The Animals of Masada

Masada is a rock plateau (mesa) which stands on the flat plains of the Judean Desert in southern Israel overlooking the Dead Sea. The famous mount is best known for its hilltop fortress palace built by Herod the Great between 3BC and 31BC and as the final outpost of Jewish Zealots in the First Jewish-Roam War of 66AD-73AD. Mount Masada is now part of a national park and home to several species of animals many of which were probably around during the historic events so many years ago. If fact in the 1st century there would have been a wider variety of animals living in the Masada area, perhaps even lion, cheetahs and bears (as battled by David in the Bible); it was after all the Biblical “wilderness.”

IMG_3666Herod’s servants and later the Jewish Zealots would have used pack animals to bring supplies to the summit of Masada. We also know that the Jews on Masada made vessels out of dried animal dung – so we know that they must have had domestic animals on the mountain top. They would also repair vessels with dung and use it in constructing their homes. Archaeologists discovered 1st century human bones on Masada and alongside them pig bones. Experts concluded that it is unlikely that the Jewish Zealots would have kept pigs which are considered impure in the Jewish faith so the pig bones and human remains may have been from the Roman garrison which manned Masada after it was recaptured in 73AD. From this we know that pigs where kept on Masada at one time, perhaps wild boar. From the writings of Josephus we know that the Jewish Zealots would raid settlements in Ein Gedi; during these raids it is likely that they would have taken away domestic animals as well.

Not far from Masada is Ein Gedi (from the Hebrew words “spring” and “goat”) an oasis close to the Dead Sea with rich plant and animal life. Natural springs have created an island of greenery in the dry and rocky desert environment which attracts animals. Ein Gedi is mentioned in Chronicles II 20:2, Joshua 15:62, Ezekiel 47:10, Samuel I 24:1-2, Ecclesiastics 24:18 and in the Song of Songs (Songs 1:14). Today Ein Gedi is a nature reserve and Kibbutz; it is one of the best places to see wildlife from the Dead Sea region.


camelThe ship of the desert, the humble camel was described in the Bible as a pack animal and transportation for desert nomads. The camels of southern Israel usually belong to nearby Bedouin settlements. The camels provide transportation, milk and meat (but not to Jews for whom camels are not kosher). As you drive down towards Masada you will see triangular road signs warning of “crossing camels.” As most people know the camel can store water in its fibrous mass of tissue and fat in their humps and reserve that energy for long journeys across the desert. It is very likely that the Romans who laid siege to Masada used camels in some capacity.

Ibex (wild goat)

“High mountains for ibex and rocks to shelter hyrax.” (Psalms 104:18)

The Ibex is one of the many animals attracted by Ein Gedi’s plentiful waters.  The Ibex is mentioned in the Song of Songs. The animal is extremely agile, scaling almost vertical cliffs and blending in with the landscape thanks to its tan coloring. The ibex eats grass and leaves; they are active during the day and sleep at night. There are thought to be as few as 1,200 Nubian ibex living in the wild in Israel, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. An interesting fact about the Nubian ibex is that they live in herds of either all female or all males.

Rock Hyrax

This is a rodent-like creature also called a rock badger or Cape hyrax. The rock hyrax resembles a large guinea pig; it has short earsRock Hyrax and a short tail. They like to live in rocky crevices to escape predators and they tend to live in groups of about 10-80 animals. These animals are most active in the early morning and evening. The rock hyrax is not endangered. You can see these little creatures on the rocks of Masada and more prevalently at the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve.


Jackals are the symbol of desert isolation and desolation the lone cackle of the jackal can be heard at night in the area around Masada. They tend to avoid humans.

Striped HyenasStriped Hyenas

The Hyenas of the Dead Sea region have dwindled in number but they can still be seen every now and again. The hyenas are nocturnal, active in the early hours of the morning and in the dark hours before dawn. They live in caves which they dig out of the soft rock sometimes creating several chambers. They have also been known to burrow where there are no natural caves. Although they are omnivorous they prefer meat and feed on the kill of larger carnivores or on road kill and animals that have died of natural causes.


Another of the animals in the Masada area which is mentioned in the Song of Songs is the gazelle which is the national animal of Israel. There are two types of gazelle in Israel which can both be seen in the Dead Sea region – the Negev or Dorcas Gazelle and the Israeli or Mountain Gazelle. These shy creatures are usually hard to spot but they are most visible in the early evening or at dawn.

Arabian LeopardArabian Leopard

The Arabian leopard population has dwindled down to almost none but in the 1st century Romans and Jews were probably aware of the presence of this carnivorous animal in the desert surrounding Masada. In 1965 the authorities became aware of a leopard population in southern Israel when a female leopard attacked a camel belonging to local Bedouins. In the 80s a program undertook to trap and attach radio-collars to Judean Desert leopards. By the 90s the leopard population had dwindled; one was shot another run over by a bus and a third poisoned while two were taken into captivity following complaints from locals. All of these five leopards were female which drastically disturbed the balance of male and female ratio among the leopard population. The last study on Judean Desert leopards was conducted in 2003 and only 2 leopards were found remaining. Since then leopards have not been spotted in southern Israel. The leopard is a Critically Endangered Species (the highest level risk of extinction); it is known to exist only in Oman (about 50), Israel (about 8 in northern Israel) and in Yemen (unknown number). A new study in southern Israel aims to document the existence or non-existence of the Arabian leopard in this region.


Visitors to Masada today are delighted by the Tristrams, a type of starling which has black wings tipped with orange and a distinct whistling call. The Tristrams are native to Israel; they are omnivorous and often sit on the backs of the ibex or other livestock to clean off the parasites. The birds have become so accustomed to visitors on Masada’s summit that they casually rest on the ancient stones as tourists take their photos.

Blanford’s Fox

The Blanford Fox (Afghan Fox or Steppe Fox) is a desert fox most prevalent in Israel in the Judean Desert where 100-350 of them live. The foxes enjoy dry heat and use their large ears to dissipate the heat. This type of fox was discovered in Israel in 1981 and they are not an endangered species. They love the mountainous slopes, canyons, cliffs rocky areas and low altitudes, like the Dead Sea region. They have the ability to climb and leap from ledge to ledge as they scale vertical cliffs. They do this using their smooth footpads for traction, their sharp, curved claws for gripping and their tails for balance. The Blanford fox is omnivorous and likes to eat seeds, fruit and insects. The reference in the Song of Songs to “little foxes that ruin the vineyards” is thought to be referring to the Blanford fox.

Desert Agama Lizard

Among the reptiles of the Masada area is this small lizard characterized by spines around the openings of its ears and its stout, cylindrical tail. The agama is a light brown color to blend in with the surroundings except during mating season when the male’s throat, head and sides turn bright blue and the female’s head turns orange.

Snakes, Scorpions and Spiders

There are several types of snakes in the Judean Desert. Israel has 7 types of venomous snakes the most dangerous being the Black Adder, Israeli Mole Viper and Israeli Viper. The Israeli Mole Viper can be seen in the Masada area but they tend to avoid people and the extreme temperatures of the hot mid-day desert sun. Their venom is particularly lethal as it has a strong effect on the heart muscles causing heart failure and death. Scorpions in the desert are most active in the spring and summer; the most deadly being the Palestine Yellow Scorpion or Deathstalker and the Southern Man-Killer. To avoid bites from snakes, scorpions or spiders don’t pick up stones or branches where these creepy crawlies may be hiding. And you should know that the “Snake” Trail leading up the side of Masada got its name from the twists and turns it makes not because it is inhabited by snakes!

These are just a few of the many small creatures who call the Masada area, Judean Desert and Ein Gedi home. You could also encounter hares, spiny golden mouse, caracals, wolves and porcupines




mini-DSC_0343 The view from Mount Masada mini-IMG_3706 mini-IMG_3690 mini-IMG_3670 South Israel mini-DSC_0397 mini-IMG_3805 Cable car to top of Mt. Masada mini-IMG_3738 mini-IMG_3702 mini-IMG_3696 Cable car to top of Mt. Masada

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