The origin of the name Idumean (also Idumaean; Aram., ⋆'dwmy) is derived from Edom (Heb., 'dwm, 'ědôm, “red”; cf. Heb., 'dmh, “earth” or “field”). Edom refers to the kingdom in southern Transjordan during the Iron Age, but substantial emigration of Edomites westward across the Wadi ῾Arabah into the southern Judean hill country began in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE (as suggested in 2 Kgs 24.2 and Ez. 35.6 and in Arad inscription no. 24). Finds of Edomite pottery, inscriptions, ostraca, and seals of this period have appeared in the eastern Negev at ῾Aro῾er, Ḥorvat ῾Uza, Tel Malḥata, and Ḥorvat Qitmit. By the late sixth and fifth centuries BCE, an Edomite presence is attested in the western part of this southern Shephelah region, extending toward the Mediterranean coast, by finds that include a cuboid incense altar from Lachish inscribed in Aramaic. In the fourth century BCE, Aramaic ostraca bearing Edomite and Arab names appear at Arad, Beersheba, and Tell el-Far῾ah, presumably the location of Persian garrisons of mercenary troops. The Idumean region constituted the southern frontier for Persia after Egypt became independent (404–343 BCE), explaining why a fortress system was created in the region. Idumea is still called both an eparchy and a satrapy by Diodorus (19.95.2 and 98.1) in the Hellenistic era, suggesting that it was a former administrative district of the Persian Achaemenid Empire.

Hellenistic Period.

Under the Ptolemaic kingdom (third century BCE), the area comprised a toparchy, one of the external administrative districts of the Egyptian kingdom. The most important recent discovery from this period is the Aramaic ostraca from Khirbet el-Qom (north of Hebron), the remains of the archive of an Idumean moneylender or “shopkeeper” (Gk., kapēlos) that include a Greek-Edomite bilingual ostracon dated to 277 BCE. The Zenon papyri also attest official Ptolemaic journeys in 259 BCE from Gaza on the coast to the Idumean settlements of Mareshah (Marisa, modern Tell Ṣandaḥanna) and Adora (modern Dur, 8 km, or 5 mi., southwest of Hebron) in the Negev (PCZI.59006, ll. 64–66), where slaves were purchased (PCZ 59015, verso 16, 29; cf. 4. 59537/4). Within Egypt, third-century BCE papyri mention Idumean mercenary soldiers stationed along the Nile (P. Tebt. 815 fr. 5/29; P. Bat. 20.18/3=SB 8 9797). The latter text includes an Idumean with the patronym Apollodotos, an early occurrence of a theophoric name composed with Apollo. The name is common afterward among the Idumeans, who evidently identified the Greek god with Qos, the chief god of their pantheon. It appears that the Greek god was especially honored at Adora (Josephus, Apion 2.9 [112–116]), and at the Sidonian military colony at Marisa/Mareshah founded under Ptolemy II Philadelphus in about 257 BCE. By the second century BCE, with the decline of Greek emigration into Ptolemaic Egypt, Idumeans formed sizable military colonies at Memphis and Hermopolis Magna in the Upper Nile region. The politeuma of Idumeans at Memphis included both soldiers and nonmilitary settlers who shared a quarter of the city.

Idumean relations with the Seleucids were also intimate. In 163 BCE, Idumea was administered by the experienced Seleucid general (Gk., stratēgos) Gorgias, a member of the “King's Friends,” who reorganized the territory and enlarged it, perhaps to include Ashdod. During the Maccabean Revolt, Marisa was a base of operations for the Seleucid regime and the center of the conflict in southern Judea. Idumeans probably constituted auxiliary military forces in the Seleucid army at the time. In 138 BCE, the general Diodotus Trypho, a contestant for the Seleucid throne, marched through Adora toward Jerusalem before his defeat and death. Afterward, Antiochus VII Sidetes regained control of the “numerous cities” of Idumea, including Mareshah and Adora. After Antiochus's death in a Parthian campaign in 129 BCE, John Hyrcanus captured the Idumean cities of Adora and Mareshah and forced the Idumeans to accept circumcision and the Jewish law or be expelled from the land. U. Rappaport connects this action with the influx of Idumeans into Egypt, but there are indications the emigration began earlier. Subsequently, the “judaizing” Idumeans were incorporated into the Hasmonean state but never fully integrated into the Jewish population. As an Idumean, Herod the Great was regarded as a “half-Jew” and inferior to the Jewish aristocracy. His mother was a notable Arab named Cypros, perhaps a Nabatean.

Roman Period.

Under Pompey's reorganization of the East, Marisa and Adora were detached from Judea and assigned to the Roman governor of Syria as an annex. Afterward, the Roman proconsul Gabinius partitioned Judea and its Hasmonean-Palestine conquests into five “districts” (Gk., synodoi) with separate aristocratic “councils.” As a result, Idumea was apparently divided, with Mareshah forming the administrative center for the west and Adora for the east. Both of the capitals were rebuilt by Gabinius. The known native governors of Idumea were all from or related to the Herodian family. Both Herod's grandfather, Antipas I, and father, Antipas II, served as “governors” (Gk., stratēgoi) under the Hasmoneans, followed by Herod in the same capacity for Rome. After Herod became the Roman overseer (Gk., epitropos) of Judea, both his brother Joseph and son-in-law Kostobar governed Idumea, which Herod still used as his retreat and refuge. After the Parthians destroyed Marisa in 40 BCE, Herod transfered the administrative center for western Idumea several miles north to Beth-Guvrih and moved the center of eastern Idumea from Adora to 'Ein-Gedi. After Herod's death, Augustus charged his son Archelaus with the job of ethnarch for Idumea; from 6 to 41 CE, it was administered by the governors of Syria. Agrippa I briefly inherited the region from 41 to 44 CE, before it reverted again to the Syrian procurators. Josephus's list of the toparchies of Judea includes “Idumea and Engeddi” (War 3.3.5 [55]), but Pliny omits them (Nat. Hist. 5.14 [70]), probably because they constituted an annex rather than an integral part of the Jewish state. Other designations for the same toparchies appear to be “upper Idumaea” (War 4.9.9 [552]) and perhaps “eastern Idumaea.”

Military and Social Organization.

The Idumeans formed the basic core of Herod's army and were extremely loyal to the dynasty. As a militia, they were well equipped and organized and could be speedily mobilized. Herod once settled more than three thousand Idumeans in Trachonitis to quell the brigandage in the region, which signified their commitment and sturdiness in difficult situations. A sizable number of foreigners were also employed in the Herodian army, including Thracians, Germans, and Gauls. Mordechai Gichon has characterized the rural militia of the Idumeans as a frontier force comparable to the limitanei, the soldiers in frontier areas in the Late Roman Empire. This emphasis on a Herodian limes, a fortified frontier, and the military nature of the region remains disputed. Marisa appears to have been an important agricultural center. Kostobar, Herod's “governor of all Idumea and Gaza,” a descendant of priests of Qos, owned estates in Idumea, as probably did the Herodians and other aristocratic families. The Idumeans last appear in the Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70) as confederates of the Zealots and in defiance of Rome. During the conflict, Vespasian devastated the region and decimated the population; Jewish partisans later further ravaged the region. Idumea later became part of the province of Judea and was administered by Beth-Guvrin, which incorporated most of the region as part of its extensive chōra. The city continued to prosper and was honored in 200 CE by Septimius Severus with the name of Eleutheropolis and issued its own coinage. Mosaic floors from a villa and a Byzantine chapel are now in the Israel Museum, but by this time Idumea as a toponymn and ethnic term had faded from existence.

Language and Material Culture.

Edomite texts from Transjordan are mainly concentrated in the capital city at Buseireh and at Tell el-Kheleifeh at ῾Aqaba. Within Idumea, they are distributed over a wide area but are still few and laconic. This limited attestation provides only a few distinctive paleographic and grammatical aspects of the language. The script shows a similarity to Moabite, with distinctive forms for dalet (probably to avoid confusion with resh), he, and mem (e.g., the Ḥorvat ῾Uza ostraca). Specific linguistic features are more difficult to isolate because the corpus mainly shares affinities with Hebrew, Phoenician, Ammonite, and Moabite. The basic means of determining Edomite remains the theophoric names formed with the “Qos” element that appear throughout the Near East from Egypt to Persia (see Maurice Sartre, Inscriptions Grecque et Latines de la Syrie 13 [1982]: no. 9003, with a discussion). Identification of Idumean material culture also remains vexed because the architecture and other material remains reflect few, if any, distinctive characteristics. Partially, this is the result of the culture's mixed population, consisting of Sidonians, Arabs, Edomites, and Greeks. The late Iron Age Edomite shrine at Ḥorvat Qitmit and the ruins of the Hellenistic city at Marisa afford rare insights into Idumean culture.

[See also Mareshah.]


  • Abel, F.-M. “Marisa dans le Papyrus 76 de Zénon et la traite des esclaves en Idumée.” Revue Biblique 33 (1924): 566–574.
  • Beit-Arieh, Itzhaq. “The Edomite Shrine at Ḥorvat Qitmit in the Judean Negev: Preliminary Excavation Report.” Tel Aviv 18.1 (1991): 93–116.
  • Crawford, Dorothy J. T. “The Idumeans of Memphis and the Ptolemaic Politeumata.” In Atti del XVII Congresso internazionale di papirologia, Napoli, 1983, pp. 1069–1075. Naples, 1984.
  • De Geus, C. H. J. “Idumea.” Jaarbericht “Ex Orient Lux” 26 (1979–1980): 53–74.
    Excellent basic survey, to be used with more recent studies
  • Gichon, Mordechai. “Idumea and the Herodian Limes.” Israel Exploration Journal 17.1 (1967): 27–42.
  • Israel, Felice. “Miscellanea Idumea.” Rivista Biblica 27 (1979): 171–203.
    Comprehensive study, with the supplement cited below, of the epigraphic and linguistic aspects of Edomite; includes a complete bibliography
  • Israel, Felice. “Supplementum Idumeum I.” Rivista Biblica 35 (1987): 337–356.
  • Kanael, B. “The Partition of Judea by Gabinius.” Israel Exploration Journal 7.2 (1957): 98–106.
  • Kasher, Aryeh. Jews, Idumeans, and Ancient Arabs. Texte und Studien zum Antiken Judentum, 18. Tübingen, 1988.
    The most recent substantial account of the history and relations of Idumea; should be used with caution.
  • Launey, Marcel. Recherches sur les armées hellénistiques (1949–1950). 2 vols. Reprint, Paris, 1987.
    Basic discussion of the Idumean military colonies in Egypt
    (vol. 1, pp. 556–559) and the onomasticon (vol. 2, pp. 1235–1241), with a postface by Y. Garlan, P. Gauthier, and C. Orrieux.
  • Rappaport, U. “Les Iduméens en Égypte.” Revue Philologique 43 (1969): 73–82.

David F. Graf