Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Journey to Gamla

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 27 September 2002

Many have heard the chilling tale of the Jewish zealots of the mountaintop fortress of Masada, near the Dead Sea, who in 70 A.D. chose suicide rather than a life as slaves of the conquering Roman army. Far fewer have heard of Gamla, an ancient site in the Golan Heights that is known in Israel as the Masada of the North.

The ancient Jewish town built on the "almost vertical flank"* of the peak known as Gamla (derived from the Hebrew word for camel, "gamal," which the steep sides of the mountain resemble) was destroyed in seven months of fighting in 67 A.D. When it became clear that the Romans would soon conquer the entire site, the 9,000 remaining Jews leapt to their deaths in the abyss below the town. The town was never rebuilt, and visitors today can see enough of the ruins to visualize all that once was, and all that was lost.

In addition to the stark remains of the ancient past, travelers can explore the Gamla Nature Reserve, home to many species of predatory birds, most notably eagles and vultures. These majestic birds soar eerily over the bleak land, swooping in and out of the ravines. One can almost imagine these same birds having been here almost 2,000 years ago, observing from the safety of the skies the carnage men inflicted upon one another.

Also found at Gamla is the tallest waterfall in all of Israel. At 170 feet, it is perhaps not terribly impressive to those used to the splendors of the Yosemite Valley. Still, the Gamla waterfall is a spectacular jewel enhanced by its dramatic, chiseled setting. Even in the arid heat of late September, we discovered a sparkling, tantalizing spill of water, flowing endlessly down the precipitous cliff face.

In addition to these treasures, we had yet another reason to make the journey to Gamla. Until recently, thousands of young soldiers would hike some 20 kilometers up the mountain to Gamla, in darkness, to be sworn into the Israeli Defence Force. It was also there that they received the two items the army still considers vital to its soldiers: a rifle and a bible. It was at Gamla, 24 years ago, that my husband was sworn into the IDF. Nowadays, all new soldiers are inducted into the army in a ceremony at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem.

No trip through the Golan Heights can be accomplished without spotting the dozens of monuments to the fallen of other, more recent wars. You can't drive more than a kilometer or so without encountering another marker, more flags, freshly cut flowers and flickering memorial candles. There are also many large fields, fenced off with barbed wire. These bear notices warning of land mines, a legacy left by the retreating Syrians in 1967, exactly 1,900 years after the fall of the Jewish outpost of Gamla. On this journey of ours the ruins, memorial sites, and land mines seemed to me to blend into a portrait of this land, and the people who have long fought for their right to live upon it.

* The Jewish War, by Flavius Josephus

(c) Amy Samin

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