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PETRA (pē'tra). Translates sela‘, meaning rock, cliff, or crag, and, as a proper noun, seems to refer to one or two places in the OT (Judg.1.36; 2Kgs.14.7; Isa.16.1; niv “Sela”). No certain geographical identification is possible, though the second reference may be to the Petra of later history, the “rose-red city half as old as time,” of Dean Burgon’s sonnet, and capital city of the Nabateans from the close of the fourth century b.c. until a.d. 105, when it became part of the Roman Empire. The town lies in a basin surrounded by mountains. The town’s considerable ruins are not impressive, even though Burgon’s eulogy is often quoted. The main curiosities of Petra are the narrow canyons that form its approaches, and the rock-hewn temples and tombs in the surrounding cliffs. Nothing is known of Petra’s history before the Nabateans took over in 312 b.c.


PETRA pə’ trə or pĕt’trə (Πέτρα, rock). Ruins of an ancient city in Edom, near the Arabah.

The setting of these ruins is impressive, reached by descending the Wadi Musa and passing through a magnificent gorge with high and frequent nearly-touching walls, known as the Sīq. This gorge is over a mile in length, which provided an excellent defense for the city. The city was situated in an open basin, approximately a mile in length by three-fourths of a mile in width. The craggy mountains surrounding the area are formed of sandstone, in beautifully variegated shades of red color. Perpendicular cliffs are covered with tombs and other facades carved into the native rock. These date primarily from the Nabataean times, as Petra was their capital from about the close of the 4th cent. b.c. to a.d. 105, when it was incorporated into Rom. territory. The Rom. occupation is evidenced by a central paved street, ruins of baths and other public buildings, and a large theater.

The name Sēla seems to have been associated with the ancient settlement, but the only Edomite ruins are found at Umm el-Biyyara, a fortress built on the top of a high and nearly inaccessible mountain standing independently toward the northern part of the basin. References may be found in Judges 1:36; 2 Kings 14:7; Isaiah 16:1; 42:11.


G. Robinson, Sarchophagus of a Vanished Civilization (1930), 1-171; “The Excavation of the Main Theater at Petra,” BASOR, No. 174 (April 1964), 59-66; P. Hammond, “Excavations at Petra in 1959,” BASOR, No. 159 (Oct. 1960), 26-31; Y. Aharoni, The Land of the Bible (1967), 37, 224.

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