On my second trip to Israel my in-laws treated me like royalty. I was the new family member, visiting from a faraway land. My sister-in-law, Nava, took three weeks off work, and she and her 18-year-old daughter, Karni, showed me northern Israel.
I climbed to the top of the hill and rested. Yes, I thought, this hill does look like the back of a dromedary, since "gamla" is the Hebrew word for "camel." It was desolate there in the 100-degree heat. Locals didn't want to make the 15- minute walk from the parking lot of the Yehudiya Reserve; Nava and Karni waited for me in the shade at a covered picnic table recently built by the Nature Reserve Authority. They weren't interested in viewing yet another memorial to Jewish grief. As denizens of Jerusalem, they lived with the memories of all the Jewish losses.
I walked alone around the site, but I didn't feel lonely. Pale winds tussled the low grass on the southern hillside behind me. To the west, in the distance, the Kinneret must of gently lapped at its shore, but I couldn't hear it. In the north-side ravine at my feet, only the flapping of eagle and vulture wings broke the deathly silence. From the empty air rose the silent cries of 9,000 Jews who lost their lives at Gamla nearly 20 centuries ago. Their living and their dying was a microcosm of Jewish history.
As I stomped through the powdery dirt that blackened my sandaled feet, I felt a growing sense of familiarity, fear, and awe. At the western edge, near the precipitous drop, I crawled into someone's home. I peeked hopefully for a sign of habitation, knowing that all the valuables were taken in 1978 when major excavations were completed. Still, as I sipped from my water bottle in the dilapidated house, I imagined a family gathered for "aruchat tzhorohim," - lunch. It was a small celebration filled with giggling children, chatty neighbors, a husband and wife quitting work in the midday heat, gathering, sharing, loving, living.
When I could see no more of this vision, I stepped in to the sun, feeling the steep southern slope slipping away from my feet. Through squinted eyes, I saw a hillside packed with lovely terraced garden homes, each one independent yet connected, each one with a breathtaking view of the gorge, the Kinneret, and the eagles.
I turned and approached the city's wall at its most eastern point, where I felt the hair standing on my neck, my pulse quickening. The only part of the wall still standing had three huge holes punched through by Roman battering rams. The massive wounds, where warriors gushed through, gaped to allow five of me. As I stepped through, I felt the desperation and fear the Gamlans felt - followers of a single deity being attacked by many-godded warriors. I gasped for air, imagining huge men leaping through, raging and blood-thirsty. I stepped to the outside of the city, tentatively touching the black stones, feeling their warmth, their sadness.
I re-entered the city through the main gates, purposely saving the synagogue for last. As mere shadow of its former elegance, God's black basalt home now reach only 3 or 4 feet of wall height. I sat on the delicately carved benches marking the out edges of the single room, and
According to the park brochure, Gamla and the whole Golan was recovered during the Six-Day War in June 1967. That summer, Israeli forces annexed the Golan, a precious land with military importance not lost on the Syrians. The hills of the Golan overlook the entire Kinneret Valley, and they had given a perfect, peeping-Tom view of Israeli goings-on. Even though the Golan represents less than 1% of the total land mass of Syria, it is so important that the Syrian government has refused to join with Egypt and Jordan in signing a peace treaty with Israel until the Golan is returned.
Slowly, I identified my grief. I knew that if Syria took the Golan back, I probably could never visit this lovely synagogue again.
A 20-minute film told Gamla's story. As an American, I was dimly aware that I was watching those people living and dying all of Jewish history. For Nava and Karni, it was second nature. These two women, now part of my family, saw, at once, all the fights and deaths of the early resistors, the six million victims of the Holocaust, and the deaths caused by suicide bombers. The presentation concluded with the words, "Gamla will never fall again." As the lights came up, both Nava and Karni dabbed tears of patriotism and grief.
It was then that I understood that the tensions in the Middle East are not just about where the borders of Israel and Palestinian territories are. Our current situation did not start with the independence of Israel in 1948. This is a conflict that started thousands of years before for reasons no one really remembers. It is something that lives in the desert air breathed by all who live and travel here.
What of the synagogue at Gamla? Clearly it was built before the destruction of the Temple, but why? Gamla is several hours' drive, and many days of walking from Jerusalem. Perhaps the Gamlans were religious rebels as well? We don't know, but archaeologists are sure that the synagogue at Gamla is one of the first ever built.
If this story of mass suicide sounds familiar to you, you may be thinking of Masada, the table-top community that resisted the Roman armies for three years. The Roman built an enormous earthen ramp up the side of the mesa and broke through the protective walls, only to find that all the residents had committed suicide, all but two women and three children who were found hiding in a natural water tank, or cistern. The suicide at Masada took place in 70 A.D., and was well documented by the Jewish historian, Josephus.
However, Josephus has taken a lot of criticism because he was living in Rome at the time, working as a writer for Roman pay. He never visited Masada.
It turns out, however, that Josephus was at Gamla. And when it came time to commit suicide, he gallantly offered to help his friends and family join the Holy One. But instead of taking his own life, he turned himself over to the Romans, offering his scriptorial services, and began writing the seven volumes of The Jewish Wars. So perhaps, we might not call the events at Gamla, "the Masada of the North." Rather we might name call Masada "the Gamla of the South."
Feature and photos by Cymber Quinn, San Francisco Correspondent.