The Esra hiking group recently took an invigorating and thought-provoking trip to the Golan Heights. The mid-April temperature was not too hot and not too cold, the rain that had been forecast failed to materialize, and the strong winds only buffeted us intermittently. It was a great hike.
On the bus ride north, we enjoyed the lush greenery and rolling hills, soon to turn amber as the heat of summer sets in. The Golan Heights is extremely beautiful at this time of year. The high plateau which overlooks the Hula Valley and Lake Kinneret was full of wildflowers: yellow, blue, purple, white and even a few red ones, remnants of late winter. The Golan too was very green, the result of the about-average winter rainfall.
Our destination for this hike was Gamla, known as the Masada of the North. The Talmud describes Gamla as a walled city dating from the time of Joshua, at the very beginning of the Israelites' conquest of Cana'an, which coincided with the early Bronze Age. The city was abandoned for a time, but was rebuilt in the Hellenistic period (mid-2nd centure BCE).
The story of Gamla is best known through the writing of Flavius Josephus, originally named Joseph, son of Matthias. A very controversial figure in Jewish history, Josephus was born about 37 CE and was a Jerusalem aristocrat. Eager to learn philosophy and the ways of the world, Josephus immersed himself in studies, but also enjoyed adventure. In the year 64, he went to Rome and negotiated the release of Jewish hostages. But when he returned home, Josephus found his country about to challenge the Roman Empire whose obnoxious procurator (governor), Florus, had inflamed the Jews against Rome by his confiscatory taxation schemes.
Josephus became a revolutionary and helped to rout the Romans in Jerusalem. He was sent to the Galilee district in the north to organize the populace to fight the Roman legions commanded by Vespasian. General Josephus then supervised the building of the fortifications in Gamla. After failing to protect the prosperous town of Sepphoris (Zippori) he and the other defenders decided to draw lots and kill themselves rather that surrender to Vespasian. Somehow, Josephus was the only survivor. He was captured by the Romans, but quickly ingratiated himself with Vespasian and his son Titus, by prophesying that Vespasian would become the Roman emperor. When this eventually happened, Josephus' future was made. To shorten a long story, the turncoat Jewish general was made a Roman citizen, given the name Flavius Josephus, and became a historian whose books are still read today. The gallant Jewish fighter had betrayed his people, but he lived on to write books which chronicle Jewish history in a sympathetic light.
To return to the subject of Gamla, our group hiked over hills and alongside beautiful ravines to enter the national reserve surrounding Gamla. As we surveyed the precipice shaped like a camel (gamal in Hebrew) far below us on which Gamla was built, we observed that the town was impregnable on three sides since it was only easily accessible from eastwards. The town withstood the first Roman siege for seven months, but under the second assault by three Roman legions led by Vespasian its walls were breached. Nevertheless, the Romans suffered a humiliating defeat since many of their soldiers were killed. Sometime later, after many of Gamla's defenders had slipped away to their homes, Vespasian's son Titus led 200 Romans in a guerilla attack which surprised and overpowered the remaining defenders. In the end, all the inhabitants of Gamla died. The term "Masada of the North" comes from the fact that many of the nine thousand Jewish casualties jumped or were pushed off the utmost heights of the town to their deaths. Josephus chronicled all this in his famous history, The Jewish War.
We discussed the fate of the residents of Gamla with Ilan, our excellent guide, while we sat in the impressive ruins of one of the most ancient synagogues of Israel, one which predates the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Ilan disputed the idea that the deaths at Gamla were similar to the Jewish Zealots' suicides at Masada. Here, archaeological evidence has been found of a furious battle in the town, with serious damage to the synagogue. In addition, the topography of the town lends itself to the theory that the defenders fled to this highest point as their numbers ebbed, only to be killed or thrown off the heights into the ravine.
In any event, Ilan posted the question as to who were the greater heroes, those who committed suicide at Masada (where even today some new army recruits have their swearing-in ceremony) or the citizens of Zippori who opened the city's gates to Vespasian's soldiers. Within one hundred years of accepting Roman rule, Zippori became the foremost center of Jewish religious and spiritual life in the Land of Israel. The Sanhedrin (supreme Jewish religious and judicial body) was located there and the prosperous city remained acenter of Bible study for centuries. After their destructions, neither Masada nor Gamla were ever rebuilt, in contrast to Zippori's prosperity.
After the arduous 700 foot climb back up to the cliffs overlooking Gamla, we walked to the scenic lookout to enjoy some of the most exciting bird-watching in Israel. Besides the ancient city of Gamla, the park is famous for the large numbers of vultures, eagles and hawks which frequent this area. While we watched scavenging Griffon vultures gliding between the peaks, a park ranger explained a lot about the avian life in the area. The most interesting fact that we learned about vultures was that they can spot carcasses and other vultures at distances of up to five miles, guaranteeing that any carcass will be the scene of a mass feast. Vultures can consume a huge percentage of their bodyweight in a day, but can also go for a few weeks without eating, if necessary.
Unfortunately, there was not enough time to walk to the nearby Gamla waterfall and the birds' nesting cliffs before the park closed, but we were able to enjoy the Dolmen trail which leads to the waterfall. Dolmens are small structures made of two large upright stones and a flat capstone which date back about 5,000 years and were probably used for funereal rites. The monuments provided an interesting conclusion to our unforgettable trip to the Golan Heights and the Gamla Nature Reserve, courtesy of the Esra hiking club.