Gamla has it all: a dramatic saga, rugged landscape and magnificent vistas to match, and a wonderful foray into nature, including a waterfall and great raptors soaring overhead.
Gamla is the site of a Jewish city founded in the second-century CE Hasmonean times, located on a craggy basalt outcropping in the western Golan Heights.
One look at the hump-like shape of the hill is enough to understand why it was called Gamla, which comes from the Hebrew word for camel. Two thousand years ago, the Jewish historian Josephus described the siege of the walled city of Gamla by the Roman general Vespasian, who marched across the Galilee to subdue the Golan in 67 CE at the beginning of the Great Revolt.
Seven months later, the Romans overcame the walls and streamed into the city. Josephus says the 9,000 remaining inhabitants fought their way to the edge of their town and threw themselves to their deaths into the gorge below when they realized they could not avoid capture. This element of the story has led to the site’s nickname, “the Masada of the north.”
Even a view of Gamla from the observation platform at the top of the trail is thrilling. You can clearly see the walls, the actual tower Josephus says the Romans undermined by pulling out the bottom stones, and the synagogue, one of the oldest ever found. Archaeologists discovered not only these architectural remains, but many other artifacts: the picks the Romans used to climb the walls, thousands of missile stones and arrowheads, as well as coins minted by the rebels stamped “For the salvation of Holy Jerusalem.”
Good walkers will enjoy the fairly steep trail to the antiquities (about one hour down and, of course, longer coming back up). Quotes from Josephus’ account are inscribed on boulders along the trail. At the site itself you’ll get a closer look at the massive round tower, and the synagogue that was the heart and soul of the town that occupied these slopes two millennia ago. The trail also leads to the industrial zone of the community – its olive presses – which have been reconstructed to show visitors how they worked and help reveal elements of the daily life of this vibrant and prosperous community.
A short walk from the parking lot leads to the observatory built by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority next to Byzantine ruins. Here visitors and bird watchers can enjoy the sight of the Griffon vultures for which Gamla is famous, as they effortlessly catch the updrafts from the cliffs where they nest. From here you can also see the 150-foot high Gamla waterfall, to which another trail leads. A brochure in English showing all the trails comes with your entrance ticket; the rangers are happy to give advice on the best way to see the site.
To complement your experience, visit the archaeological museum at nearby Katzrin, which features a dramatic audio-visual presentation about Gamla among its displays.