The ancient fortress of Masada is currently so dry and forbidding that is hard to imagine anyone living there. Was the climate in the surrounding area more wet 2000 years ago, or was it as much a desert as it is now?

  • $\begingroup$ You may want to compare its location to the historical "fertile crescent" : ancient.eu/Fertile_Crescent : it seems to be near (or even inside) it. I tried to find a specific view of it "2000 years ago" but couldn't find one yet, but compare the estimation circa 1350bc (ancient.eu/image/5435) to the current one : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fertile_Crescent, it is also kind of similar and not far from the fortress's location $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ @OlivierDulac This is far away from the fertile crescent. This area has hugh climatic gradients on very short distances. Nothing fertile about the Dead Sea area. $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 20:56

4 Answers 4


There has always been a strong north-south rainfall gradient from approximately the Golan Heights (high rainfall), through Judaea and southwards into the arid Sinai desert. We know that this gradient once had a higher rainfall because there are abundant rainfall harvesting and groundwater collection structures, built by the Nabatean civilization about 400 BC to 100 AD. They are now long defunct because of climatic desiccation, but are characteristic of dry regions with marginal cultivation. Similar working structures can now be found in Oman, Iran and parts of north Africa. So it is reasonable to deduce that the region was once significantly wetter.

In addition to this overarching climatic gradient there is a very strong local rainfall gradient from the Israeli Highlands in the west, about 1100 mm, to the Dead Sea-Rift Valley in the east which receives about 100 mm per year. This is a rain shadow effect from the prevailing Mediterranean airflow to further east into the Arabian desert - obvious from the vegetation density on Google Earth. Masada currently receives about 200 mm per year, but it is very erratic, with huge inter-annual variability. One study of the Negev and adjacent dry areas concluded that the spotty distribution of annual rainfall doesn't average out - at least, not on any time-scale useful to humans. Because of its position in an intense rain-shadow, Masada will always have been dry.

There are two potential sources of water supply to places like Masada; springs, and ephemeral (very unreliable) flash floods. The springs are groundwater which has percolated through the limestone massif from the Israeli highlands around Jerusalem,. Hebron, etc. There are currently no springs in the immediate vicinity of Masada. There may once have been a spring under higher water-table conditions, but none that we know of historically.

The solution used to supply Masada was to build two dams in canyons draining the Israeli highlands. Ephemeral flash floods were thereby intercepted and conveyed by gravity-drained aqueducts to tanks dug deep inside the Masada citadel. These tanks were of about 30 to 35 cubic metres capacity, so even allowing for evaporative and seepage losses in the aqueduct, the water supply could be topped up - provided the frequency of flash flood was sufficient. Even today it is likely that flash-floods would have been of adequate frequency. Under the slightly wetter regime of 2000 years ago, it is near certain that there would have been more than sufficient water every year.

Unfortunately, there are no rainfall records from so far back, but some interesting general climatic inferences may be found in Issar A.S. (1990), 'Water Shall Flow from the Rock'.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting answer. What is your conclusion, in brief? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 17:54
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    $\begingroup$ In brief: Masada itself was not much wetter 2000 years ago, but it benefited from more frequent flash floods arising in the wetter Israeli highlands. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 22:27
  • $\begingroup$ @GordonStanger flash floods were not unique to 2000 years ago, it's also occurring now, every winter. $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 23:29
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    $\begingroup$ I wasn't implying that flash floods were unique to 2000 years ago, but to the relative frequency of flash floods. The water requirements of Masada were so small that the flash-flood volume was/is immaterial. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 1:54

tldr: It was also dry back then, which is why the people living there were rebels and not the rich elite.

I'd like to add a few points to Gordon's answer.

First of all, Masada is on the western edge of the Judea Desert, and therefore it is dry now and was extremely dry back then. The water supply to it was based on abundant water reservoirs that were built in and around Masada to trap flood water. Here is one (source):

enter image description here

It doesn't rain a lot there, but once it rains, it rains a lot in a very short time. Being a native of the Negev Desert, I know this very well. They just had to trap all of the water, and then you have lots of water for long enough.

Now, you are asking:

The ancient fortress of Masada is currently so dry and forbidding that is hard to imagine anyone living there.

This is exactly the reason it exists. Masada wasn't a holiday town for the rich, and people didn't think of it as a particularly good place to live. Even the nearby modern town of Arad is considered as a very remote and unwelcoming place to live in by most Israelis. Masada was a place where outcasts, outlaws and rebels lived. The people living there during the famous Roman siege were not the mainstream Jews living in most of Judea at that time. They were considered outlaws even by the Jewish administration in Jerusalem and elsewhere.

The dryness and remoteness of the area was an asset: no one even wanted to hunt them down over there. That is, unless you get someone really pissed off (such as the Roman Empire) and they decide to end it in the famous siege. The dryness was also helping the defenders: they had access to the water reservoirs while the attackers did not.

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    $\begingroup$ Also in typical desert areas (though I don't know about the Masada area specifically) there is a lot of bare rock, so when it rains the water tends to run off quickly, rather than be absorbed into the soil. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf indeed. This is bare exposed limestone country with very steep slopes all around, and hardly any soil. Another reason to trap flood waters. $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ If I remember rightly, the 'time of concentration' - the time between storm in the highlands and flood peak reaching the Dead Sea, is in the order of 10 hours. The hydraulic gradient is very steep, so the flood peak will come and go at Masada in less than an hour. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 3:29

Gordon Stanger covers the climate aspects well in his answer, but I thought I'd chime in with an answer to the "was it as much a desert as it is now?"

While I'm not aware of any archaeological evidence for the agriculture in the land surrounding Masada at the time of the siege, there are several factors that may have, at that time, made the area less 'deserty.'

There are two in particular I want to mention. The first are qanats. This technology spread from Persia around ~500 BC and quite impressive ones were built by the Romans in dry places, like this one from modern day Jordan.

Masada is in a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea, but the top of the fortress is only about 60 meters above sea level; the surrounding land is much lower. This puts it in a good position to receive water from nearby groundwater at higher elevation. As can be seen in Google Maps, The land rises 200m in 2.5 km to the West, and 400m in about 5.5 km. Google Maps even indicate the course of several wadis that flow in the general direction of Masada which could be used as the basis for a partially underground irrigation system.

Qanats take a lot of work to build and maintain, but in a land where there is cheap labor and little water, it can be worth it to build them. The Middle East at the time had plenty of desert adapted trees that could thrive with a little irrigation (almonds, olive, carob, date, pistachio; all mentioned in the Bible), so it is entirely possible that there were groves of desert trees in the land around Masada.

This brings us to the second point: tree cover. The tree cover currently existing in the area around Masada (i.e. none) doesn't have to be the tree cover that was always there. Trees being rare in the southern Levant, they were always under pressure for use as firewood, and their regrowth was limited by grazing, especially by goats.

There are several trees (large shrubs really) that can grow in such hot and dry conditions, as they are present in the rest of the Negev desert in Israel, such as Acacia, Pistachia, and Tamarix. Acacia in particular may be a keystone species, such that higher, ancient levels of tree cover could have encouraged a generally greener landscape.

In conclusion, while the area around Masada is barren now, it does not have to have been 2000 years ago. There were labor intensive irrigation techniques and tree crops available to make successful farming a possibility, and lower firewood and grazing pressure from a lower population may have allowed the wilderness areas to have been greener than they are today.


They found parchment scrolls and date-seeds (one of which was germintated!) from 2000 years ago in the Judea desert, indicating the climate was extremely dry throughout that period, allowing them to be preserved.

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    $\begingroup$ Could you add a reference for this statement? $\endgroup$
    – arkaia
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ The Dead Sea Scrolls are quite well known, I'll find a reference for the date seeds later. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ The 'Dead Sea Scrolls' were not from a single location, but from nine locations, eight of which were just west of the Dead Sea. All these locations are well within the ultra-dry rain shadow zone of the Jordan rift-valley. All are well separated from flash-floods draining from the highlands, further west. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 3:32

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