Idumean diasporas: Inscriptions and papyri (second century BCE-third century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Idumean diasporas: Inscriptions and papyri (second century BCE-third century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified December 2, 2022,

Comments: The Greek designation “Idumeans” (Idoumaioi) refers to a people known previously as the “Edomites” (Edom = “red”) or descendants of Esau (in Biblical terms), on which see Josephos’ discussion at this link. They had probably been displaced by Nabateans and they certainly settled further to the west in the area just south of the territory of the tribe of Judah / Judea, with Marissa as the capital. Excavated burial sites at Marissa show that there was a significant population of Sidonians among the Idumeans at least by the latter part of the third century BCE (see Peters et. al. 1905). The favourite god of both the Idumeans / Edomites and the Sidonians settled among them was apparently Qos / Qaus, often identified with the Greek Apollo. This is most clearly reflected in naming practices, where many Idumeans incorporate the god Qos or Kos in Greek in personal names (e.g. Kostobaros in Josephos [link]; Kosakabos and Abdokosos at Hermoupolis Magna; and, Kosadaros, Kosramos, Kosnatanos, Kosmalachos, Kosbanos, Kosgeros, and Kosmaton at Memphis in Egypt – see inscriptions linked below).

We know about Idumean diasporas from both incidental references to Idumean individuals who had migrated and from Idumeans who, like other immigrants, chose to form associations in their new home. A good example of the former is Euphrosynos the resident foreigner on Syme island, who was prominent and well-integrated enough to be a benefactor to numerous associations in the late first century BCE, including the association of Syrian immigrants on the island.

The most substantial evidence for the formation of associations by Idumeans is offered by mercenaries settled at both Memphis and Hermoupolis Magna in Egypt (active from the second or first centuries BCE and on). There are two inscriptions from Memphis (linked below), one an honourary decree by a “corporate body” (politeuma) of soldiers /sword-bearers and the other a dedication, which provide some glimpses into the cultural and cultic life of these immigrants. The former shows that the group held its gathering (synagogue) in the temple of Apollo (i.e. Qos), had a priest (Dorion who is honoured) and engaged in sacrifices, accompanying meals, and hymn-singing .

At Hermoupolis we have two temple dedications to Apollo (Qos) and to other deities with a membership of at least 460. Most unusual in the case of this group is that, about two hundred years later, we have complaints being made apparently by an Egyptian or Egyptians about the foreign practices of this same group (which apparently continued to thrive). (See the translation and discussion of the papyrus in the notes to the other dedications). The fragmentary papyrus refers to foreign customs opposed to Egyptian customs as well as the foreign language that was used for hymns. The document then begins to cite the dedications of the other inscriptions. This is among the rare cases of ethnic conflict evident in non-literary evidence.

For more on foreign mercenaries settled in parts of Egypt, see also Harland’s article on “‘Syrians call you Astarte . . . Lycian peoples call you Leto’: Ethnic Relations and Circulating Legends in the Villages of Egypt” (link).

Works consulted: J.P. Peters, H. Thiersch, and S.A. Cook, Painted Tombs in the Necropolis of Marissa (London: Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund, 1905) (link).



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