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.

Together, we saw the Banias, the headwaters of the Jordan River. We splashed around the Kinneret, known to me as the Sea of Galilee. Down the road at Megiddo, the place of Armageddon, I watched with eeriness as Israeli fighter jets maneuvered over the valley that is said to fill with blood on the Judgment Day. As we traveled, I peered in to the faces of the people around me, trying to understand why Israelis are so nervous about peace with the Arabs.

This patriotic text proclaims
the importance of Gamla
to history and to the present.

One day, we stumbled across a less-visited archaeological site in the Golan Heights - Gamla, just 11 kilometers from the Syrian border. On that hill site, on that hot August day, I began to understand.

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.

This is the "Ravine of Death,"
where 5,000 Gamlans leapt
to oblivion rather than
being taken as slaves.

The park brochure said that in 66 A.D., the citizens of Gamla struggled against the Romans. They found in solidarity with their brothers and sisters who were under attack in Jerusalem. And like the Jews farther south, the Gamlans eventually could not resist the Roman might. In a brutal, one-day slaughter that deluged the southern-sloped city with blood, Roman warriors hacked, stabbed, and speared 4,000 Gamlans to death. The other 5,000 fled to the camel hump - where I stood and rested - out of range of the spears and arrows. However, the Romans had them pinned and advanced to the apex. In desperation, the Gamlan men threw their wives and children and then themselves into the ravine below. All 5,000. In one day - on the 23rd of Tishri by the Jewish calendar - in early autumn, the entire city was obliterated, lost to the Jews, left to the elements.

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.

This central street is where
Gamlans traded goods
and gossiped

Closer to the main gates and east of the homes, I shuffled along a three-meter wide, smoothly polished black basalt road. The stones had been carefully carved and placed, forming a large, open porch abutting several store fronts. In this, the commercial district, a vibrant community traded in goods and services. Here, neighbors gathered with their daily harvests. Together they worked to create and distribute olive oil, the lifeblood of the community.

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

The long, hot path to the site. Notice
two entrances: the upper entrace was
cut by archaeologists to make access to
the city easier. The lower entrance,
more U-shaped, is where the Roman
battering rams broke through the wall.

imagined the residents praying, as I did then ' asking for help, expressing gratitude for miracles, little and large. I saw birds of prey, circling and diving overhead, as they surely most have 2,000 years before, and I suddenly felt the grip of unimaginable loss. I wiped away unexpected tears.

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.

Just down the hill from Gamla
is the new strategically located
town of Katzrin.

I returned to the car with an empty water bottle, and we three women drove 20 kilometers down the road to Katzrin, a new Israeli town, sparkling white, squeaky clean. Like all new towns in the Golan, it was built expressly to expand the Israeli population, so that returning the land to Syria would be more difficult. Among the shimmering new homes, shopping centers, and schools, a small, elegant, air-conditioned museum displayed Gamla's articles of wealth and destruction - pots, ceramics, coins, and uncountable roman spear- and arrowheads.

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.

Gamla fell in the year 67 A.D. during the time of the Jewish Revolt and the Roman occupation. Up until this time, Judaism was a temple-based religion. That meant that all religious activities took place at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, now the site of the Dome of the Rock, the Islamic shrine. Because Jews at that time practiced their religion at the temple, there were not synagogues. Synagogues were a result of the Roman destruction of the Temple. Once the Jews could no longer pray at the Temple, they created mini-temples, synagogues, where they could gather in smaller groups.

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.



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