Ryan Joyal, Darren Harline, and Bradley Ross

Gamla, located northeast of the Sea of Galilee, is a site famous for a single event in Jewish history. It was the site of a battle recorded by the historian Josephus in the Roman quash of the Jewish revolt. The site has only been occupied one time as near as excavation can tell. The valleys surrounding the remains of this city are now a nature preserve where vultures can be seen circling overhead and ibex can be seen dancing along the trail.

It is not certain if Josephus was an eye witness to the events that transpired at Gamla, but he was certainly a contemporary of the events and would have been able to speak with people that were there. It is a fact that Josephus had personally overseen the fortification of Gamla before his capture by the Romans. The account that follows is entirely based on his record of the events and any extrapolation we can make therefrom.

In the revolt of the Jews they had fortified many of their key cities, some of this work done by Josephus as just mentioned. In hindsight this method of defense turned out to be flawed. The Romans proved quite capable in the art of siege warfare and didn't have much problem in taking these cities. The people would huddle up in their cities and wait for the attack and thus remove themselves from the opportunity of coming to the aide of those of the surrounding communities. Perhaps if they had chosen a better strategy of defense they might have proved better opponents for the Romans. As it was Gamla fell. Unlike many of the other cities which fell to the Romans the people of Gamla were able to repel the Roman invasion on the first wave but then fell at the second attack. Let us examine the story in order.

The Romans laid siege to the city of Gamla in 67AD and we have record of 9,000 people that were living in that city or had taken refuge there at this time of siege. There were three legions of Romans set about the city. Varying sources calculate this total between 15,000 - 25,000 soldiers. They used several different methods of attack against the city. They fired an endless barrage of missiles against the city from their ballista cannons. These were small stone balls that were meant to weaken the wall of the city. There were hundreds of them found against the wall of the city. They also fired metal tipped arrows over the wall of the city with tension catapults.

Eventually the Romans were able to break through the only (eastern) wall of the city with their battering ram. They flooded into the city with shouts and horns and presumed themselves victors. The people of the city fled to the high point of the land and gathered there while the Romans ran through the streets. Then the Jews turned on the Romans and attacked fiercely. The Romans were unprepared for the strength of the counterattack and were in a terrible position to fight. The entire city is laid out on a mountain side and the rows of houses slope down the hill, practically stacked on top of each other with only small alleys in between.

As the Romans tried to retreat back from the defenders-turned-aggressors they were forced down these narrow alleyways. The only place they could go to find level footing and an equal chance for fighting was on the roofs of the houses. These roofs were not built for the weight of hundreds of Roman soldiers, however, and they collapsed, killing hundreds of Romans. The rest of the army could do nothing but retreat in the onslaught.

This was a demoralizing defeat for the Romans who were not used to losing. Their commander, Vespasian, was disappointed in his men and in the defeat. He had even been abandoned by his personal guard on the top of the hill and was left to find his own way down. Back in the camp with his troops he gave quite an inspiring speech as Josephus has it recorded.

      We ought to bear manfully what usually fall out in war, and this by considering what the nature of war is, and how it can never be that we must conquer without bloodshed on our own side; for there stands about us that fortune which is of its own nature mutable; that while they had killed so many ten-thousands of the Jews, they had now paid their small share of the reckoning to fate; and as it is the part of weak people to be too much puffed up with much good success, so it is the part of cowards to be too much affrighted at that which is ill; for the change from the one to the other is sudden on both sides; and he is the best warrior who is of a sober mind under misfortunes, that he may continue in that temper, and cheerfully recover what hath been lost formerly; and as for what had now happened, it was neither owing to them effeminacy, nor to the valor of the Jews, but to the difficulty of the place was the occasion of their advantage, and of our disappointment. Upon reflecting on which matter one might blame your zeal as perfectly ungovernable; for when the enemy had retired to their highest fastnesses, your ought to have restrained yourselves and not, by presenting yourselves at the top of the city to be exposed to dangers; but upon your having obtained the lower parts of the city, you ought to have provoked those that had retired thither to a safe and settled battle; whereas, in rushing so hastily upon victory, you took no care of your own safety. But this in cautiousness and more, and this madness of zeal, is not a Roman maxim. While we perform all that we attempt by skill and good order, that procedure is on the part of the barbarians, and is what the Jews chiefly support themselves by. We ought, therefore, to return to our own virtue, and to be rather angry than any longer dejected at this unlucky misfortune; and let everyone seek for his own consolation from his own hand; for by this means he will avenge those that have been destroyed, and punish those that have killed them. For myself, I will endeavor as I have now done, to go first before you against your enemies in every engagement, and to be the last that retires from it.


The siege went on for a total of seven months and the Jews were no doubt quite worn out for the lack of food and water that was probably starting to get to them. One night those who were assigned to a tower on the city wall failed in their vigilance and some Roman soldiers were able to sneak up and dig out underneath the tower and cause it to topple, leaving a gaping hole in the wall of the city. Probably as a measure of psychological warfare, the Romans waited until the next day to enter the city through the newly opened hole.

When the Romans finally entered on this second attack they were much wiser and the Jews were weaker. The people put up a great defense but the Romans were too many and too powerful. In the fury of their vengeance for their earlier defeat they spared none but killed even the infants. Some 4,000 fell by the sword in this manner. The remaining 5,000, seeing the hopelessness of the fight perhaps, flung themselves suicidally from the edge of the cliffs at the top of the city. Gamla had fallen.

It would be easy to suppose that this site is not really important for Latter-day Saints or the rest of Christianity because it is not recorded in the Bible. This is not a valid line of reasoning. It is a story that happened at a time when Bible writing was not going on. It is exactly in line with the sorts of stories that are often recorded in scripture and serves as a powerful metaphor for our own lives.

When Gamla was found and was early in the process of excavation it was called the Masada of the North—the obvious link between Masada and Gamla being the mass suicide that went on. But the difference between the two turns out to be great. The people of Gamla were, we have learned through more recent study, fighting not only to save their own skins but were fighting for something larger. They understood that Jerusalem wouldn't fall until all the surrounding cities had fallen and so they saw themselves as preserving and defending the Holy City by defending their own stronghold. They minted coins during the siege to remind themselves of the greatness of their mission.

But the ongoing siege weakened the people. When they set up guard on the watchtower they trusted their very lives to them. And on one night the watchmen failed in their duty. However valid the excuse it cannot free those watchmen from the responsibility they bear for their dereliction of duty. "But if the watchmen see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them… his blood will I require at the watchman's hand." (Ezek. 33:6)

We are under a siege just as real as the people in Gamla were under. The enemy is different and the nature of the siege is different but the stakes are higher than they have ever been. Eternal souls are at stake and we are set up as watchmen, not only over our own families but over ourselves. We are inundated with an overflowing deluge of wickedness and it threatens to wear us down. But the deluge is no excuse for negligence. There is simply too much at stake to fall asleep at our post for even one night. Perhaps especially one night.

The fault doesn't lie with the watchmen on the tower alone. It ought to be evident in the mind of any astute observer that any tower that could be so easily undermined must also be structurally flawed. So it was. This was a tower that had no foundation. "And now my sons, remember, remember, that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation." (Hel. 5:12) If the prophets have anciently felt the need to declare the importance of placing your foundation on the bedrock it must be taken as painfully obvious that this requires some foundation. We can't imagine why any builder of a defensive structure would fail to place a foundation under his structure. We don't know what constraints time put on these people. But the outcome is a direct result of the failings of the planners. We are the planner and the builders and the watchmen. Let us learn from the mistakes of our fathers and apply their lesson to our lives in a spiritual way.

One final parallel going back to the defensive strategy of the Jews.  They chose to remain alone to defend themselves, as islands of security in a sea of conflict.  This idea to fortify cities is brilliant and key to any defense, but they isolated themselves and failed to recognize the need for support from their countrymen.  Moroni, from the Book of Mormon, recognized the need for unity.  In the accounts of his wars in Alma, the cities were made strong but also they were united and came to the support of one another when attack was imminent.  The Jews had no system to unite their defenses, but chose to remain alone, and die alone, relying on their own strength.  Much like the spiritual warfare of today, we cannot rely on our own strength.  We must, as Moroni showed, be unified to win.  The forces of good cannot lose if all parties to the cause are united.   If an entire nation is under attack, the entire nation must come to the defense.  Isolated cities cannot do it alone.  Without unity there is no victory.

Much to D's chagrin, there were no arrowheads left in the walls.  He wanted to become famous like Conor and find something sweet that would be put in a museum with his name by it.  But alas, it was not to be so.  What he did find, however, was the remains of a city with a simple, yet metaphoric history.  Though conquered, Gamla stands today as a testimony to the importance of watchfulness, foundations, and harmony.