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The first thing that comes to our minds, at the mention of the Great Jewish Revolt (66–73 CE), is of course Masada, whose tragic fate and memory were made immortal by Josephus’s account.

But Josephus also wrote (War II, 20,6; War IV: 1; §1–83; Life 11, 24, 35, 37, 58–61, 71–72;) about another city: Gamla, or Gamala, which fell under the Romans in 67 AD, just six years before Masada and under similar circumstances. In fact, the parallel between the two accounts has earned to Gamla the epithet “The Masada of the North,” a comparison, some may argue (as some indeed did), bearing no small deal of exaggeration.

If for no other reason, the comparison (accurate or not) is tempting because being unsure where to stand on the issue is a good excuse for one to go and see for oneself. That’s what we did that day.

The City

“Gamla” means “camel” in Aramaic, a most adequate name for a city standing over a camel-shaped ridge in the middle of the Golan Heights.

Bounded by deep gorges (where in the end some 5000 inhabitants found death, says Josephus, “in a suicidal frenzy”), Gamla managed to resist the initial besiege of Agrippa II for seven months. Its topography and the fortified wall around made the people of Gamla extremely confident in their ability to resist any possible attack. Clearly too confident, as Josephus would later suggest:

“Gamala (…) relied upon the difficulty of the place (…) they had such confidence in the situation of the place, that they thought the enemy could not be too many for them”. (Wars IV, 1.2)

A tragic mistake, of course, but how could they have known? As we ourselves glanced at the valley from the top of the hill that overlooks the city, right where the Romans must have stood, we realized that for Agrippa II it was opus:impossibile.

The War

But then came Vespasian with three Roman legions under his command. Now they were about 16,000 Roman soldiers against 9,000 people defending the city. The legions built their camps over the top of the hill facing the city, a privileged place from where they could keep an eye on their enemies’ movement. Vespasian, however, also ordered the bottom of the mountain to be occupied by trenches built in strategic positions and soldiers ready for action.

Although outnumbered by the Romans, Gamla still resisted for one month, after which time Vespasian’s battering rams managed to breach the city wall.

After breaching the walls, the Romans rushed into city but again at least some were pulled back. Other legionnaires didn’t even have the chance to flee: they got trapped and killed inside the city. Gamla seemed invincible.

At that time, however, the city was already short on food and water. Since food provisions had been gathered and reserved for the fighting men, ordinary citizens began to starve. “Those that were of the bolder sort, says Josephus, fled away from the city through impracticable valleys and subterraneous caverns, while the more infirm perished by famine.” Their moral and confidence, we can imagine, was no longer the same.

In the meantime, Romans continued attacking, “till the two and twentieth day of the month Hyperberetmus, when three soldiers of the fifteenth legion, about the morning watch, got under a high tower that was near them, and undermined it.”

As the tower collapsed with a great noise, fear immediately took over. People ran here and there as though the enemies were already inside the city, and Josephus even mentions an ill man who died that day out of fear.

But the Romans waited for the next day, when finally Titus (Vespasian’s son, who by that time had returned from another mission) entered the city with two hundred horsemen and some footmen. The Romans killed 4,000 that day (men, women and children), whereas another 5,000 people, according to Josephus, committed suicide by throwing their children, wives and themselves “down the precipices into the valley beneath”.

Epilogue: memory rediscovered

Gamla was never rebuilt. The ruins were abandoned and, as centuries passed by, even its location would be forgotten. It could have faded into utter oblivion, had Josephus not written his account.

But then, 1900 years after its fall and in the aftermath of another war (the six-day war), Gamla was rediscovered by the Israeli historian Yitzchaki Gal. Later archaeological excavation confirmed the city’s location. On the top of the hill facing the ruins now stands a National Park encompassing a Nature Reserve and the archeological sites.


Six coins have been found in Gamla in which we can read the inscription “For the redemption of Jerusalem the Holy”. Those coins were a political statement in themselves, trying to convey the idea of Jewish unity against the enemy.

The synagogue excavated at Gamla, dating to the I Century AD, is among the oldest ever found.

by Fernando de Morais

Upon visiting any major old city in the world you will certainly happen to hear, solemnly pronounced by a more enthusiastic than original tourist guide (or fellow traveler, or local citizen), that “here every stone tells a story”, period. And then comes the dramatic pause.

Though certainly a little worn, the saying itself is usually true. And being true, let’s say, about Rome or Athens, it is certainly true about Jerusalem, the city of stones, as it is called in reference to its famous building limestones, which in their turn are mostly known as “Jerusalem stones”. The identity Ouroboros eats its own tail, which in the end (where else?) is quite telling.

Ok, so as people pass by, stones unremittingly deliver their silent speech in expectancy of ears willing to hear and eyes willing to see. True. But this doesn’t mean, however, that all these stones tell the same story. The distracted passer-by would be surprised to know to which extent stones can disagree. And when we get Archeology or Politics to jump in, then they (the stones, I mean) may start arguing out-loud. Here again, terrestrial Jerusalem is the canonical archetype.

We had an example of this debate among stones last week, during our field trip to Mount Zion, the western hill located out of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem (and luckily,  just a few minutes on foot from Polis).

Our guide there was the Israeli archeologist Amit Reem, who has been working on excavations in the area around the Tower of David since 1999, and particularly in the southern part of the citadel moat, where we find the site called the Kishle, an Ottoman-period jail which also served as police station and prison during the British Mandate. Wall inscriptions made by members of the Jewish Underground can still be found there.

 Amit Reem in the Kishle. Photo by Emil Salman – []

So what about it, you might ask. Well, the findings in the Kishle are impressive in itself, irrespective of any controversy. Spanning from the First Temple Period to the late Middle Ages and then to the 20th Century (as the inscriptions we mentioned), those findings tell close to 3000 years of history. Among those findings, there are the remains of the retaining walls that supported the base of Herod the Great’s palace.

You must remember that on their way to adore baby Jesus, the magi had a sort of audience with Herod the Great. This took place nowhere else but there, at Herod’s palace. The episode is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, and it is indeed the first episode of the entire Gospel, after the long genealogy. So the life of Jesus, as narrated by Matthew, began in Herod’s palace and, had Herod been able to find and seize the newborn “king of the Jews”, it would have probably ended there as well. Now I ask: what if it really did?

Calm down and don’t jump to conclusions. What I am trying to say is that, 33 years later, it was probably at that very palace that Jesus stood his trial before Pontius Pilatus.

According to the Gospels, The Prefect of Judaea had come from his official residence (another palace built by Herod) in Caesarea to supervise and prevent disorders during the Jewish festival of Passover in Jerusalem. Since we know from written sources (Philo and Josephus) that the Praetorium at Herod’s palace was used as residence by Roman governors after Herod’s death, it is only natural to suppose that Pilate must have stayed there.

Tradition, however, does not support the conclusion. As any pilgrim following the stations of the Via Dolorosa will know, the place where Pilate is assumed to have stayed then is the Antonia Fortress, a military complex (named after Mark Antony, but also built by Herod the Great) and headquarter of the Roman soldiers provided with both a privileged view of the Temple’s court and a secret passage leading to it. It was the right place to be if one were to keep a close eye on the temple.

Later that day we visited the Tomb of David and then the Cenacle, the upper room at Mount Zion where according to tradition both the Last Supper and the Pentecost took place. What stones told us there I wouldn’t dare to open out right now, for those were other stones, and therefore another story.

A quick glance at the new Jerusalem from the top of the old city walls.

In October, Polis graduate students had a field trip to Qumran, an archaeological site surrounded by the complex of eleven caves where most of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been found.

Graduate student Joseph Justiss guided the tour. And he explained to us, evidence supporting the theory identifying the community of the scrolls as Essenes is partially provided by some manuscripts describing what everyday life in that community must have been like. The practices, beliefs and rules there found match those ascribed to the Essenes by Josephus and Pliny the Elder. 

Here below you have a picture of the “community rule manuscript” found in cave 1.

The water supply installations at Qumran are quite impressive. This system comprising cisterns, aqueducts and ritual baths met not only the community’s ordinary needs for water, but also its concerns with ritual purity.

A view of cave 4.

While most of us were having lunch, a group of adventurous students guided by professor Henri Gourinard decided to head up the mountain and explore cave 6.

Oh, come on, guys, get back! You can’t do this!

They did!

Our field trip ended in Qasr el Yahud, the baptismal site by Jordan river valley where, according to tradition, Jesus was baptized. A traditional pilgrimage destination since Antiquity, it was kept closed for almost fifty years after the 1967 war. In 2011 it finally reopened for public visitation.

Here you see some students purifying and renewing themselves for the next field trip:

We are looking forward to continuing the field trips course after the holidays!

Oh, that old manuscript that changes everything forever!

Here and there we hear of some recently discovered manuscript fragment that allegedly “shakes the very foundations” of… of whatever you like, it doesn’t really matter, since only the headlines usually manage to survive in public imagination and pop culture, after the extravagant theory has long fallen into oblivion.

Conspiracy theories and urban myths apart, how do serious scholars decipher and interpret old manuscripts? How do they date those documents, and how accurate are the methods employed? How far can we get in drawing conclusions and advancing hypotheses?

Well, these were the questions addressed by Professor Juan Chapa (Universidad de Navarra) in his Greek Paleography course here at Polis Institute. Quite appropriately, the course started with a 10-minute walk to the archives of the Greek Patriarchate, where Archbishop Aristarchos kindly introduced our graduate students to the Patriarchate’s collection.

And then, walking back to Polis, the real gymnastics began, as we tried to get our Ancient Greek in shape by deciphering, for instance, the most peculiar (to say the least) handwriting you see here below. Try it yourself, if you dare!

Did you give it a try? How was it, then? If you felt like the Ethiopian in Acts 8,31 (“How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” ), it’s ok. Many times we felt just the same. But fortunately we had Professor Chapa to explain everything to us.