Gamla was an ancient Jewish city in the Golan Heights. Inhabited since the Early Bronze Age, it is believed to have been
founded as a Seleucid fort during the Syrian Wars. The site of a Roman siege during the Great Revolt of the 1st century
CE, Gamla is a symbol of heroism for the modern state of Israel and an important historical and archaeological site. It
currently resides within the Gamla nature reserve and is a prominent tourist attraction.
Situated at the southern part of the Golan, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Gamla was built on a steep hill shaped like a
camel's hump, from which it derives its name (Gamla meaning 'camel' in Aramaic). The city appears to have been founded as a
Seleucid fort during the Syrian Wars (3rd century BC) which later became a civilian settlement. Jews inhabited it from
the last quarter of the 2nd century BC, and it was annexed to the Hasmonean state under king Alexander Jannaeus in c. 81
Josephus Flavius, Commander of Galilee during the Jewish Revolt against Rome and in 66 AD, fortified Gamla as his main
stronghold on the Golan. Josephus gives a very detailed topographical description of the city, where the steep ravines
precluded the need to build a wall around the city. Only along the northern saddle, at the town's eastern extremity, was a
350 meters-long wall built. It was constructed by blocking gaps between existing houses and destroying houses that lay in
Initially loyal to the Romans, Gamla turned rebellious under the influence of refugees from other locations. It was one
of only five cities in the Galilee and Golan who stood against Vespasian's legions, reflecting the cooperation between the
local population and the rebels. At the time of the revolt, the town minted its own coins, probably more as a means of
propaganda than as currency. Bearing the inscription "For the redemption of Jerusalem the H(oly)" in a mixture of paleo-
Hebrew (biblical) and Aramaic, only 6 of these coins have ever been found.
Josephus also provides a detailed description of the Roman siege and conquest of Gamla in 67 AD by components of legions X
Fretensis, XV Apollinaris and XV Macedonica. The Romans first attempted to take the city by means of a siege ramp, but
were repulsed by the defenders. Only on the second attempt did the Romans succeed in breaching the walls at three different
locations and invading the city. They then engaged the Jewish defenders in hand-to-hand combat up the steep hill. Fighting
in the cramped streets from an inferior position, the Roman soldiers attmpted to defend themselves from the roofs. These
subsequently collapsed under the heavy weight, killing many soldiers and forcing a Roman retreat. The legionnaires re-
entered the town a few days later, eventually beating Jewish resistance and completing the capture of Gamla.
According to Josephus, some 4,000 inhabitants were slaughtered, while 5,000, trying to escape down the steep northern
slope, were either trampled to death, fell or perhaps threw themselves down a ravine. These appear to be exaggerated and
the number of inhabitants on the eve of the revolt has been estimated at 3,000 - 4,000. The notion that these
inhabitants committed mass suicide has also been questioned, as the account appears to force an analogy with the story of
the end of the siege of Masada, also recounted by Josephus. The Greek word Josephus used implies a hasty, clumsy flight
while suicide is forbidden under most circumstances by Jewish law.
Abandoned after its destruction, Gamla was identified in 1889 by Konrad Furrer with the site of Tel ed-Dra', in the Rukkad
river-bed. It was only properly identified in 1968 by surveyor Itzhaki Gal, after the Israeli conquest of the Golan
Heights during the Six Day War. It was excavated by Shemaryahu Gutmann and Danny Sion on behalf of the Israeli
Department of Antiquities between 1978 and 2000. The excavations have uncovered 7.5 dunnams, about 5% of the site,
revealing a typical Jewish city featuring ritual baths, Herodian lamps, limestone cups and thousands of Hasmonean coins.
The Gamla excavations also revealed widespread evidence for the battle that took place at the site. About 100 catapult
bolts have been uncovered, as well as 1,600 arrowheads and 2,000 ballista stones, the latter all made from local basalt.
This is a quantity unsurpassed anywhere in the Roman Empire. Most were colleced along and in close proximity to the
wall, placing the heavy fighting in the vicinity and the Roman siegecraft to the north east of the town. Next to a heavy
concentration of the stones, the excavators have identified a man-made breach in wall, probably made by a battering ram.
About 200 artifacts excavated at Gamla have been identified as the remains of Roman army equipment. These include parts of
Roman lorica segmentata, an officer's helmet visor and cheek-guard, bronze scales of another type of armor, as well as
Roman identification tags. A Roman siege-hook, used both for stabbing and hooking onto the wall, was found in the
Only one human jawbone was identified during the exploration of Gamla, raising questions regarding the absence of human
remains despite the widepsread evidence of a battle. A tentative answer is discussed by archaeologist Danny Syon, who
suggests that the dead would have been buried at nearby mass graves that are yet to be found. One such mass grave has been
found at Yodfat, which had suffered the same fate as Gamla at the hands of Vespasian's legions.
Artifacts from Gamla are on the display at the Golan Archaeological Museum, including arrowheads, ballista stones, clay oil
lamps and coins minted in the town during the siege. A scale model and film are used to describe the conquest and
destruction of the Jewish town and all of its inhabitants.
Inside the city walls stood a large synagogue, built of dressed stone with pillared aisles. Measuring 22 * 17 meters, its
main hall is surrounded by a Doric colonnade and is entered by twin doors at the south west. Its corner columns are heart-
shaped, and a public ritual bath was unearthed next to it. On the eve of Gamla's destruction the synagogue appears
to have been converted to a dwelling for refugees, as testified by a number of meager fireplaces and large quantities of
cookpots and storage jars found along its northern wall. Situated next to the city wall, 157 ballista stones were collected
from the synagogue's hall alone and 120 arrowhead from its vicinity. The synagogue is thought to date from the late
first century BC and is among the oldest synagogues in the world.
Today Gamla is an archaeological site and a nature reserve. It is also home to a large nesting population of Griffon
vultures. The nature reserve also contains some 700 Neolithic Dolmens, several of which can be viewed from the entry