SELA se’ lə (סֶ֫לַע, H6152, rock or cliff; πέτρα, G4376, living rock or cliff).

1. Compounded with Rimmon (q.v.), Etam (q.v.), and Hammahlekoth (see Sela-hammahlekoth).

2. An unidentified site in Amorite territory (Judg 1:36).

3. The Sem. name for Petra, the capital of ancient Edom (q.v.).


Petra is approached from the E from the modern village of El Ji through the Wady Musa. Wady Musa narrows to become the “Siq,” the “Gorge,” barely six ft. wide with sheer walls rising to 260 ft. In ancient times a dam protected the Siq from flash floods. A rock-cut aqueduct on the left formerly carried water to Petra. After passing the “Treasury of Pharaoh,” the Wady opens into a valley c. 1000 yards by 400 yards where the lower city was located. Some important remains here are the “Castle of Pharaoh,” the Peripteral Temple, the Palace, and the Great Theater.

More structures of various types and styles are found in the surrounding heights and ravines. Among the most famous are the tombs and temples hewn into the walls of the ravines. The elevated places of worship are also significant, particularly the one on Zibb Atuf.


Apart from flints from cave dwellers, the earliest evidences of habitation are remains of an Edomite fortress and Edomite pottery on the height, Umm el-Biyara, which is prob. the original “Sela.” Amaziah prob. cast his Edomite prisoners from this height (2 Chron 25:12). Under the Nabateans, Petra became the focal point for land trade between Arabia and points to the NW. After annexation by Rome in a.d. 106, Palmyra assumed this role, and, by the end of the 3rd cent., Petra had lost most of its economic importance. By the 4th cent., Petra was the seat of a bishopric. For all practical purposes, the 7th-cent. Arab conquests ended its history. After the 13th cent., even the site was forgotten until rediscovered by Burchhardt in 1812.


E. Hull, “Sela,” HDB (1902); W. A. Morton, “Umm el-Biyara,” BA, XIX (1956), 26-36; G. Larue, “Petra,” The Biblical World, ed. C. Pfeiffer (1966).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

"The rock" (the Revised Version margin "Sela") in Ob 1:3, in the phrase "thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock." is only a vivid and picturesque description of Mt. Edom. "The purple mountains into which the wild sons of Esau clambered run out from Syria upon the desert, some hundred miles by twenty, of porphyry and red sandstone. They are said to be the finest rock scenery in the world. `Salvator Rosa never conceived so savage and so suitable a haunt for banditti.’ .... The interior is reached by defiles so narrow that two horsemen may scarcely ride abreast, and the sun is shut out by the overhanging rocks. .... Little else than wild fowls’ nests are, the villages: human eyries perched on high shelves or hidden away in caves at the ends of the deep gorges" (G. A. Smith. The Book of the Twelve Prophets. II. 178 f).

In Isa 16:1; 42:11 the Revised Version (British and American), perhaps we have a reference to the great city of Petra. Josephus (Ant., IV, vii, 1) tells us that among the kings of the Midianites who fell before Moses was one Rekem, king of Rekem (akre, or rekeme), the city deriving its name from its founder. This he says was the Arabic name; the Greeks called it Petra. Eusebius, Onomasticon says Petra is a city of Arabia in the land of Edom. It is called Jechthoel; but the Syrians call it Rekem. Jokteel, as we have seen, must be sought elsewhere. There can be no doubt that Josephus intended the city in Wady Musa. Its Old Testament name was Bozrah (Am 1:12, etc.). Wetzstein (Excursus in Delitzsch’s Isa, 696 ff) hazards the conjecture that the complete ancient nine was Bozrat has-Sela, "Bozrah of the Rock."

This "rose-red city half as old as Time"

Sela was for long difficult of access, and the attempt to visit it was fraught with danger. In recent years, however, it has been seen by many tourists and exploring parties. Of the descriptions written the best is undoubtedly that of Professor Dalman of Jerusalem (Petra und seine Felsheiligtumer, Leipzig, 1908). An excellent account of this wonderful city, brightly and interestingly written, will be found in Libbey and Hoskins’ book (The Jordan Valley and Petra, New York and London, 1905; see also National Geographic Magazine, May, 1907, Washington, D.C.). The ruins lie along the sides of a spacious hollow surrounded by the many-hued cliffs of Edom, just before they sink into the Arabah on the West. It is near the base of Jebel Harun, about 50 miles from the Dead Sea, and just North of the watershed between that sea and the Gulf of Akaba. The valley owes its modern name, Wady Musa, "Valley of Moses," to its connection with Moses in Mohammedan legends. While not wholly inaccessible from other directions, the two usual approaches are that from the Southwest by a rough path, partly artificial, and that from the East. The latter is by far the more important. The valley closes to the East, the only opening being through a deep and narrow defile, called the Sik, "shaft," about a mile in length. In the bottom of the Sik flows westward the stream that rises at `Ain Musa, East of the cleft is the village of Elji, an ancient site, corresponding to Gaia of Eusebius (Onomasticon). Passing this village, the road threads its way along the shadowy winding gorge, overhung by lofty cliffs. When the valley is reached, a sight of extraordinary beauty and impressiveness opens to the beholder. The temples, the tombs, theater, etc., hewn with great skill and infinite pains from the living rock, have defied to an astonishing degree the tooth of time, many of the carvings being as fresh as if they had been cut yesterday. An idea of the scale on which the work was done may be gathered from the size of theater, which furnished accommodation for no fewer than 3,000 spectators.

Such a position could not have been overlooked in ancient times; and we are safe to assume that a city of importance must always have existed here. It is under the Nabateans, however, that Petra begins to play a prominent part in history. This people took possession about the end of the 4th century BC, and continued their sway until overcome by Hadrian, who gave his own name to the city--Hadriana. This name, however, soon disappeared. Under the Romans Petra saw the days of her greatest splendor.

According to old tradition Paul visited Petra when he went into Arabia (Ga 1:17). Of this there is no certainty; but Christianity was early introduced, and the city became the seat of a bishopric. Under the Nabateans she was the center of the great caravan trade of that time. The merchandise of the East was brought hither; and hence, set out the caravans for the South, the West, and the North. The great highway across the desert to the Persian Gulf was practically in her hands. The fall of the Nabatean power gave Palmyra her chance; and her supremacy in the commerce of Northern Arabia dates from that time. Petra shared in the declining fortunes of Rome; and her death blow was dealt by the conquering Moslems, who desolated Arabia Petrea in 629-32 AD. The place now furnishes a retreat for a few poor Bedawy families.