Updated: Apr 21, 2021
Yes, I know, its quite a bombastic title, and yes, sometimes we do want to throw our children down the precipice… however, kidding aside, would you be able to, under certain unimaginable circumstances, kill your children?
There have been such times in Jewish history, during times of oppression, violence, pogroms and most recently the Holocaust, when parents have had to take desperate measures, sometimes throwing children from moving trains destined to slaughter, handing over their children to strangers with no assurance of ever seeing them again, suffocating crying babies in order to save Jews in hiding from detection, or killing children to avoid their being raped, enslaved or killed by approaching enemy soldiers…
I cannot imagine being in such circumstances. And yet, to stand on hallowed ground where parents had not choice but to take such measures is deeply moving. Let me take you to one such place…
We are in northern Israel, on the Golan Heights and this is the amazing site of Gamla. The year is 67 CE and the Jewish revolt against the Romans is in full swing. Since not all the towns in the Galilee and the Golan are rebelling, Gamla has filled with refugees from other battles and towns, and with Jewish zealots who in their blind rage against the oppresive Romans, have decided to take on the most powerful army in the world. Rebel towns are falling one by one, but Gamla refuses to surrender.
Flavius Josephus, who originally led the Jewish rebel forces in the North and fortified the town, describes Gamla in his book The Jewish War:
“Sloping down from a towering peak is a spur like a long shaggy neck, behind which rides a symmetrical hump, so that the outline resembles that of a camel; hence the name, the exact form of the word being obscured by the local pronunciation. On the face and both sides it is cut off by impassable ravines. Near the tail it is rather more accessible, where it is detached from the hill; but here too, by digging a trench across, the inhabitants made access very difficult. Built against the almost vertical flank the houses were piled on top of one another, and the town seemed to be hung in air and on the point of tumbling on top of itself from its very steepness. It faced south and its southern crest, which rose to an immense height, served as citadel, resting on an unwalled precipice that went straight down into the deepest ravine…“
Agrippa II, the local governor, lays siege on the town for seven months with no luck; the town is still holding out, hunger and desperation prevail.
Vespasian, the Roman general, and his son Titus arrive from Rome to quell the rebellion and make their way to the Golan. After several attempts at breaching the walls of Gamla, the Roman soldiers break through and the killing begins… rebels, soldiers, women, children, all hell breaks loose in the tight confines of an overcrowded, walled hilltop town.
Josephus describes the scene:
“Despairing of escape and hemmed in every way, they (the Jews) flung their wives and children and themselves too into the immensely deep artificial ravine that yawned under the citadel. In fact the fury of the victors seemed less destructive than the suicidal frenzy of the trapped men; 4,000 fell by Roman swords, but those who plunged to destruction proved to be over 5,000.”
Never fails to take my breath away.
A walk around Ancient Gamla is a fascinating study of the lives of Jews during Second Temple times. It includes one of the few Second Temple era synagogues ever found and several mikvehs (ritual baths). Archaeological digs here also uncovered a treasure trove of Roman arrowheads, Judean coins, armor pieces, pottery, Roman sandals, ballistic projectiles, battering ram pieces, etc. Some of these finds are beautifully exhibited in the Hecht Museum in Haifa and are certainly worth the visit.
Today Gamla is a Nature Reserve which combines history and archaeology, great hikes, gorgeous ravines, waterfalls, gorges and a walk through a cluster of Neolithic dolmens.
It is also home to dozens of pairs of Griffon vultures who nest in Gamla’s cliffs, and can be viewed from the cliff-edge observation