This is an exciting but slightly difficult one-way hike to the ancient city of Gamla in the Gamla Nature Preserve. Gamla was a Jewish city that was destroyed at the beginning of the Great Revolt against Rome in 66 CE. From your hike you will appreciate the preparations made on both sides for its siege and how the city was finally captured by the Romans.
Time: 2½ hours there and back.
Distance: 3¾ Km there and back.
Difficulty: This is a slightly difficult trail on a rocky path with a somewhat steep incline, but it is not at all dangerous and is appropriate for families. Walking sticks will be helpful.
Starting Point: Start from the main parking area for the reserve.
Directions: Enter “Gamla” into Waze and click on “Gamla Nature Reserve.” This will lead you to the main parking lot for 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.
The Siege of Gamla
Overlooking the synagogue from the Short Trail.
Gamla is described in the Talmud as being as walled city from the time of Joshua. There was a settlement here in the Early Bronze Age, and Jewish settlement is described from the time of the Hasmoneans.
The city is on a ridge bounded on either side by the deep creeks of the Gamla and Daliyot streams and on the south side of this ridge, since this part has a gentler slope and is located within a saddle. It was called Gamla because the ridge resembles the hump of a camel, gamla being Aramaic for “the camel.” The sole approach to the city was always on the path you are descending on the eastern side of the ridge.
Gamla was the main city of the Golan Heights in the Roman period and one of five cities in the Galilee and Golan that joined the Great Revolt against the Romans in 66 CE. Josephus Flavius was the military governor of Jewish forces in the Galilee and Golan and his immediate job was to fortify the city for an immanent Roman siege.
Because of the deep ravines, the only fortification needed was on its eastern side and an eastern wall was built from the Round Tower. The Round Tower already existed on the height of the ridge and until then was the sole defensive position. This eastern defensive wall was completed by joining buildings together, including the synagogue, and by building additional square towers.
The city 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 the city of Gamla before advancing on Jerusalem. He began the siege in October 1967 with about 60,000 soldiers.
According to Josephus there were about 9,000 defendants within the city. The Roman use of a siege ramp was initially repulsed. The Romans then breached the wall in three places allowing them to enter the city. However, after hand-to-hand fighting and attempting to climb up the hill they were forced to retreat. A few days later they managed to reenter 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.
Josephus surrendered to the Romans after he and his forces were defeated in the city of Yodfat in the Galilee.
Who were the Zealots?
It was the Zealots who initiated the Great Revolt against Rome and dragged the Jewish people with them. Considering their considerable influence on Jewish history, they get a scant and possibly somewhat unfair press. This is not helped by the fact that little has been written about them and there are big gaps 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 is understandable. Even though he worked for the Zealots when fortifying the cities of the Galilee and Golan when sent by the Sanhedrin, Josephus was a turncoat who changed sides and became Rome’s official historian for the Great Revolt. The Talmud also has nothing complimentary to say about them. The Pharisees were horrified as see how the Zealots were leading the Jewish people to disaster and they dissociated themselves from the revolt, even though they were initially supportive. They tried unsuccessfully to persuade the zealots to sue for peace. They were also the ones who were responsible for Jewish sources and they regarded the Zealots as heretics and murderers. On the other hand, in Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabba i.11, Judas the Galilean, the founder of the Zealots, is regarded as one of the scholarly Hasidim whom God will place at His side together with a band of the righteous because he never received the homage due to him as a martyr.
The Zealots could not abide the rule of Rome and regarded God alone as their King. They called themselves kanna’im (Zealots) on account of their religious zeal. By the time of Herod, they were already 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) he had placed over a gate in the Temple, but in both instances they were caught and those involved were brutally tortured. Later, during the rule of the Roman procurators over Judea, particularly 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, and 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. After their defeat in the Galilee, the focus of the revolt turned to Jerusalem.
According to Josephus, John of Gischala escaped from the Galilee to Jerusalem and continued the struggle from there. However, the Jews were unable to put up a unified front and different sectors of the city were commanded by different leaders who failed to coordinate. Until just before the end, they were even fighting against each other. The Temple and city were destroyed in 70 CE. The leaders of the revolt were taken to Rome and executed. The last of the Zealots held out in Masada, but they finally committed communal suicide rather than being taken prisoner by Rome.
Take the paved trail signposted to “Gamla Lookout Ancient Gamla.” You will soon come to a lookout. There is a catapult here, as would have been used by the Romans, together with an explanation. Each legion was equipped with 56 catapults. From the observation point you can make out below you the ruins of Gamla and appreciate the basic layout of the city. Its single defensive wall was to the east of the city and facing you.
Take the Ancient Trail down the ravine. This is the only way to approach the city because of ravines on all three sides, and this has been the approach to the city probably since the Early Bronze Age. There are interesting signs on the way with quotes from Josephus Flavius in Hebrew and English explaining the progress of the battle during the Great Revolt.
When you reach the bottom of the ravine, head towards the ruins using the concrete path. There is another exhibit of a catapult. Go in the direction of the green sign for the כניסה (Entrance). Follow in the direction indicated by the brown arrows in boxes along the Long Trail. As you pass the entrance to the city you will see that the wall has been breached.
Follow in the direction of the arrows within the city along the Long Trail. Of interest are the ruins of the mikvah and synagogue. This is one of the oldest synagogues found from Second Temple times. It can be entered. The defensive wall for the city was hastily constructed and includes part of the synagogue.
You will meet on your right a trail that goes up the slope and you are advised to take this path that meets up with the Short Trail. It takes you past ruins of houses. At its top is the Hasmonean Quarter, which was not part of the city in Roman times. A helpful sign shows what this part of the city would have looked like. Being on a slope the streets would have been quite steep.
(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 trail up on your right. However, it is a difficult climb and hardly worth it. There is an oil press and flour press in the western Quarter, which is at the end of the Long Trail, but this section may be closed off. The turn off from the Long Trail onto the Short Trail when you return is also not well marked).
Turn right onto the Short Trail and make your way to the Round Tower. This tower was undermined by the Romans in the early hours of the morning and the entire structure collapsed. This allowed the Romans to enter the city. From the tower take the trail by the wall to the exit from the city, and return on the ancient path.
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 can be easily combined with the 600 mm Vulture Trail. (See Dolmen Trail to Gamla Falls).
Daliyot Path to the Daliyot Falls: 3.5 Km each way. About 4 hours for the round trip. There is only water in the falls during the winter or spring. A shorter hike to the Falls is from the Dailiyot Forest (see Daliyot Forest and Daliyot Falls) .