursuers and attacked. The Romans tried to escape. For protection, the Roman soldiers crowded onto the roofs of the little houses perched on the steep slopes. The houses could not bear the weight of all the Roman soldiers and collapsed, killing hundreds. The Jews fought on, with swords taken from the dying Romans, and the remaining Romans fled for their lives.
Josephus observed that the Romans “had nowhere so far met with such a disaster” and they were “ashamed of themselves for leaving their general to face danger alone.” In a speech to his men, the Roman commander Vespasian reassured them that their defeat was “attributable neither to any weakness on our part nor to the valor of the Jews, but to the difficulty of the ground.”
The Romans mounted a second siege. The provisions in the city were short. Patiently, the Romans waited; soon, the people of Gamla were dying of hunger.
The Romans dug under a large tower which eventually collapsed, leaving a gap in the city wall. But, Josephus notes, “the Romans with the memory of their former disaster deferred their entry” into the city until the next day.
Again, the Jews fought, but the struggle was hopeless. When the Jews were surrounded and “despairing of their lives, multitudes plunged headlong with their wives and children into the ravine which had been excavated to a vast depth beneath the citadel. For at that moment the rage of the Romans was such that they spared not even infants, but time after time snatched up numbers of them and slung them from the citadel.” Only three people—two women and a man—survived by hiding among the ruins. And so Gamla fell.
An Israeli archaeological survey of the Golan has located Gamla, and a team lead by kibbutznik-archaeologist Shmaryahu Guttman is now excavating. The first shovel went into the ground June 27, 1976. Following a short campaign in 1976, the diggers (who number many kibbutzniks as well as volunteers from around the world) were again in the field in 1977 and 1978.
Guttman, who spent years excavating at Masada, says the material he is digging up at Gamla has the same feel as at Masada—as if they were the same people. Gamla is a magnificent site—as dramatic, in its own way, as the wilderness-fortress of Masada with which it is so often compared. Seeing Gamla’s stark pointed peak surrounded by deep ravines and still higher green mountains one understands why here, as at Masada, people believed that they could successfully defend their stronghold.
Gamla is a one-period site. It was occupied only from the first century B.C. to the first century A.D. After its destruction by the Romans, it was abandoned forever.
The site is strewn with iron arrowheads and Roman catapult stones—the predecessor of the cannonball. The ruins of Gamla’s houses—some of them with walls, doorways and lintels still standing—cling to the slopes of the mountain. The city wall, built of black basalt boulders, is in some places twenty feet thick. Outside it are large stone balls, called rolling stones, which the Jews rolled down on the attacking Roman soldiers. Guttman thinks he has found the spot where the Romans breached the wall.
The most startling discovery of the excavation is a large public building. The question that has captivated archaeological speculation about Gamla is- was the building a synagogue? The building looks remarkably like the synagogues that dotted the Galilean hills and the Golan Heights 150 and 200 years later. But Gamla was deserted by then. If the building is a synagogue, it would be one of the oldest synagogues found in Israel—dating to the period of the synagogues of Masada and Herodium—and would be the oldest surviving synagogue building in Israel regularly used by the inhabitants of a Jewish town.
The architecture of the building is that of a small Roman basilica, like later synagogues from the second, third and possibly fourth centuries A.D. on the Golan and in Galilee, and similar to that of the famous synagogue at Capernaum.
The main entrance to the Gamla building is approached through a porch or narthex. The center doorway leads into a vestibule, which in turn leads into the main hall. Another small doorway (less than three feet wide) is cut into this same wall at one side. A similar small doorway may originally have existed on the other side of the center entrance. The later Galilean synagogues also had three entrances—a large center door and a smaller one on either side—on the front of the building. The Gamla building has a second entrance in the southeast corner which was approached by steps, possibly leading to an upper gallery. This same arrangement is present in the Capernaum synagogue.
Inside the Gamla building are four rows of columns parallel to the walls. (The Galilean synagogues have only three rows of columns; they do not have a row of columns parallel and adjacent to the main entrance wall. Still, the similarity is impressive.) The corner columns of the building are heart-shaped, as if two columns from either direction had come together and joined. These heart-shaped columns are also found at later Galilean synagogues. Benches line the walls of the Gamla building just as they do in the later Galilean synagogues.
The main entrance facade of the Gamla building faces southwest—toward Jerusalem; the entrance facades of the later Galilean synagogues also face Jerusalem. The most commonly accepted theory for this orientation is that upon entering the synagogue, the congregants turned around to face the entrance. The reason for this, according to many scholars, is that in those times the Torah was not kept in the synagogue; instead, it, and perhaps a portable Torah ark, were carried into the synagogue for the service. The congregants would turn around to face the Torah as it was brought in, and in this posture, they also faced Jerusalem, toward which they directed their prayers.
However, the similarities between the Gamla building and later Galilean synagogues is not enough to declare the Gamla building a synagogue. The presence of benches makes it evident that, unlike a temple, the Gamla building was intended for public gatherings. To identify the building definitively as a synagogue, we would need to find a depiction of a menorah or Torah ark, a fragment of a Biblical or religious manuscript or a revealing inscription. Thus far the excavations have yielded nothing, in or on the building, with a religious or Jewish significance. Perhaps additional excavations will illuminate the building’s function. But until that time, we must recognize the possibility that the building functioned simply as a kind of town hall or meeting house, rather than as a synagogue.
Apparently, the floor of the Gamla building was never paved. A strip of paving stones underlies the lines of columns to provide a base for their support, but that is all the paving on the floor. A short strip of stone slabs was also found in the center of the main hall providing support for two additional columns. Presumably, it was thought that these two additional columns were needed to provide adequate roof support.
Wooden beams were probably set on top of the columns to hold the roof. The excavators found fragments of the charred remains of these beams, as well as an ash layer, indicating that the final destruction of the building was by fire. On the floor the excavators found hundreds of iron nails which originally had been driven into the wooden roof beams. The area inside was littered with Roman catapult stones which may have collapsed the roof. The fire probably started after the roof caved in.
Roman arrowheads were also scattered throughout the building. It is interesting that most of the arrowheads lay in an east-west direction, thus giving the excavators an indication of the direction from which the final attack on the building came.
Evidence of destruction and war was not all that was found in this building. The archaeologists also found pieces of clay oil lamps, coins and pottery sherds. The oil lamps are easily datable to the Herodian period. Because Gamla was destroyed so early in the war, none of the coins are Jewish Revolt coins which were minted between 66 and 70 A.D. The latest coin is a Roman procurator coin, dated just before the beginning of the war.
Neither the coins, the sherds, nor the oil lamps can tell us whether the Gamla building is a synagogue. For this, we must await additional excavation. But, in any event, this magnificent site, strewn with arrowheads and catapult stones, stands in mute tribute to Jewish resistance against the rule of imperial Rome.
a. Gamla, which means camel, was named after the camel-like profile created by the peak and its slender connection to the surrounding ranges.