The city of Petra was known in antiquity as “the rose-red city half as old as time.” The city of Petra was a Nabatean city. After the conquest of Palestine by the Babylonians in the 6th century B.C., the Edomites gradually traveled from the area of the Arabah into the region north of the Negev and into the southern part of Judah, where they eventually came to be known as the Indumeans.
By the fourth century B.C., the traditional Edomite territory had been conquered by a seminomadic group of people called the Nabateans. The capital of their reign was Petra. From Petra they controlled a powerful kingdom that included Damascus in the north and as far as the Negev in the west.
Petra is located in a valley of the mountains west of the old Edomite territory, about sixty miles from the gulf of Aqabah. Access through Petra is gained through a narrow gorge called the Siq which opens into a plain, approximately one thousand yards wide. The city of Petra is composed of massive cliffs of red sandstone. The city contains the remains of temples and houses and several other structures which were hewn out of the rock and in which the Nabateans lived.
The site also contains a Roman basilica and a theater. The remains of the city were not discovered until 1812. After the Romans conquered Petra in the second century A.D. (AD 106), Petra became the capital of the Provincia Arabia. Petra was an important administrative center in the Roman empire and in 131, the emperor Hadrian visited the city and the city was elevated to the rank of metropolis and named Hadriana Petra Metropolis. The city of Petra became the place for the climatic scenes of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
Some scholars have attempted to identify Petra with the city of Sela in the Old Testament. In Hebrew, the word Sela means “the rock.” Amasiah, king of Judah conquered the city of Sela and named it Joktheel (2 Kings 14:7). The city is mentioned in 2 Chronicles 25:12 (NRSV), Isaiah 16:1; 42:11, and Obadiah 3. The inhabitants of Petra lived in the clefts of Sela (or “of the rock” cf. Obadiah 3).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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