Hike around Gamla and it is easy to travel back 2,000 years and hear the sounds of Jewish life that populated the region, or to envision the city inhabitants working feverishly to fortify their town against the Roman onslaught. Gamla, known as the “Masada of the North” because of its similarly tragic story, offers stunning views, ancient artifacts, a breathtaking waterfall, and even a chance to cool off in refreshing pools. Gamla – so named because the hill it rests on resembles the hump of a “gamal” (camel in Hebrew) – is a definite must-see for anyone on an Israel tour.
A Capital City
From the years 87 BCE to 68 CE, Gamla was the capital of the Jewish Golan. There had been an even older civilization that existed here before that time; in fact, the region is mentioned in the Talmud as being a walled city from the time of the Jewish leader, Joshua. That city had been destroyed, and then rebuilt when Jews returned from their exile in Babylon. Later, King Herod populated Gamla with Jews as a way of settling his border cities.
During the Roman invasion of the Holy Land, Josephus Flavius, the famous historian, was a commander of the Jewish revolt in Gamla. He ordered the city fortified. Gamla was naturally defended on three of its sides by the steep, rocky Golan Mountains, so there was only need for one wall. Access to the town was limited to a narrow footpath up the side of the mountain, making the city seemingly impenetrable. The Jews were initially successful in repelling the Romans, but eventually, the wall was breached and the Romans, led by Vespasian, penetrated the city. Thousands of Jews died. Many were killed by the Romans; others fell to their deaths while attempting to escape down the steep mountainside.
Many interesting archaeological artifacts have been found. Tourists can descend directly to the ruins and see the remains of the fortification wall, and even see the exact spot where the stone wall was breached. Hundreds of ballista stones and thousands of arrowheads were excavated, testifying to the fierce battle that was fought. Interestingly, no human remains have been found at the fortress. This may be because, following the conquest, the Romans allowed the Jews to bury their dead, knowing the importance of proper burial in Jewish religion. The Romans, too, would have most likely cremated their dead.
Gamla also houses one of the world’s oldest synagogues, which was built before the destruction of the second Temple. Visitors can see an alcove inside the synagogue, where the Torah was likely kept, as well as a nearby mikvah (ritual bath) used by the Jews. A Roman watchtower has been restored, allowing visitors to ascend to the top and take in the beautiful views of the surrounding area. Visit the Golan Archaeological Museum , in the nearby town of Katzrin, where you can see artifacts from the Roman period, as well as watch a film which recounts the history of the Gamla settlement and its conquest by the Romans. Also located in Katzrin is the renowned Golan Heights Winery. Take a tour of the museum, including, of course, a wine-tasting. Make sure to sample wines from their “Gamla” label!
The Yehudia Reserve
Gamla is part of the Yehudia Reserve, a nature sanctuary. One point of particular interest to a tourist for any Israel travel guide is the ancient settlement of Deir Quruh, a village once inhabited by early Christians. Remains of a Byzantine church, as well as an olive press, can be seen there. The reserve also contains a large collection of dolmens, ancient tombs which are built out of massive rocks and have a table-like structure. The Yehudia Reserve is also famous for its large population of birds of prey, specifically Griffon vultures; visitors can observe the birds from lookouts along the trails.
Water, Water Evrywhere!
Two aquatic adventures await you in the Yehudia Reserve. One is Nahla Gamla Waterfall, the highest perennial waterfall in the country, measuring fifty-one meters. And last but certainly not least – especially after your dusty hike – make sure to visit the Hexagonal Pool (“Meshushim Pool” in Hebrew.) It is so named because it is surrounded by a geologic anomaly – hexagonal rock structures formed from basalt rock, which look almost man-made. The hike to the pool is easiest and most pleasant in spring, when the flora and fauna are out in full force, but the heat isn’t! Take an intense hike to reach the pool, or simply walk down the stepped path.
As you make your way around during your tour to Israel, Gamla is a not-to-be-missed adventure in northern Israel. Let your inner historian, archaeologist, ornithologist and zoologist – not to mention the plain old fun-loving tourist – come out to play in Gamla.