The son of Antipater II, a member of the Idumean ruling family, and Cypros, a Nabatean princess, Herod the Great had a diverse—if not strictly Jewish—lineage. As such, he would have been exposed to a diverse number of burial styles.

Idumea, the area south of Jerusalem, was inhabited by a population of Jews and Arab tribes who settled there after the Exile and intermarried, thereby creating a new ethnic group: the Idumeans. When Idumea was conquered by John Hyrcanus I, the population converted to Judaism. The Nabatean kingdom lay to the southeast of Idumea and was composed of Arab tribes. With its capital at Petra, Nabatea controlled several important trading routes.

On one of his visits, Herod would have witnessed the impressive necropolis at Petra. While it is unclear if the best-known tombs from Petra—the Kazneh and Deir burials with their façades carved into the side of the red sandstone cliffs—had been built during Herod’s lifetime, he nonetheless would have been influenced by the other structures he saw at the site, as well as by monuments from his travels, such as the tomb of Augustus in Rome and the tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria.

Other Judean burials from the first century include the so-called Tomb of the Kingsa and the Tomb of Absalom (both in Jerusalem), as well as the Tomb of the Maccabees in Modi’in (described by Josephus). The Herodium mausoleum was probably most similar to the imposing Tomb of Absalom in Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley.

With his penchant for megalomania and love of desert palaces, it is not surprising that Herod opted to be buried at Herodium. Yet it seems unlikely that he would have selected a site on the slope of the mountain when he could have chosen the summit.