A well-preserved and partially reconstructed synagogue in Katzrin Archeological Park, one of the many batei knesset in use when Jewish life thrived in the Golan Heights during Mishnaic times. Photos: Hanan Isachar
Many people are under the mistaken impression that the Jewish connection with the Golan Heights began with the Six-Day War in 1967. But the recent discovery of over twenty ancient villages and synagogues in the Golan from the second through seventh centuries ce testifies to the existence of extensive and vibrant Jewish life that flourished in the Golan Heights for over 500 years during the period of the Mishnah and Talmud.
In fact, Jews began settling in the Golan Heights almost 2,000 years earlier, when the tribes of Reuven, Gad and part of Menashe requested that they take their inheritance on the east of the Jordan River. The Golan Heights is referred to in the Bible as Bashan. At the end of the narrative detailing the tribes’ inheritance on the Jordan River, as originally told in Parashat Matot (Bamidbar 32), the Golan Heights is referred to as the Kingdom of Og, Melech HaBashan. In Devarim 4:43, Moshe designates “Golan BaBashan” as one of the three cities of refuge on the side of the river “towards the sun” (east).
More than 1,000 years later, one of the first battles in the Great Revolt against the Romans took place in 67 ce in Gamla, a large and prosperous Jewish city in the Golan Heights. Josephus, the Jewish general-turned Roman-historian, tells the story of Gamla in his war chronicles The Jewish Wars. He describes the siege of the walled city of Gamla by Vespasian, the Roman general, in 67 ce. The Romans succeeded in breaching the walls and stormed into the city. Josephus says the 9,000 remaining inhabitants committed suicide to avoid capture by the Romans, a striking similarity to the events at Masada six years later.
At the Gamla National Park today, you can view the ruins of the ancient city, including remnants of city walls penetrated by the Romans, the actual tower Josephus says the Romans damaged, ancient mikvaot and the largely renovated synagogue, one of the oldest ever found.
The Gamla story is dramatically told in a twenty-minute film at the Archaeological Museum located in nearby Katzrin. (Call ahead to reserve the English-language film: 04-696-1350.) Here you can also see numerous artifacts including the picks that the Romans used to climb the walls as well as a coin minted by the rebels during the revolt and stamped “For the salvation of Holy Jerusalem.”
The modern city of Katzrin, founded in 1975, has a population of 8,000 and is considered the capital of the Golan Heights. It is located just a few hundred yards from the Archaeological Park of ancient Katzrin. The former Jewish city of Katzrin was first discovered in land surveys undertaken in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. Katzrin features a reconstructed ancient Talmudic village, enabling visitors to envision what life was like in Talmudic times. One of the village’s highlights is a well-preserved and partially reconstructed synagogue that served the residents of the town. This is one of many such batei knesset to have been in use while Jewish life was thriving in the Golan Heights during the times of the Mishnah and Talmud.
Unfortunately, most of the ancient synagogues in the region can only be reached by hiking or with a jeep. One archaeological site that is free and easily accessible by car is Umm el Kanatir, which means “Mother of the Arches” in Arabic. It is named so for its proximity to a natural spring originally surmounted by three large arches.
One of the most fascinating synagogues, dating back to the sixth century, stands in ruins at Umm el Kanatir. The synagogue was destroyed in a massive earthquake in 749 and is now being carefully reconstructed utilizing twenty-first-century technology. The building is impressive at sixty feet long and forty-three feet wide with an estimated height of forty feet, making it one of the largest ancient synagogues of the time. The synagogue also indicates the relative wealth of the community. It appears that neither the town nor its synagogue was rebuilt after that devastating earthquake, though the ruined buildings were used by local shepherds for many years.
Just beyond the synagogue, the path continues to the natural spring mentioned above that was undoubtedly the reason for building there in the first place. The ample continuous supply of water not only provided for the town’s drinking needs but also became the basis for a thriving flax industry. Much of the 1,400-year-old installation, including one of the aforementioned arches, is still intact. One of the pools of an ancient flax factory still fills with cool spring water and is shallow enough for children to splash in on a hot spring-summer-fall day in the Golan.
The site is on the hillside overlooking the beautiful valley of Nahal Samak, located just southwest of the town of Hispin in the Golan Heights. Look for a sign on the south side of Road 808 between the Dalyot Junction and Ramat Hamagshimim. Materials and maps are available at the Hispin Midrasha.
I am compelled to add a postscript about what I believe to be one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in the Golan Heights. On display in the Archaeological Museum in Katzrin is an 1,800-year-old door lintel that was recently discovered in the explorations of a Golan village called Devorah. On it, in clearly written Hebrew that a modern-day second grader can easily read, is the inscription “zeh beit midrasho shel Rabi Eliezer Hakapar” (this is the beit midrash of Rabbi Eliezer Hakapar). We know of the tanna Eliezer Hakapar from the mishnah in Pirkei Avot as well as from a number of quotes in his name in both the Talmud and the Midrash. It is rare to find an artifact with original writing that refers by name to a personality mentioned in rabbinic literature. In the words of a young person who recently participated in a synagogue tour I led of Katzrin: “How cool is that!”
Jewish history, a tanna, ancient synagogues and a half a millennium of vibrant Jewish life in the Land of Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple all come together in the Golan Heights.
Peter Abelow is a licensed tour guide and the associate director of Keshet: The Center for Educational Tourism in Israel. Keshet specializes in creating and running inspiring family and group tours that make Israel come alive “Jewishly.” He can be reached at 011.972.2.671.3518 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.