The Ancient Synagogue in Gamla

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We are in the ancient city of Gamla. Gamla was the last stop before the Roman legions made their way to Jerusalem, to suppress the great revolt, conquer Jerusalem and destroy the Temple. We are at the Synagogue of Gamla, a unique building. It was probably built during the time of Alexander Yannai the Hasmonean, and destroyed with the conquest of the city by the Roman legions under the command of Vespasian and Titus, in the fall of the year 67.

Most of the coins found on the floor of the synagogue hall and below it, are Seleucid and Hasmonean coins, the latest of which is from the time of Herod the great. This synagogue is unique, in part, because it was built at a time when the Temple still existed in Jerusalem.

The synagogue was built in the eastern part of Gamla near the entrance to the city. This is actually a Jewish community center, which included a synagogue, a purification bath named in Hebrew mikveh, and a study room.

This synagogue is the earliest of the synagogues known to us that was designed and built as a dedicated building in a Jewish city. The synagogue is not facing Jerusalem. The direction of the building was dictated by the topography and the engineering requirements of building on such a steep slope and not by the tradition of the direction of the building towards Jerusalem, a tradition that developed after the destruction of the Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans 3 years after the destruction of Gamla. It seems that the definition of the building as a community center that was used for prayer, Torah study and also for non-religious gatherings, will more accurately define the essence of the building.

Its construction on the steep slope was a complex engineering task that required quarrying on the slope, filling on the other side of the slope and leveling. The building is rectangular, divided into a main hall and stoas on both sides, which are passageways. The division is done by four rows of columns that have survived only in part, with ornate capitals and decorations.

On the floor of the hall at the edge of the benches there is a strip of flooring of a uniform width, about one meter, except on the west side. This strip, which is made of basalt stones, was also used as a foundation for the columns.

The center of the hall, divided by another strip of stone paving, into two unequal parts. This strip was used as a base for a fifth row of columns that crossed the width of the hall. The thickness of these paving stones is about 30cm.

An inspection conducted in several places in the hall revealed that under the surface of the floor there is a uniform filling of small pieces of basalt, probably waste from the building stones, which is 5 to 10cm deep below the surface of the floor. This indicates that there was no flooring in the entire hall. On top of the debris layer was a layer of pickled earth and probably mats or carpets above it.

The ceiling of the synagogue was probably made of branches, reeds, dirt and plaster placed on top of a wooden truss. Neither roof tiles nor architrave-like architectural items were found, but only cornices that were fixed in the walls and on top of which was the roof structure. Because of the wide distance between the rows of columns, approx. 7m, they needed extra-long wooden beams to roof the building.

The pillars that stood in the corners of the hall have a heart-shaped cross section, and we saw this in various synagogues in the Galilee such as in Wadi Hamam and in Arbel, and each has a separate video in the YT channel. You see inaccuracy and differences in the methods of working the headers and bases, evidence of the level of the stone masons who were probably local. The floor of the central hall was not tiled, and was probably covered with carpets or mats.

Near the northwest corner of the central hall an alcove was found, perhaps it was used as the Torah Ark in Hebrew named Aron Hakodesh. On the western side, which is actually southwest, two openings were discovered. One is wide, and it leads to the center of the hall, and the other is narrow, and it leads to the elevated northern surface. The walls of the building are made of basalt stones polished to a good standard and its facade is made of extremely large stones. To the west of the synagogue is the entrance room, and in front of it, on both sides of the main entrance are built service rooms.

Nearby to the west is the mikveh. The purification bath, named in Hebrew mikveh, is located in front of the synagogue, and is the largest of the 4 mikvehs uncovered in the city. It was a public facility connected to the synagogue and built together with it. Its volume is approx. 20 cubic meters, and in the north east corner, is a small pool that its function was to store the waste and prevent it from reaching the mikveh, and also as a reservoir for rainwater that was drained from the roof of the synagogue. In addition, a channel was found that led water to the mikveh and it is probably the end of the water channel that passed through the study room and the synagogue hall. The two lower steps are especially wide in order to ensure a stable footing for the users and to take into account people of different heights. All the walls are plastered with several layers of red plaster, waterproof plaster.

The eastern wall of the synagogue complex is a double wall, which probably also served as the city wall, because it faced outside the city. Between the two walls were several rooms. In the southern one, which was cleared of stones, a wall crossing the city wall from east to west was discovered in the north, with an opening to the north. The room and the opening were found to be full of stones, most of them fieldstones mixed with brittle material and few potteries from the Roman period. It turns out that the room was filed with the stones in order to thicken the wall so to have a better chance to stand the Roman effort to break into the city.

As you can see, there are benches around the walls of the room. 2 from the east, 2 from the north, 1 from the west and 1 from the south and also on both sides of the opening there is 1 bench. In the west wall closing the synagogue, there is a window to the synagogue hall. It seems that it was a study room adjacent to the synagogue.

So, we saw that adjacent to the synagogue were a study room, a mikveh and a courtyard – it was a sort of community center for educational activities and prayer, and all this during the time that the temple existed, while the common thought was that synagogues started to be built only after the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.

In the hall and especially along the elevated surface bordering the northern wall, fascinating remains from the days of the revolt were discovered. A number of fireplaces, which were probably intended for cooking, and many potteries such as cooking pots, jugs and candles, which indicate that the synagogue served as a shelter for refugees who came to the city from the Galilee and the surrounding area, just as nowadays in times of emergency schools and public institutions are opened to receive refugees.

Adjacent to the synagogue to the south was a 4-meter-wide street that led to one of the main entrances to the city. On this street you can go up the stairs to the southeast corner of the synagogue hall next to the entrance to the study room. It is not known whether this entrance was used for special needs or for a special audience.

And to conclude, as usual, I have a question for you, how many people were in Gamla during the Roman siege, the answer will appear at the end of the video.

How to get there?

Information Sources

  1. Book: Gamla: A city in rebellion, Authors: Shmaria Gutman, Publisher: Ministry of Defense
  2. Book: Ariel: A Journal for the Knowledge of Eretz Israel - The Golan Heights, Editors: Eli Shiler and Moshe Inbar, Publisher: Ariel
  3. Book: The new Israel Guide, book 2 – Hermon, Golan, Hula Valley, Editor: Menachem Markus, Publisher: Keter
  4. Book: The Jewish War, Author: Josephus Flavius
  5. Qadmoniot: Magazine for the Antiquities of Eretz-Israel & Bible Lands No. 121, Publisher: Israel Exploration Society Jerusalem
  6. The new encyclopedia for archeological excavations in Israel

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