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Petra, Jordan: Biblical Sela

Petra, Jordan: Biblical Sela Overview


The Ancient City of Petra is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Jordan and even all of the Middle East! It's considered one of the "Seven Wonders of the World" and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's Jordan’s most valuable treasure and greatest tourist attraction. 


1. Petra is located about fifty miles south of the Dead Sea and 170 miles southwest of modern Amman, Jordan. Located in the southwest of Jordan, near the town of Wadi Musa, the landscape surrounding Petra is stunning, with red, rocky mountains at the east of the Arabah Valley.

2. Ancient Petra’s main access is via a narrow crevice called the Siq, which winds for about a mile through mountainous terrain. The Siq provided an excellent natural defense for Petra’s inhabitants. Many moviegoers are familiar with the Siq and the Treasury Tomb of Petra, which were featured in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

3. To support the ancient city’s large population, its inhabitants maintained an extensive water system, including dams, cisterns, rock-carved water channels, and ceramic pipes.


Historical Background

1. The name "Petra," which means "rock" in Greek, replaced the biblical name "Sela," which is Hebrew for "rock."


2. The first inhabitants of Petra were the descendants of Esau, called the Edomites. Esau moved to this area from the Negev region around 1900 BC, according to Genesis 36. Remains from early periods confirm that the Edomites occupied the area as well.

The Edomites raided traveling caravans and then hid in Petra for protection. They became arrogant and abusive. For this reason, God judged them.

Obadiah 3-4: The arrogance of your heart has deceived you, the one who lives in the clefts of the rock, on the height of his dwelling place, who says in his heart, "Who will bring me down to earth?" 4 Though you make your home high like the eagle, though you set your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down, declares the Lord.

3. Around 400 BC, the Nabataeans, the descendants of Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael, Abraham's firstborn son by Sarah's handmaid, Hagar, occupied Petra and made it the capital of their kingdom. 

The vast majority of what can be seen today was carved into the sheer rock face by the Nabataeans. They became extremely wealthy and turned the city into an important location on a trade route that linked China, India, and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece, and Rome.


Petra became so influential that it became the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom that stretched from Damascus to Petra and beyond. 

4. The Nabateans, living and trading in Petra, soon accumulated significant wealth, and an envious Greek Empire attacked the city in 312 BC by Seleucid forces, who failed to seize the city. The Nabateans successfully fought back the Greek invaders by taking advantage of the city's mountainous terrain. The mountains effectively served as a natural wall, buttressing Petra. Under Nabataean rule, Petra prospered as a spice trade center that involved China, Egypt, Greece, and India. The city’s population swelled to around 30,000.

5. Because the Nabataean Kingdom was so prosperous, the Roman Empire set its sites on it. The Romans defeated the Nabataeans in 106 AD, and Petra became part of the Roman province of Arabia. The Romans enlarged and glorified the city even more by building a Cardo, a huge theater that accommodated around 6,000 spectators, and other buildings and improvements.


It appears that in around 200 AD, a flash flood did catastrophic damage to the city, dealing it a major blow.


6. After the Roman Empire was divided in 330 AD, Petra was ruled by the Byzantine (eastern half of the Roman Empire) until Muslim occupation in the 7th century AD. In 363 AD, an earthquake destroyed many of its buildings, dealing Petra another blow. And again, in 551 AD, another earthquake struck, causing significant population reduction.


Christian churches and a large monastery were built here during the Byzantine period. 


7. The Islamic invasion occurred in the 7th century, bringing Muslim reign to Petra.


8. Around 1100 AD, the Crusaders conquered the Muslims and built a fort and outpost at Petra. The Crusaders would occupy Petra until the latter part of the 12th century.


9Due to changes in trade routes, earthquakes, and more, by the 14th century, Petra was completely lost to the West, and so it remained for around 400 years. Only a few nomads and locals inhabited the area.


10. Then, in 1812, a Swiss traveler, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, persuaded his guide to take him to the site of the rumored lost city. Secretly making notes and sketches, he wrote: “It seems very probable that the ruins at Wadi Musa are those of the ancient Petra.”

11. Excavations begun in 1993 revealed several more temples and monuments that provide insight into the ancient city's political, social, and religious traditions. In 1985 Petra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.


Sites of Interest

1. Petra Visitor Center

2. Al-Siq (Siq): The ruins are usually approached from the east by a narrow gorge known as the Siq (Wadi Al-Siq). 

​3. The Treasury (Khaznah): Among the first sites viewed from the Siq is the Khaznah (“Treasury”), which is actually a large tomb. 

4. Tomb of Unayshu
5. Theater
6. The Cave

7. Urn Tomb
8. Palace Tomb
9. Tomb of Sextius Florentinus
10. Nymphaeum
11. Byzantine Church
12. Temenos-Tor
13. Great Temple
14. Villa on Ez-Zantour Hill
15. Ridge Church
16. Columbarium
17. Lion Triclinium
18. Renaissance Tomb
19. Tomb of the Soldier
20. High Place of Sacrifice
21. Altar of Sacrifice View Point
22. Lion Fountain

23. The Monastery (Al-Dayr): This is one of Petra’s best-known rock-cut monuments; it is an unfinished tomb facade that, during Byzantine times, was used as a church. 

24. Spring of Moses 

25. Djinn Blocks
26. Obelisk Tomb & Bab as-Siq Triclinium

Petra in the Bible

1. The city of Petra is called by its Hebrew name, Sela, in the Bible. Both Petra and Sela mean “rock,” an appropriate name since much of the city is carved into sandstone cliffs. 

Isaiah 16:1: Send the tribute lamb to the ruler of the land, from Sela by way of the wilderness to the mountain of the daughter of Zion.


2 Kings 14:7: He killed ten thousand of the Edomites in the Valley of Salt, and took Sela by war, and named it Joktheel, as it is to this day.


2. Petra was in the land of the Edomites, who were descendants of Esau. Israel and Edom constantly had conflicts, starting with Edom’s refusal to allow Moses and the Israelites to pass through their land on their way to Canaan.

Numbers 20:18-21: Edom, however, said to him, “You shall not pass through us, or I will come out with the sword against you.” 19 Again, the sons of Israel said to him, “We will go up by the road, and if I and my livestock do drink any of your water, then I will pay its price. Let me only pass through on my feet, nothing more.” 20 But he said, “You shall not pass through.” And Edom came out against him with a heavy force and a strong hand. 21 So Edom refused to allow Israel to pass through his territory; then Israel turned away from him. 

3. According to tradition, Moses and the Israelites passed through the Petra area in Edom. Local tradition says that the spring at Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses), just outside Petra, is where Moses struck the rock and brought forth water (Numbers 20:10-11).

This could be true if Petra was outside the border of Edom at this time and not inside of Edom. The Bible is clear in Numbers that the King of Edom refused the Israelites entry into his country as the Israelites journeyed to the Promised Land.

4. Also, according to tradition, Jebel Haroun, located at Petra, is Mt. Hor,  where Moses’ brother Aaron was buried. 

Numbers 20:23-24: Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor by the border of the land of Edom, saying, 24 “Aaron will be gathered to his people. 


5. King Saul and King David both fought the Edomites.

1 Samuel 14:47: Now when Saul had taken control of the kingdom over Israel, he fought against all his enemies on every side, against Moab, the sons of Ammon, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Philistines; and wherever he turned, he inflicted punishment.


2 Samuel 8:13-14: So David made a name for himself when he returned from killing eighteen thousand Arameans in the Valley of Salt. 14 He also put garrisons in Edom. In all Edom he put garrisons, and all the Edomites became servants to David. And the Lord helped David wherever he went.


6. During the reign of King Jehoshaphat, Edom invaded Judah but failed, and Israel was victorious in battle (2 Chronicles 20).


7. Later, King Amaziah fought against Edom and took control of Petra, renaming it “Joktheel.”

2 Kings 14:7: He killed ten thousand of the Edomites in the Valley of Salt, and took Sela by war, and named it Joktheel, as it is to this day.


8. When King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC, the Edomites gave aid and comfort to the enemy (Psalm 137:7). For this, they were strongly condemned by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Obadiah (Isaiah 34:5-8; Jeremiah 49:16-18).

9. The Edomites raided traveling caravans and then hid in Petra for protection. They became arrogant and abusive. For this reason, God judged them.

Obadiah 3-4: The arrogance of your heart has deceived you, the one who lives in the clefts of the rock, on the height of his dwelling place, who says in his heart, "Who will bring me down to earth?" 4 Though you make your home high like the eagle, though you set your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down, declares the Lord.


10. Petra seemed secure in its unpenetrable fortress of rock for centuries, but today its ruins lie uninhabited, fulfilling the Scripture.

Jeremiah 49:18: As Sodom and Gomorrah were overthrown, along with their neighboring towns, says the LORD, so no one will live there; no people will dwell in it.


11. Evidence of the Nabateans in the Gospels.

Nabatean King Aretas IV’s daughter married Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great (Herod’s mother was Nabatean). Aretas had a good relationship with Antipas until he divorced Aretas’ daughter to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. Antipas’ marital decision caused John the Baptist to condemn him, to which Herodias got her revenge when she persuaded her daughter to ask for John’s head as a birthday present (Matthew 14:6-12; Mark 6:21-29).

12. The Apostle Paul and the Nabateans

We later see evidence of the Nabateans in both the books of Acts and 2 Corinthians.

When Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, the city was under its second Nabatean control. King Aretas I gained control after Antiochus Epiphanes was assassinated in 164 B.C. His grandson, Aretas III, regained control of the city after Antiochus XII of Cele-Syria was defeated in the battle of Cana (Josephus, Antiquities, 13.15.1-2).

After Paul converted to Christianity in Damascus, the Bible says he immediately went out to preach the Gospel. Those who heard him were astounded that the same guy they had heard was killing Christians was now preaching that Jesus is the Christ. Paul’s enthusiasm greatly upset the Jews in Damascus, and they set out to kill him, causing Paul to go into hiding.

Acts 9:23-25: Now, after many days were past, the Jews plotted to kill him. But their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates day and night to kill him. Then the disciples took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket.


Paul recalls the incident in 2 Corinthians 11:32:  In Damascus, the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of Damascus with a garrison, desiring to arrest me. But I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped from his hands.


Acts 9 says it was the Jews who were after Paul, but Paul says it was Aretas who wanted him. The indication is that the Jews had stirred up the Nabatean authorities against him. They continued to do so several more times as they made repeated attempts on Paul’s life (Acts 13:50).

13. In his letter to the Galatians, while describing his conversion to Christianity, Paul mentions his time in Arabia.

Galatians 1:15–17: When God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. 

Many believe that Arabia, at this time, included Petra.


14. It is believed to be where the Israelites will flee and be protected by God during the second half of the Great Tribulation Period.

Revelation 12:5-6: And she gave birth to a Son, a male, who is going to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her Child was caught up to God and to His throne. 6 Then the woman fled into the wilderness [Petra]where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she would be nourished for 1,260 days.

Micah 2:12: 12: I will surely assemble, O Jacob, all of thee; I will surely gather the remnant of Israel; I will put them together as the sheep of Bozrah, as the flock in the midst of their fold: they shall make great noise by reason of the multitude of men (KJV). Bozrah is in the area where Petra is located. It is also the Hebrew word for sheepfold.

Psalm 60:8-12: Moab is My washbowl; I will throw My sandal over Edom; Shout loud, Philistia, because of Me!” 9 Who will bring me into the besieged city? Who will lead me to Edom? 10 Have You Yourself not rejected us, God? And will You not go out with our armies, God? 11 Oh give us help against the enemy, for rescue by man is worthless. 12 Through God we will do valiantly, and it is He who will trample down our enemies.


Faith Lesson from Petra


1. Jacob and Esau had conflicts from the beginning. Unfortunately, they continued on from generation to generation. What about us? Are we passing on to our offspring bitterness and conflict we have with others?

2. King Saul and King David were victorious over the Edomites because they were godly kings at the time. God grants us victory when we are right with Him, but when we are not, just the opposite is true. What about us? Are we right with God and living in victory or out of fellowship with God and living in defeat?

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