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Archaeology in Israel: Gamla

The city of Gamla on the Golan derived its name from gamal (Hebrew for camel), since it was situated on a hill shaped like a camel's hump. The Hasmonean ruler Alexander Yannaeus founded the city in the first century BCE and it continued to be inhabited by Jews, as attested to by Josephus Flavius (Antiquities of the Jews 13:394). Josephus, a Jew, was Commander of Galilee during the Jewish Revolt against Rome and in 66 CE fortified Gamla as his main stronghold on the Golan. He gives a very detailed topographical description of the city and describes the Roman siege under the command of Vespasian, which led to its conquest in 67 CE. The Romans attempted to take the city by means of a siege ramp, but were turned back by the defenders; only on the second attempt did they succeed in penetrating the fortifications and conquering the city. Thousands of inhabitants were slaughtered, while others chose to jump to their deaths from the top of the cliff (Josephus, The Jewish War IV, 1-83). Gamla has not been rebuilt since.

Josephus' failure to provide a detailed geographical description of Gamla's location on the Golan made it difficult to locate. The identification was firmly established only in the course of archeological excavations during the 1970s.

The remains of the city are located on a rocky basalt ridge surrounded by deep gorges, with a shallow saddle separating it from the rest of the ridge, providing the city with outstanding defensive advantages. The top of the hill is narrow and pointed, creating a very steep slope in the north; the city was built on the more graduated southern slope.

The main approach road led to the eastern part of the city, where a massive fortification wall was constructed. This wall, built of squared basalt stones, is some 6 m. thick. Several square towers situated along the wall, and a circular tower at the crest of the hill, contributed to the city's defenses. In the low-lying southern part of the wall, two square towers guarded the narrow gateway into the city. In some sections of the wall, rooms of adjacent houses had been filled with stones in order to strengthen the wall. This led researchers to hypothesize that the wall had been hastily constructed, or strengthened, on the eve of the Roman siege.

A five meter-wide breach was found at the center of the eastern wall. Scattered around it were dozens of ballista stones and arrowheads; similar finds were also uncovered in destroyed buildings inside the wall - all material evidence of the breaching of the wall and the battle between the Roman attackers and the Jewish defenders of the city.

Inside the city, near the wall, an impressive public building was uncovered and identified as the synagogue of Gamla. It is rectangular in shape (25.5 x 17 m.) and oriented northeast to southwest - in the direction of Jerusalem. Along the walls are several rows of stone-built benches. Pillars around the center of the hall supported the roof. In the courtyard, wide steps led down to a mikve (Jewish ritual bath) which served those who came to pray in the synagogue.

The houses of the city were built on terraces with stepped alleys between them. Well-constructed residences with large rooms, obviously of the wealthy, were uncovered in the west of the city. The large number of oil presses suggests that olives and the production of oil were the basis of the city's economy.

Evidence of fire and destruction uncovered in the buildings are vivid testimony of the drama which unfolded when the Roman Legions captured the city. But the huge mounds of collapsed stones also helped preserve Gamla's remains.

Several unique coins minted in Gamla during the Jewish Revolt were found during the excavations. On the obverse of some coins appears the word lige'ulat (for the redemption of) and on the reverse, yerushalayim hakedosha (Holy Jerusalem).

The remains of Gamla have been preserved as a national park.

Sources: Ministry of Foreign Affairs