Josephus Flavius ( or Yosef ben Matityahu – his Hebrew name), the famous historian has made us familiar with the dramatic last stand of the Jewish rebels on Masada against the Roman Legions after the destruction of the Second Temple.
But according to the same historian, a very similar drama took place on another isolated mountain in the very north of the country.
Gamla stands perched on the southern end of the Golan Heights. It’s humb back shape gave it is’s name as Gamal means Camel in Hebrew. Surrounded by protective deep ravines on all sides. Gamla was a Jewish district town when the great revolt against Rome broke out in 66 CE.
One thousand four hundred years earlier, Moses conquered this land from Og the giant of Bashan. Two and a half tribes requested the lands to the east of the Jordan river for their inheritance and so a part of the tribe of Menashe settled on what is today the Golan heights or the Biblical Bashan.
When Joshua divided up the Promised Land amongst the tribes, cities of refuge used by people guilty of man slaughter, were established on either side of the Jordan.
Gamla may have been one of these biblical cities of refuge.
Fast forwarding again to the time of the Great Revolt we find Gamla as a crucial strategic position. Not only was it an isolated walled town that welcomed rebels and refugees fleeing the advancing Roman Legions, it became a symbol as the Jews defied the Roman Empire.
In addition, it was geographically on the north east frontier, closest to two possible threats to Rome. First the powerful and ever threatening Parathion empire was not far from this frontier. The Parthians would certainly grab an opportunity to weaken Roman rule on the international frontier by aiding the Jewish rebels.
Secondly, there was the possibility that the very large and influential Jewish communities within the Parthian borders would organize expeditionary armies in aid of their brothers in Eretz Yisroel
For these reasons it was deemed necessary to make a convincing example of Gamla a the very outset.
As expected, Gamla held well against he Romans. Roman assaults were repulsed as the Jews rained death down on the attackers . In a bold move the Romans led by their commander managed to tunnel under one of the watch towers and undermined it so that it crumbled down into the ravine.
The Romans then rushed into the gap with the Jewish fighters pulling their families up the slope on the roofs towards the hump of the mountain.
Josephus describes how the Romans hotly pursued them on the roofs and then, suddenly, due to the extreme weight of the soldiers bunching together charging up, the roofs buckled and the soldiers fell into the buildings and down the slope.
Panic broke out. In the thick of the night and clouds of dust the stunned Romans hacked at each other as they beat a hasty retreat out the walls .
But this was just a tactical victory for the defenders of Gamla.
The Romans filled in the ravine and brought up the entire army to the walls careful not to repeat their earlier mistakes.
What happened next was inevitable. The Romans slowly made their way up the slope forcing the defenders to the summit as the defenders formed a protective ring around their families at the very top. Rather than fall into the hands of the sadistic Romans, they took their families by their hands and leaped to the depths of the ravine. One can guess only imagine the mass hysteria and their final cries as the ravine floor rushed up towards them towards certain death. .. Shema yisroel…
Thus Gamla fell. Four years later the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and three years after that the last strong hold, Masada was the scene of the famous last stand.
For almost two thousand years Gamla lie in ruins. Her stones sharing the story with no one
It was only after the miraculous Six Day War of 1967 that her sons returned to her. When Israeli forces liberated the Golan from the Syrian attackers above, Israeli archaeologists were thrilled at the opportunity to explore and uncover that part of the home land. And uncover they did! Dozens of Jewish towns with synagogues, ritual baths, Hebrew inscriptions… even one adorning the study hall of one of the authors of the Talmud! Rabbi Ekiezer Hakapar’s !
In Gamla was found the oldest synagogue in the world!
The story of the first brave Jewish stand against the Roman Empire was revealed by Prof Shmirayu Gutman who I had the honor of speaking with as he uncovered the site in 1979. When he held up a coin found in Gamla which displays the word “redemption” and a vessel from the Temple, tears came to his eyes as he exclaimed, “now I understand what all this sacrifice was for. It was not for Gamla alone but rather it was for the “redemption” The redemption of Jerusalem and the Jewish People. It was for this they gave their lives.”
And today , Gamala and the Golan is back where it belongs. No longer forlorn, an orphan occupied by conquerors. Today there are dozens of modern Jewish towns on the Golan and Gamla is visited by throngs of visitors who pay their respect and learn from the stones that have been redeemed from the dust by returning sons and daughters
No wonder , the residents of the Golan Heights chose to list the names of their sons who fell in the modern wars of Israel on a dramatic perch over looking Gamla.
Each village and town today has its name engraved in the stones over looking the former Jewish strong hold. Inscribed in the stones is in bold letters is: GAMLA SHALL FALL NO MORE”