Perched on a camel hump-shaped spur overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Gamla (in Aramaic: Camel) is one of Israel’s most significant archaeological sites. The Hasmoneans established Gamla, but in 67 CE, the Romans conquered and demolished the site, never to be settled again.
History and Archaeology of Gamla
Gamla was settled in the Hellenistic period, and unlike its neighboring city, Hippos, it had an evident Jewish character. When the Jewish significant revolt broke out, they fortified the site, yet in 67 CE, the Roman forces besieged the city and eventually conquered it. The town was destroyed and never settled again. Finally, even its location was forgotten. Gamla was rediscovered only in 1968, after the Six-Day War. Excavation of the site, led by archaeologist Shemaryahu Gutman, uncovered a wealth of finds attesting to Gamla’s daily life, including one of the oldest synagogues in the world. They also found ample evidence of the Romans’ fierce attack and conquest of Gamla.
How Come Gamla is Not As Famous as Masada?
Although dubbed “Masada of the North”, Gamla is not as known as Masada. In reality, unlike in Masada, at Gamla, the Jews did fight back against the Romans, and in Gamla, some died when escaping the Romans, but they did not deliberately commit suicide. Yet Masada was rediscovered in the 19th century and fully excavated in the 1960s. Its remains also proved to be well preserved, and since 1970, a cable car has brought visitors to its summit in comfort. But it seems that the controversial suicidal act of the refugees in Masada is what made it so known. Gamla, where the rebels did fight back and nearly killed Vespesian, is ironically visited by far less than Masada. Yet, if any site represents the best Jewish heroism in the Roman period, it is Gamla.
Today, Gamla is a national park and a nature reserve. A short walk from the parking lot leads to a panoramic view of the site, where Vespasian and Titus plotted how to conquer the city. A steep and windy trail from the viewpoint leads to the site itself. But it is a strenuous hike that takes over an hour each way. The viewpoint also provides excellent vistas of the Sea of Galilee, the Gamla waterfall, and the nesting enclaves of Griffon vultures. Some 80 vultures nest in the cliffs around Gamla, enchanting the visitors when soaring overhead with their 10-foot spread wings. It is also possible to hike to Gamla Waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Israel (170 feet). The hike takes about 2 hours.
Bar-Mitzvah in the Ancient Synagogue of Gamla
Among the many finds made in Gamla, the archeologists uncovered a rare first-century synagogue with a ritual bath (mikveh) near its entrance. Such a site can also be an exceptional location for a Bar/Bat-Mizvah ceremony. Setting the event in a synagogue from the time of the Temple, next to a battle site against the Romans, will make the event unforgettable. Reading from the Torah here, in Gamla, strongly connects the Child’s festive moment to Judaism in antiquity in the Holy Land. The event can be combined with a visit to a Shofar workshop nearby (‘Kol Shofar‘), where the child can make his own Shofar from Ram’s horn.