top of page
  • Amber

Sheep of the Middle East

An Awassi lamb in the Elah Valley.

This coming Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday as it’s the Sunday that Psalm 23 appears in the common lectionary. It’s an expansive topic within the bible as there are numerous allusions to Jesus and God acting as a shepherd, or Jesus himself being a lamb. We’ve all seen art of this and have a picture in our head of what a sheep looks like. But, it turns out that sheep from the Middle East have a very distinctive attribute that we in the west aren’t used to seeing.


When we think of desert mammals, the camel probably comes to mind. It is common knowledge that its distinctive hump is what helps it survive in harsh environs. While it is a misconception that the hump stores water, it is still the key to desert survival by storing fat. Mammals typically have fat spread out across their body, but this would lead to overheating in the desert, so all that fat is stored in one place. Camels store an excessive amount so they can go for long periods without food or water as their body converts the stored fat into energy.


All that to say, your average sheep may find it rather difficult to survive as well as a camel does in the desert. Which is why the sheep found in the middle east (and parts of Asia and Africa) have their own fat reservoirs found in the tail region, leading to the name fat-tailed sheep!

Modern Awassi ram pictured with its natural wool and shaved showing off its lovely fat-tail

The Awassi sheep is a breed of fat-tail sheep that is the only indigenous sheep breed in Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, as well as being a prominent breed in the entirety of the Middle East. The name Awassi is attributed to the El-Awas tribe between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Fat-tailed sheep rock engravings from central Arabia, second or early first millennium BC.

The presence of fat-tailed sheep is ancient, and all evidence points to the fact that this is the type of sheep the writers in the bible would have in mind. Our shift in perception is once again tied back to Medieval art, where the artists could only create what they knew, and as many had not seen the fat-tailed sheep of the Middle East, they portrayed the typical sheep of western Europe.

17th century depiction of the fat-tailed sheep with a tail cart.

For a long time, the fat tails of these sheep were prized and bred for size and length. Not only for aesthetics, but the tail fat serves as an excellent preservative and cooking fat. As the tails on the sheep grew longer and longer, they would often drag on the ground, so shepherds with carpentry skills made little carts for their sheep to use to help them carry the weight of their tail – some weighing upwards of 80lbs!


Should there be any doubt left that these were, indeed, the sheep of the bible, when God was giving instructions for Aaron’s ordination in Exodus, he says: “Take the fatty parts of the ram: the fat tail, the fat around the inner organs…” (Exodus 29.22 CEB).


I learned about these sheep from this tumblr post (of all places) and now you know that when Jesus is depicted with sheep, they should all have lovely fat tails!


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page