Petra's Time Clock

City of Petra, facades cut into the rockface

The famous ruined city of Petra lies on an ancient caravan route south-west of Amman, the capital of Jordan. It sits in a deep-sided basin, and contains tombs and temples whose breathtaking facades are cut into the rockface. David Down has been visiting the Middle-East regularly since 1958, and leads tour groups around the area each year. In this article he looks at a prophecy that begins in Genesis and is fulfilled many centuries later. Petra plays an intriguing part in this, and it reinforces the reliability of Genesis as well as other parts of Scripture.

I spend a full day each year visiting the temples and tombs of ancient Petra. But I never walk through those rose-red ruins without marvelling at the uncanny accuracy of God's great time clock which slowly but relentlessly ticked away till Petra's hour struck. But let us start at the beginning.

Nearly thirty-eight centuries ago a mother gave birth to twins. After waiting 20 years for the birth of a child, Rebekah's delivery was a traumatic affair. "And the first came out red, all over like an hairy garment; and they called his name Esau" (GENESIS 25:25). Medically this was a rare, but not unknown, birth defect called hypertrichosis.

The Hebrew word se'ar, here translated 'hairy', from which the name Esau seems to have been derived, is closely akin to the word sa'ir, which is 52 times translated as goat or kid. Jacob, Esau's twin brother, was later to deceive his blind father Isaac into thinking he was Esau by draping a goat skin over his hands (GENESIS 27:23). The area later occupied by Esau's descendants was called the land of Seir (GENESIS 32:3).

Even more significant was the Hebrew word for red, admoniy, derived from the word 'Adam'. Esau was so passionately fond of red lentils that he impetuously sold his birthright for a pot of them. "Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage;" he urged Jacob, "for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom." (GENESIS 25:30). And so his descendants were called Edomites. "Esau the father of the Edomites" (GENESIS 36:43).

"Please let us pass"

Esau was naturally resentful of Jacob's duplicity in deceiving his father into bestowing Esau's birthright upon Jacob, and this hostility was perpetuated in their descendants. When the weary Israelites reached the borders of Edom, they requested permission to go through Edomite territory. "Let us pass, I pray thee, through thy country:..." Moses pleaded. "...we will not pass through the fields, or through the vineyards, neither will we drink of the water of the wells: we will go by the king's high way..."

But the polite request was met with a curt refusal, backed up by a show of military strength. "Thou shalt not pass by me," the king of Edom retorted, "lest I come out against thee with the sword" (NUMBERS 20:17-18). So the Israelites were obliged to take the arduous route through the Syrian desert.

 But during Rebekah's pregnancy a Divine prediction had been made: "...the elder (Esau) shall serve the younger (Jacob)" (GENESIS 25:23). For a long time there seemed to be some miscarriage of prophecy. For 800 years Esau and his descendants had the upper hand. But though God's time clock ticks slowly, it is none the less certain.

When the youthful David achieved a united Israel and established his capital city at Jerusalem, the surrounding nations became apprehensive at the growing strength of Israel. On the west, the Philistines decided to launch a pre-emptive strike. David decisively repulsed them. This aroused the fears of the nations on David's eastern border. David was obliged to face the Moabites, the Ammonites, a coalition of Syrian kings, and the Edomites. He defeated them and put them to tribute. "And David gat him a name when he returned from smiting of the Syrians [should read 'Edomites'; Aram-Syria and Edom are almost identical in the Hebrew script] in the valley of salt, being eighteen thousand men. And he put garrisons in Edom; throughout all Edom put he garrisons, and all they of Edom became David's servants" (2 SAMUEL 8:13-14).

Time Caught Up

So time had caught up with Esau's descendants; the prophecy began to take effect. David was now the monarch of an extensive empire.

During the reign of Jehoram, king of Judah, 150 years later, "Edom revolted from under the hand of Judah, and made a king over themselves" (2 KINGS 8:20).

Fifty years after this, Amaziah restored Judah's control over Edom. "He slew of Edom in the valley of salt ten thousand, and took Selah by war..." (2 KINGS 14:7). (This is the first usage of the word Sela in the King James Version. It is a Hebrew word meaning 'rock', and is so translated 56 times.) Later, during the Greek period, the site was called Petra, which is the Greek word for 'rock'. Ultimately, the word Petra came to designate the whole valley.

In 2 KINGS 14:7 the Hebrew word used is hassela, which means literally 'THE rock'. The term originally referred to a high flat-topped hill with near-vertical sides in the Petra valley. It is today known to the Arabs as 'Um el Biyara', meaning "place of cisterns".

It was the last line of retreat for the Edomites, and was well nigh impregnable. Carved into its flat top are five deep cisterns. Into these, rainwater was channelled, providing a plentiful water supply should the defenders be besieged.

In 2. Kings 14:7 the Hebrew word used is 'hassola' which means literally "the rock". The term originally referred to a high flat-topped hill with near-vertical sides in the Petra valley. It is today known to the Arabs as 'Um el Blyara', meaning "place of cisterns".

Dashed to Pieces

But this did not prevent its capture by Amaziah. Under him, "And other ten thousand left alive did the children of Judah carry away captive, and brought them unto the top of the rock, and cast them down from the top of the rock [Hebrew: hassela], that they all were broken in pieces" (2 CHRONICLES 25:12). This was rather a grim end for the captured soldiers. I have stood on the edge of Um el Biyara and looked over the dizzying precipice. It is a long way to the bottom.

The Edomites tasted the fruits of revenge 200 years later. Judah had forsaken the worship of Yahweh, and prostrated themselves before the idols of their neighbours. God allowed the Babylonians to conquer Jerusalem. Thousands of Jewish captives were sent into exile, and the city was placed under tribute. Zedekiah, against the counsel of the prophet Jeremiah, tried to assert Judah's independence. The Babylonians returned, and this time there was no reprieve for the city.

Nebuchadnezzar, accompanied by his allies, who included the Edomites, besieged Jerusalem in 588 B.C. For two bitter years the defenders held out, but in 586 B.C. the walls were breached and the city was taken. What should be done to prevent further sedition? The Edomite allies saw their chance to vent their spite, and urged: "Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof" (PSALM 137:7). Nebuchadnezzar took their advice, and Jerusalem was levelled to the ground on which it stood.

No One Shall Abide There

Yahweh's response through the prophet Jeremiah was swift and decisive. "Concerning Edom, thus saith the Lord of hosts... I have made Esau bare, I have uncovered his secret places, and he shall not be able to hide himself... O thou that dwell in the clefts of the rock, that holdest the height of the hill: though thou shouldest make thy nest as high as the eagle, I will bring thee down from thence, saith the LORD. Also Edom shall be an desolation: every one that goeth by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss at all the plagues thereof. As in the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah and the neighbour cities thereof, saith the LORD, no man shall abide there, neither shall a son of man dwell in it" (JEREMIAH 49:7,10,16-18). Obadiah, whose entire book is directed at the Edomites, added, "For thy violence against thy brother Jacob shame shall cover thee, and thou shalt be cut off for ever."

'The height of the hill' refers to Um el Biyara, and the 'clefts of the rock' refers to what is now known to the Arabs as the Siq. Petra is in a large hilly valley, and the main entrance to the valley is through a long narrow winding fissure through the surrounding hills. This spectacular gorge has towering sides which almost seem to meet overhead in places. This Siq is more than a kilometre in length, and rendered Petra easily defensible.

These prophecies were to receive a dramatic and specific fulfilment. But lest anyone accuse the prophets of making predictions after it all happened, nearly a thousand years were to roll by before their ultimate toll was taken.

But for the Edomites, judgment soon fell. About 200 years later the Nabataeans (an Arabic tribe) arrived on the scene, and the Edomites were dispossessed of their ancestral home. There is no scriptural record of what happened, so it is not known whether it was a military conquest, or whether the Nabataeans infiltrated Petra and finally squeezed the Edomites out. All we know is that it happened in the fourth century B.C.

The Edomites were obliged to take refuge in the arid Negev in southern Judah. Through a strange twist, they became part of the nation they despised. In the late second century B.C. the Maccabean leader John Hyrcanus forced them to be circumcised and to become Jewish proselytes. This move backfired 70 years later when a strong-minded Edomite, Herod the Great, with the support of Rome, seized Jerusalem and brought the Jews under his iron hand. It was he who slaughtered the Jewish babies in Bethlehem.

New Architecture

Back in Petra, the Nabataeans introduced a new era of architecture and sculpture. They were a tribe from northern Arabia, probably descended from Nebajoth, Ishmael's eldest son (GENESIS 25:13). Actually, Esau married Nebajoth's sister (GENESIS 28:9), so the newcomers to Petra were not altogether unrelated.

Petra's hills consist of stratified sandstone made up of layer upon layer of multicoloured stone. Every colour of the rainbow is represented. The stone is not just brown or yellow, but red, green and blue. And the Nabataeans proceeded to carve their houses, tombs and temples out of the solid mountainsides, exposing the multicoloured strata in dazzling patterns.

Camel caravans, laden with spices and gold, plodded through Petra from Arabia to Damascus and Anatolia, and the Nabataeans exacted their tolls. Instead of the predicted desolation, Petra flourished. The king's daughter was married to Herod Antipas, the despot who beheaded John the Baptist. When Herod married Herodias, Aretas IV regarded it as an offence to his daughter and declared war on Herod.

The Nabataean political influence extended to such an extent that Damascus came under their control. Paul reported that, "In Damascus the governor under Aretas the king kept the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me: And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands" (2 CORINTHIANS 11:32-33).

Tales of the fabulous riches of Petra came to the ears of imperial Rome, and the emperors cast covetous eyes on the mountain stronghold. Two attempts to capture the city failed, but in A.D. 106, under the emperor Trajan, Roman legions entered Petra.

Mocking the Prophets?

But Petra did not die. A well-paved Roman road was built through the Siq and valley, and a triumphal arch erected across the road. A Roman temple was built at the foot of Um el Biyara. Tombs took on the appearance of the facade of a Roman palace, and Petra's prosperity seemed to mock at the distant tirades of the Hebrew prophets.

Christianity came to Petra. Crosses were chiselled into the walls of tombs, and the dead were buried in graves hollowed out of the floors of old houses. A huge Roman tomb was converted into a Christian church.

But the deeds of death were being sown for Petra's thriving populace. A new caravan route along the Red Sea became increasingly attractive to the camel drivers, and Palmyra in the north became a great centre of trade. Deprived of their income from taxation, the people of Petra became impoverished.

By the time Islam came to the Middle East in the seventh century of our era, Petra was but a shell of its former glory. The inhabitants continued to drift away to more prosperous occupations and Petra echoed to the hollow sounds of an almost deserted city.

We only have one more glimpse of activity in Petra before it lapsed into silence. The crusaders occupied the valley and built a stone fortress on the slopes of Um el Biyara. But when the crusaders withdrew in the twelfth century, Petra was left to foxes and jackals, and the occasional Arab nomad.

Petra's Hour Strikes

Though long delayed, Petra's hour had struck, and even the location of the city was lost. Tales of past glory were told in the Western world, but the whereabouts of the mysterious city was completely unknown. 'No one shall abide there', the prophet had said, and Petra was an empty shell.

On Wednesday, November 24, 1784, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was born in Lausanne, Switzerland. He was educated in Germany and in 1806 he went to England, where he studied for three years at London and Cambridge. Three years later he was appointed by the British African Society to explore in Africa. He was advised to go first to Syria to study Arabic and the Islam religion, which was then the dominant influence in North Africa.

Map showing the location of PetraBurckhardt so successfully identified himself with Islam that he became an authority on the Koran. He adopted a Muslim name, and later made a pilgrimage to Mecca in the guise of an Arab.

In 1812 he set out from Damascus on his way to Cairo, taking the route through southern Jordan. He was accompanied by a local guide, who in the course of conversation mentioned a strange deserted valley near Mount Hor, the traditional burial place of Aaron. It was a sacred site for Muslim pilgrims, and Burckhardt professed to his guide that he had made a vow to sacrifice a goat at the tomb.

'I must reach the mount'

The guide led him to Wadi Musa, the spring of Moses, from which the shrine on top of Mount Hor is visible, and suggested that the goat could be acceptably sacrificed in sight of the tomb. But Burckhardt insisted that his vow required him to reach the mount.

So the two continued into the valley. What Burckhardt saw made him gasp. So much so that the guide became suspicious. He accused him of being a spy, and wanted to kill him. Burckhardt allayed the guide's suspicions only by hastily slaying his goat, and proceeding on his journey. When he reached civilisation, he announced to an astonished world that he had found the lost city of Petra.

When I first visited Petra it was still a dangerous place for tourists. When I told the local police that I wanted to sleep with my family in a deserted tomb (there was nowhere else to sleep in Petra), the police would only consent on condition that I hire an armed guard to stand outside my tomb door all night. The guard was duly hired, and I spent three days in Petra exploring its amazing temples and tombs.

Today, a beautiful hotel caters for guests at Wadi Musa, and a comfortable restaurant nestles at the foot of Um el Biyara. A stream of tourists constantly enters the valley on foot, on horses, and even in Jeeps. "...every one that goeth by it shall be astonished..." said the prophet (JEREMIAH 49:17). And no one can visit these magnificent ruins without a profound feeling of wonder and admiration at what they see.

by David Down

Source: 'Creation Ex-Nihilo', Vol. 12, No.1