Israel – Gamla in the Golan

GamlaAfter the evacuation of Aza, residents of the Golan Heights are ever more anxious that their homes should not suffer the same fate. Their slogans include, “Ha’am im HaGolan,” and “Gamla shenit lo tipol,” “Gamla will not fall again!” Where is Gamla and when did it fall?

Modern Golan, a territory of 1,158 square kilometers (20 by 50 kilometers), is the only section Me’eiver HaYarden presently under Israeli control. Most of the rest is in Jordan. The Golan is the western section of the “Bashan” (Devarim 4:43) that Moshe and Yehoshua allotted to the tribe of Menasheh (Yehoshua 13:29- 31). Over the centuries, kings of the northern kingdom of Yisroel had to vie with the kings of Aram, based in Damascus, to keep control. For a time, Aram seized the Golan until King Yehoash of Yisroel defeated King Chadad III of Damascus and regained it.

When the Jews returned from Galus Bavel, they resettled the Golan and the Hasmonean king, Alexander Yannai, later added it to his kingdom and built Gamla in 3680/81 BCE. The Greeks called the area “Gaulanitis” – a name derived from “Golan,” one of the sixty fortified cities of Bashan that was set aside as a city of refuge, explaining why the Heights are now known as the Golan.

Gamla, the one-time capital of the Golan, was destroyed during Sukkos 2,040 years ago. The Great Rebellion against Rome had broken out in Northern Yisroel and once Gamla was destroyed, the way was open for Titus’ armies to proceed onwards towards Yerushalayim. Thus the very first chapter of Josephus’“War of the Jews” that describes the history of the Churban is entitled: “From the Siege of Gamla to the Coming of Titus to Besiege Yerushalayim.” (The following quotes from Josephus are abridged.)

According to Josephus, the Jews were confident that the place was impregnable: “Gamla did not surrender to the Romans but relied upon the difficulty of the place to conquer, for it was situated upon a rough ridge of a high mountain, where it begins to ascend and declines as much downward before as behind, so that it is like a camel for which it is named. There was also a spring of water within the wall, at the upper limits of the city. This city was awkward to be taken, and Josephus made it even stronger by building a wall about it, and ditches and mines underground. Thus they had been able to resist those whom Agrippa sent to besiege it for seven months.”

Vespasian, Titus’ father, arrived and began building access ramps to attack the city, just as the Romans did later at Masada. While he was trying to persuade the people to surrender without violence, the negotiations ended when a Jewish slinger struck Vespasian’s elbow with a rock. The Romans built ramps up to the walls, rolled up siege machines (battering rams hung from giant frames) and began battering down the walls. Josephus reports that their first attack was a failure:

“The Romans brought battering rams to three places, and made the wall shake (and fall). They then poured in over the parts of the wall that were thrown down, with a mighty sound of trumpets and the noise of armor, and with a shout of the soldiers, and broke in by force upon those who were in the city; but these men fell upon the Romans for some time, at their first entrance, and prevented their going any further and, with great courage, beat them back. The Romans were so overpowered by the greater multitude of the people that they were obliged to run into the upper parts of the city. They fled into their enemies’ houses. But these houses, being full of soldiers, fell down suddenly and when one house fell, it shook down a great many more that were under it. By this means, a vast number of the Romans perished.” The situation remained at a stalemate until Titus came back from Syria to help his father. Josephus writes what happened next:

“Titus, who was now returned, angry at the destruction the Romans had undergone while he was absent, took two hundred chosen horsemen and some footmen with him, and entered without noise into the city. Some of the citizens caught hold of their children and their wives and fled away to the citadel with lamentations and cries, while others went to meet Titus and were killed.

“Then Vespasian came to his assistance against those that had fled to the citadel and brought his whole army with him. This upper part of the city was rocky and difficult to climb. The Jews cut off those that came up to them and did much harm to others with their darts and large stones that they rolled down upon them, while they were themselves so high that the enemy’s darts could hardly reach them.” At this point, Josephus reports that the heavens themselves fought against the Jews:

“However, there arose such a Divine storm against them that caused their destruction. The storm carried the Roman darts to them, and made those which they threw return back. Also, the Jews could not stand on the precipices because of the violence of the wind, or see those climbing up to them. Thus the Romans got up and surrounded them.”

Fearing the Romans’ revenge, masses of Jews preferred to end their own lives: “A great number of those who were surrounded on every side despaired of escaping. They threw their children and their wives and themselves down the precipices into the valley beneath. While the Romans slew four thousand, the number of those that threw themselves down was found to be five thousand. No one escaped except two women who lay concealed from the rage of the Romans when the city was taken. And thus was Gamla taken on the 23rd day of the month Tishrei, after the city first revolted on the 24th of Elul.”

Many towns in the Golan had not opposed the Roman might and Jewish communities continued to flourish. The remains of twenty-five shuls from the period following the revolt have been dug up, including a basalt lintel stone discovered North of Katzrin bearing the inscription, “This is the Beis Medrash of Rabbi Eliezer HaKapar.”

A Tosefta known as “Braisos HaTechumim” includes the Golan within the borders of Eretz Yisroel and definitively obligates it with the mitzvos hatluyos ba’aretz, while the Yerushalmi lists the names of seven Jewish towns in the Golan. Three of them are used in our time: Nov, Chissafiya and Kfar Charuv. In August 4397/636, the Muslim armies crushed the Christian Byzantines in the Yarmouk Valley at the southern edge of the Heights, and organized Jewish settlement came to an end.

Jews attempted to resettle there a number of times in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries without success. The Golan Heights were originally included in Mandatory Palestine and supposed to be part of the promised Jewish national home but, having discovered that the Golan has no oil, the British government ceded it to France, in 5683/1923, in exchange for control over part of Iraq. Because of this, the Heights became part of the Republic of Syria when the French mandate ended in 5704/1944, and all Jewish land ownership in the Golan was nullified. In 5727/1967, exactly 1,900 years since the fall of Gamla, the Golan Heights came under Israeli control. Gamla remained unidentified until 5736/1976, because earlier archaeologists confused it with Jamlieh, a town located about nine miles southeast. Its identity was certified on the basis of similarity between the remains and Josephus’ description of the place.

It took a few years until the shattered ruins of Gamla were rediscovered. The ruins include massive six-meter thick defensive walls, and breaches surrounded by ballista (Roman catapult machine) stones and arrowheads. A shul was also uncovered. It faces southwest towards Yerushalayim and has a mikveh in its courtyard.

In the town’s ruins were found six unique bronze coins apparently minted in Gamla, bearing the slogan: “Lige’ulas Yerushalayim hakedosha,” “To the redemption of holy Yerushalayim.”

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