Arbel cliff, 180m above sea level and 380m above the Sea of Galilee. North of us is Mount Nitai named after a famous individual from ancient Arbel and his name is Nittai of Arbela, who lived in the 2nd century BCE. He was the presiding judge or another description would be vice president of the Sanhedrin alongside the president of the Sanhedrin who was at the time Joshua ben Perchyah, probably during the reign of John Hyrcanus the Hasmonean.
The name Nitai has been given to the mountain in recent times. In the 2nd temple and Roman periods, the name Arbel was probably used for the two sides of the creek. Mount Arbel and Mount Nitai have hundreds of natural caves, which have been transformed to enable man to use them for residence, especially in times of need. Coins from various periods were discovered here – from John Hyrcanus period (104-134 BCE), to a coin of the emperor Anastasius from 496 CE. Pottery and fragments of oil candles dating to the first century CE have been found in many caves.
Three significant battles took place here. The first 2 battles occurred during the period when the Hasmoneans, a Jewish dynasty ruled the country for a century.
The First Battle – In the first book of Hasmoneans, chapter 9 – Demetrius Soter, who was king of the Seleucid empire in Syria between 162-150 BCE, sent Bacchides, a Seleucid general to Judea to suppress the Hasmonean revolt. Bacchides on his way from Syria to Judea, passes through Arbel, conquers the place, and kills many of its population. The governing pendulum continues and Judah Aristobulus of the Hasmoneans takes control of Galilee in 103-104 BCE.
The Hiding Caves – There are more than 120 caves located on several levels. They were hewn or prepared for the locals to reside in. In some caves there are 2-3 rooms, typical height is 2 meters. Next to each group of caves there is a rock pillar that makes it difficult to access them. In different places, passages were found between caves that are on different height levels, using ladders for movement which were placed internally and were hidden to a viewer from the outside. The caves complex was organized as a living unit with functional rooms that were probably intended for cooking, sleeping and storage. Many of them have been hit over the years by severe landslides. In addition to the caves, there were several dozen plastered caves, most of them for storing water, and a few were ritual purification bath’s, in Hebrew called Mikveh. As a background – Immersion in water is the main (and sometimes the only) stage in many Jewish purification processes from various impurities. Below the caves, there were many scattered pieces of ceramics from the Roman period to the Byzantine period. At least based on the ceramics, it does not appear that a settlement existed here beyond the Byzantine period.
The Second Battle – I mentioned three significant battles that took place here, the first one described was between Bacchides, a Seleucid general and the Hasmoneans in 161 BCE. The second battle occurred 120 years later between Herod who was appointed in 40 BCE by the Romans to rule Judea, and Mattathias Antigonus II who served at that time as the Hasmonean’s King. Herod begins his battle with Antigonus and his Jewish supporters here in Arbel in the winter of 38/39 BCE. The opposition to Herod was severe, and Herod made a great effort in the battle with the Jews loyal to Antigonus who hid in the caves and were cruelly killed by Herod’s soldiers. The killing method involved lowering soldiers in cabinets tied with ropes to the height of the cave openings, and then using long poles with hooks dragging the locals out of the caves, throwing them into the abysses. Many of the rebels decided to commit suicide rather than surrendering to Herod’s soldiers. There is a famous case told by Yosef ben Matityahu (Josephus Flavius) in his book “The Jewish War against the Romans”. It’s about an old Jew that was captured in one of the caves together with his wife and seven children. Not only did he refuse to surrender, but he also prevented his family from doing so. He killed all his sons and his wife, and before committing suicide from the top of the cliff he severely attacked the lowliness of Herod.
As soon as Herod left Galilee on his way to Samaria, the revolt in the Galilee flared up again, and he was forced to return to suppress it once more. This repeated for the third time when Herod is just before the siege of Jerusalem. This time he receives massive help from the Roman army, and he quickly conquered the Galilee for the third time. Herod then with the help of Gaius Sosius fought over Jerusalem, and after three months of bitter battles, the city surrenders. Antigonus was captured and execute by beheading.
It is important to note that Matityahu Antigonus the last Hasmonean king was from a Roman point of view a very difficult enemy, and in fact until the revolt of Bar Kochba 200 years later, there was no dominant leader like him, who stood for such a long time against the Romans.
The Third Battle – The Jewish army commander of the Galilee and the Golan Heights during the Great Revolt, 2000 years ago, was Yosef ben Matityahu, and I highly recommend you read his book “The War of the Jews against the Romans”. He estimated at the beginning of the preparations for the Great Revolt in 66 CE, that the Romans would begin to suppress the revolt in Galilee, so he fortified seventeen of the dozens of Jewish locations from the Lower Galilee to the Golan.
His concept was defense, meaning, concentrating the army forces supporting the revolt within the fortified locations, defend them, to detain the Romans and gain as much time as possible. This is probably in anticipation of some event that will stop the Romans. What can this event be? It can be help from heaven, similar to the salvation of Jerusalem in Sennacherib’s journey in 701 BCE – when 185,000 Assyrian soldiers died over night before attacking Jerusalem, an event that left a great impression on the minds of the people (as mentioned in the book of 2 Kings, chapter 19, verse 35). Another option is wait for a foreign intervention such as assistance from the Parthian Empire.
Vespasian a future Roman emperor – he conducted the battles on the Roman side. He also brought his son Titus, a Roman general to assist. Vespasian arrived in Acre, which served as an important center for the Roman army, where he organized his army toward his battle with the Jews. There are opinions that the Arbel Caves were also part of the fortifications that Yosef ben-Matityahu completed, and are called ‘the caves around the Ganisar Sea’ or ‘the village of the Arbel Caves’, yet some scholars claim that according to the wall and remains on Mount Nitai just across the valley and above us, the fortification was actually done on mount Nitai, and I invite you to watch the dedicated video on Mount Nitai, which will provide you a more holistic view of the preparations towards the great revolt.
Two ancient Jewish villages were exposed close to our location. In both Arbel and Wadi Hammam, synagogues with an impressive appearance were found. Considering the similar history of the two locations, it can be assumed that the population of these two villages prepared the natural caves as shelters. As I mentioned earlier, both Mount Arbel and Mount Nitai today were probably called Arbel in Roman times, so it is possible that some of the battles during the Great Revolt, and perhaps even most of them, were in the caves of Mount Nitai and I will not expand beyond that in this video.
As usual I will end with a question for you – Arbel was known in Roman times for manufacturing a particular product, what was the product? – The answer will appear at the end of the video.