The descent to the ancient city of Gamla in the Gamla Nature Reserve is slightly difficult, but most families can do it and it is highly recommended. This was a Jewish city that was destroyed at the beginning of the Great Revolt against Rome in 66 CE. You will see the preparations made by both sides for the siege and how the city was finally captured by the Romans.
Time: About 2½ hours total.
Distance: 3¾ Km total.
Type of hike: There and back along the same path.
Difficulty: This is a slightly difficult trail on a rocky path with a somewhat steep incline. However, it is not dangerous and is appropriate for families with older kids. Walking sticks will be helpful for adults.
Directions and Starting point: Enter “Gamla” into Waze and click on “Gamla Nature Reserve.” This leads to the main parking lot for the reserve, which is the starting point for all the hikes in the reserve.
Admission: This is a site of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. It is open Sunday to Thursday and Saturday 8.00 am to 5.00 pm, and Friday and holiday eves 8.00 am to 4.00 pm. It closes 1 hour earlier in the winter. Last entry to the site is one hour before closing time. A kiosk serves hot and cold drinks, snacks and some hiking equipment. There are many shaded and unshaded picnic benches next to the kiosk. Flush WC’s are nearby. There is an admission charge. Click here for their website.
Public transport: Enter "Gamla Nature Reserve" into Moovit. The bus stop at the Gamla Nature Reserve Intersection is only a short distance from the Reserve. There are bus lines from Haifa, Acre, Safed, Kiryat Atta, Yokniam Illit, Emeq Hayarden and Jerusalem.
The hastily constructed eastern defensive wall of the city.
The siege of Gamla and its defeat
Overlooking the synagogue from the Short Trail.
The Talmud describes Gamla as being a walled city from the time of Joshua. There was a settlement here in the Early Bronze Age and Jewish settlement from the time of the Hasmoneans.
Gamla was located on a ridge bounded on three sides by the deep creeks of the Gamla and Daliyot streams. The south side of this ridge had a gentler slope and was within a saddle. The ridge therefore resembled the hump of a camel, which is why the city was called Gamla, gamla being Aramaic for a camel. The sole approach to the city was by the eastern side of the ridge; and this is the path on which you will be descending.
Gamla was the main city of the Golan Heights during the Roman period and was one of five cities in the Galilee and Golan that joined the Great Revolt against the Romans in 66 CE. It was taken over by the Zealots, against the will of its inhabitants. Josephus Flavius was the military governor of Jewish forces in the Galilee and Golan and his immediate job was to fortify it for an immanent Roman siege.
Because of the deep ravines surrounding the city, the only defensive fortification needed was at its eastern side. An eastern wall was therefore built extending from the Round Tower. The Round Tower already existed at the height of the ridge and was previously its sole defensive position. The eastern defensive wall was constructed by joining together preexisting buildings, including the synagogue, and by building additional square towers.
Gamla was initially besieged by King Agrippa II, but he was unsuccessful and withdrew after seven months. When the Roman general Vespasian arrived in the country, his immediate priority was to defeat the rebellious cities in the Galilee and also Gamla before advancing on Jerusalem. He began the siege of Gamla in October 1967 with about 60,000 soldiers.
According to Josephus there were some 9,000 defendants within the city. The Roman's use of a siege ramp was initially repulsed. The Romans then breached the wall in three places, and this enabled them to enter the city. However, they were forced to retreat after attempting to climb up the hill with hand-to-hand fighting. Nevertheless, a few days later they successfully entered the city and this time were able to capture it. Thousands of its inhabitants were killed and thousands more lost their lives attempting to escape down the northern slope.
Subsequently, Josephus surrendered to the Romans after he and his forces were defeated in the city of Yodfat in the Galilee. The subjugation of the Galilee and Golan now permitted Vespasian to focus on Jerusalem, where many of the rebels had fled to.
Who were the Zealots?
The Zealots were the extremist party that initiated the Great Revolt against Rome and they dragged the rest of the Jewish people into this struggle. Considering their considerable influence on Jewish history, they get scant and possibly somewhat biased press. Little has been written about them and there are big lacunae in our knowledge. Our main source of information is the historian Josephus who calls them a “band of robbers” who initiated a reign of terror. This defamation is understandable. Josephus worked for the Zealots when he fortified the cities of the Galilee and Golan when sent there by the Sanhedrin, but he eventually became a turncoat and changed sides. After a time, he would become Rome’s official historian for this revolt.
The Pharisees were horrified at how the Zealots were leading the country to disaster, and they dissociated themselves from the revolt, even though they had initially supported it. They regarded the Zealots as heretics and murderers. They attempted to persuade them to sue for peace, but were unsuccessful. The Pharisees were the ones responsible for the composition of the main Jewish sources, and the Talmud has nothing complimentary to say about them. On the other hand, Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabba i.11, regards Judas the Galilean, the founder of the Zealots, as one of the scholarly Hasidim whom God will place at His side together with the other righteous because he never received the homage due to him as a martyr.
The Zealots were messianic Jews who could not abide the rule of Rome and who regarded God alone as their ruler. They called themselves kanna’im (Zealots) on account of their religious zeal. By the time of Herod, they were organized as a political party and were supported by the disciples of the great sage Shammai. They attempted to assassinate Herod and to remove a golden eagle (the symbol of Rome) that he had placed over a gate in the Temple. In both instances they were caught and those involved were brutally tortured. Later, during the rule of the Roman procurators over Judea, and particularly that of the cruel and insensitive Gessius Florus, the Zealots became more aggressive in their tactics. Some engaged in murdering Jews whom they regarded as collaborators and apostates. Their use of a dagger hidden under their coat earned them the name Sicarii (meaning violent men or dagger-men).
The Zealots initiated their revolt against Rome in the Galilee. Many cities were supportive, although Gamla was not. Nevertheless, the Zealots took over the city against the wishes of its inhabitants. After the defeat of the Zealots in the Galilee, the focus of the rebellion turned to Jerusalem.
Their leader John of Gischala (Gush Halav) escaped from the Galilee to Jerusalem and continued the struggle from here. However, the Jews were unable to put up a unified front and different sectors of the city were commanded by different leaders who did not coordinate with each other. Until just before the end, they were even fighting one another. The Roman commander Titus was aware of this and deliberately gave the Jews time to continue their killing.
The Temple and city were destroyed by Titus in 70 CE. The leaders of the revolt were taken to Rome and executed. The last 973 of the Zealots held out in Masada under the leadership of Eleazar ben Yair, but eventually most committed suicide when defeat became inevitable.
From the kiosk take the paved trail signposted to “Gamla Lookout Ancient Gamla.” On display at the lookout is a catapult as would have been used by the Romans and an explanation. Each legion was equipped with 56 catapults. From this observation point you can see below you the ruins of Gamla and appreciate the layout of the city. Its single defensive wall to the east of the city faces you.
Take the Ancient Trail down to the ravine. Because ravines surrounded the city on three sides, this has been its only approach, probably since the Early Bronze Age. There are interesting quotations from Josephus Flavius in Hebrew and English along the path explaining the progress of the siege.
When you reach the bottom of the ravine, head towards the ruins by the concrete path. There is another exhibit here of a catapult. Go in the direction of the green sign to the כניסה (Entrance). Follow in the direction indicated by the boxed brown arrows on the Long Trail. As you pass the entrance to the ruins of the city you will see a breach in the wall.
Within the city continue in the direction of the arrows along the Long Trail. Of interest are the ruins of a synagogue and mikva. The synagogue is from Second Temple times and is one of the oldest synagogues found in Israel. It can be entered. The eastern defensive wall for the city was hastily constructed and included the outer wall of the synagogue.
After a short distance, take the trail on your right that ascends the slope. On the way you will pass ruins of houses. At the top of the path is the Hasmonean Quarter. This was not part of the city in Roman times. A helpful sign illustrates how this part of the city looked during Hasmonean times. Because of the slope, the streets would have been quite steep. This path meets up with the Short Trail.
(An alternative is to continue walking along the Long Trail. This will enable you to climb to the highest point of the slope by taking the next turning on your right. However, it is a difficult climb and hardly worth it. You can also continue to the Western Quarter, which is at the end of the Long Trail and which contains an oil and flour press; although this section may be closed off. Be aware when you return that the turn off from the Long Trail to the Short Trail is not well marked).
Turn right onto the Short Trail and make your way to the Round Tower. During the siege, this tower was undermined by the Romans in the early hours of the morning and the entire structure collapsed. This enabled the Romans to successfully enter the city. From the tower, take the trail by the wall towards the exit from the ruins.
Return to the top of the Ancient Trail the way you came.
Path to ancient Gamla. To follow your location on your smart phone, click on https://israelhiking.osm.org.il/share/zLhbngfftF
and click on the black box with a cross at the top left of the map. It should change color to green.
Additional trails in the Gamla Nature Reserve
Dolmen Trail to Gamla Falls: This easy hike can be conveniently combined with the 600 mm Vulture Trail (see Dolmen Trail to Gamla Falls).
Daliyot Path to the Daliyot Falls:This is about 3.5 Km each way and the round trip takes about 4 hours. There is only water in the waterfall during the winter and spring. A shorter but spectacular hike to the Daliyot Falls approaches it from the Daliyot Forest (see webpage Daliyot Forest and Daliyot Falls. This is a worthwhile hike even in the summer when there is no water in the stream.