The 2,000-year-old synagogue at Gamla, the oldest yet found in Israel.

Under a burning sun, I climb a rocky basalt ridge on the Golan Heights, surrounded by deep gorges, high above the Sea of Galilee, eager to view the ruins of the ancient city of Gamla. There is a fantastic view up here onto the plateau, I’m enclosed on all sides by steep ravines, except by a shallow saddle on the east.

The ruins of the ancient city Gamla (Ticia Verveer)

As I approach the top, I understand why the first century BCE settlers were inspired to name this steep hill Gamla, the narrow-pointed hill really resembles the hump-backed desert animal. In Aramaic, the word Gamla means camel (in Hebrew gamal), the language spoken by the inhabitants during this period.

The Hasmonean ruler Alexander Yannaeus founded the city in the first century BCE and it continued to be inhabited by Jews. Flavius Josephus was captain of the Galilee regiment at Gamla, he gave us a very detailed topographical description of the city, and describes the siege under the command of Vespasian. The Romans attempted to take the city by means of a ramp but were turned back by the defenders. Sadly, they succeeded on the second attempt by penetrating the fortifications.

The Roman legions brought battering rams to three points of the city wall, broke through the wall and then, according to Josephus, they poured “through the breach with loud trumpet-blasts, clash of arms and the soldiers’ battle-cries.”

Josephus describes the heartbreaking fate of the inhabitants in The Jewish War IV, 1-83, where thousands were slaughtered, and others chose to jump to their deaths from the top of the cliff. Josephus had become a Roman prisoner, a few months before the attack on Gamla, and may have been an eyewitness. The fall of Gamla was in the month of Hyperberetaios (Tishri – September- October), the city was never settled again, and its location was forgotten.

The houses of these Jewish settlers stood on the more graduated southern slope on top of the hill, providing the city with outstanding defensive advantages, with a perfect view of the east side, the only direction from which you could climb the hill.

From the terrace, a steep path leads down to the old town, accessible to good walkers (Ticia Verveer)

An Israeli archaeological survey of the Golan located Gamla, and a team led by Shmaryahu Guttman excavated the site from 1976 until 1978. The site was strewn with iron arrowheads and Roman ballista (catapult) stones.

Under the massive Second Temple-period fortification wall, archaeologists stumbled onto an astoundingly find, traces of an almost 5,000-year-old wall. It was built during the Early Bronze Age, by people who also thought this strategical hill was the perfect place to live. The site was abandoned around 2500 BCE, and strangely not resettled until about 150 BCE.

Archaeological excavations proved that Josephus was very precise in his description, which is remarkable, seldom do literary sources and archaeological data complement each other in such a way. The more than 2,000 basalt ballista stones and 1,600 iron arrowheads that were found are a sorrowful reminder of the aggression off the Romans. Within the settlement a concentration of several dozen ballista stones was discovered. Probably, the defenders gathered the ballista stones that had fallen on the city and hurled them back at the Romans the following day.

The most exciting discovery of the excavation, and the reason why I am here, is a large public building, with benches intended for public gatherings, the amazing remains of an ancient synagogue, the oldest yet found in Israel.

The synagogue at Gamla (Ticia Verveer)

The origins and early history of the synagogue are still cloaked in mystery. We do not know where and when the first synagogue emerged. What we do know, is that the emergence of the synagogue signaled one of the most revolutionary innovations in the history of ancient Judaism.

The earliest traces of the existence of synagogues were found in Egypt. Two inscriptions, dating from the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-221 BCE) mention synagogues. A Greek inscription found in the City of David was long thought to prove there was a synagogue in Jerusalem while the Second Temple was still standing. However, according to epigraphic criteria, it could not have been written before the end of the second century or the start of the third century CE.

Religious life can be difficult to identify in the archaeological record. Synagogue remains reflect the visible side of the Jewish community, the public sphere, showing us that there were Jews living here. The traditional distinction between private and public Jewish life is marked by the old rule that a minimum of ten adult male Jews is required for the recitation of certain prayers. The Hebrew word minyan means a number, but it is used to refer to the number required to make up a congregation for public worship. In fact, the word synagogue comes from the Greek word originally meaning “an assembly”. In ancient Greek Jewish texts, synagogue usually means the community of the Jews. It makes sense that the minyan may have developed from a gathering at any suitable place, into a fixed gathering, and with time into a synagogue.

The most likely theory is that synagogues were created after the exile, with its origins linked to the intense transformation that Jewish society was undergoing in the Hellenistic period. Perhaps the most important, was the rise of a new intellectual elite, the Pharisees, who wanted to limit the control which the priests of the Temple had over society. It was in 70 CE, when the sanctuary was destroyed, that the synagogue replaced the Temple as the official religious institution of rabbinical Judaism. The “house of prayer” (beth ha-tefillah) became the place where a fixed liturgy was followed, and regular services were held. Buildings were constructed to shelter the people during worship (beth ha-kenesset), and the synagogue was now called the place of the “Divine Presence” (Shekhina), a term previously reserved for the Temple. It is important to note that this specific transformation solely took place in Palestine.

Until now, we have been able to identify three prayer halls that predate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Two of these were part of fortresses built by Herod, at Herodium and at Masada. The reception rooms (triclinia) of theses palaces were transformed into prayer halls when they were occupied by the Jewish rebels. The third synagogue was found here at Gamla, the structure was probably built between 23 and 41 CE.

These three, are the only ones known in the Holy Land from the first century CE and are considered as prototypes. Before this period, no other structures are known to have been used as synagogues, except in the Diaspora. For example, in Delos, a large commercial center and a thoroughfare to eastern Mediterranean countries, a synagogue existed in the first century BCE, which remained in use until the second century CE. Ancient literary sources mention synagogues in different places in Lower Egypt, Asia Minor, North Africa, and Rome.

The building, here at Gamla, was destroyed together with the entire town when the Romans crushed the Jewish Revolt in the year 67 CE. Due to the problematic topography, the basalt structure (17 by 25,5 meters), is orientated to the southwest.

Gamla synagogue (Ticia Verveer)

A small vestibule with a tripartite entrance leads into the hall. All the walls were lined with rows of three to five benches, leaving wide passages behind the rows. There were colonnades with “heart-shaped” columns at the corners along the four sides of the open rectangular space. The focus of the hall was in the center, and the floor was not paved. A strip of paving stones underlies the lines of columns to provide a base for their support.  A short strip of stone slabs was also found in the center of the main hall providing support for two additional columns. The little building to the south of the synagogue, contained a mikveh (ritual bath).

Column head at the Gamla synagogue (Ticia Verveer)

Charred wooden fragments, hundreds of iron nails, an ash layer, Roman arrowheads, and Roman ballista balls were discovered inside the building. The wooden beams that were set on top of the columns to hold the roof, most likely collapsed under the weight of the catapult stones, and the blazing fire probably started afterwards.

The First Jewish Revolt had a deep and lasting impact on the development and shape of Judaism. Gamla is a testimony of life before the Revolt, the generations in which Jews lived under the political jurisdiction of Rome and the religious oversight of Jerusalem. A town that turned rebellious under the influence of refugees flowing in, and became the last haven for northern Jews who defied Rome.

The time around dusk, when the last sun rays fall through the hills, the synagogue, in blazing light, is particularly impressive. And to think that I am standing here in a 2,000-year-old house of worship, surrounded by the ghosts who inhabited this city, gives me goosebumps. There is something about touching Jewish history in this way, visiting this synagogue, transporting back into the past, it overwhelms the senses and enthuses the emotions beyond what words can describe.

To conclude your visit to Gamla, it’s a good idea to visit the Golan Archaeological Museum in nearby Qatzrin. It’s also well worth taking the time to visit the observation points; The northern Sea of Galilee and Bet Tsayda Valley, The lower Galilee and Upper Galilee ranges, The eastern hill of the Golan Heights and of Mt. Hermon.

The Golan Archaeological Museum (Ticia Verveer)

Waterfalls are just some of the wonders awaiting you, the cliffs are home to the largest and most important nesting colony of griffon vultures and raptors in the country.

(Ticia Verveer)
About the Author
I have had the privilege to work as a professional archaeologist on a vast number of archaeological sites in the Middle East, Sahel and North Africa. I write about Jewish history, culture and heritage, from ancient texts to modern politics.
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