Strangest City Built by Man
How the fate of ancient Petra confirms the Bible as God’s Word
SIXTY miles south of the Dead Sea lie the ruins of what a poet once called the “rose-red city, half as old as time.” It is Petra, called by many an explorer the strangest city built by man. In ancient times this city was virtually impregnable. And no wonder! It lay nestled in an amphitheater of mountains; a long, narrow ravine was the city’s entrance. The inhabitants lived in caves dug out of precipitous rocks and cliffs. They felt secure in their rock-cut homes and boasted of their safety. Even its name, Petra, a Greek word meaning Rock, testified to its security. But despite its vaunted impregnability and despite its blazing glory as a center of caravan trade, the city died; and as a race its people became extinct. Why is it that a city that was so great and secure as Petra today is a desolate wilderness?
The Bible tells us why. The history of its earliest inhabitants, in fact, is found written in the Bible. Mount Seir is one of the names the Bible gives to the land surrounding Petra. Originally this rocky region was occupied by the cave-dwelling Horites. But the descendants of Esau, the son of Isaac, dispossessed the Horites. “So Esau took up dwelling in the mountainous region of Seir. Esau is Edom.” (Gen. 36:8, NW) Thus this rugged region came to be called Edom and its inhabitants Edomites.
A RACE OF EAGLES
The Edomites were a race of eagles. They lived in a maze of mountains, cliffs, wild gorges and rocky shelves threaded with fertile valleys. An eagle builds its nest in places well-nigh inaccessible to man: “Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high? On the rock he dwells and makes his home in the fastness of the rocky crag.” (Job 39:27, 28, RS) Like eagles the Edomites lived in the fastness of the rocky crags. In their cliff dwellings what foe could reach them? Who could bring them down? Who could even see them?
Yes, who could even see them? Petra was so nestled in the rocks that it lay invisible from the summit of nearby Mount Hor. An enemy could only know of the city’s existence. An army could enter it only if the city were betrayed. Since access to Petra was through a long, narrow gorge, an invader, though gaining access to it, would still be on the outside of the city. And in the winding, narrow defile the invader might find himself besieged. The Edomites felt as secure as an eagle in its nest.
By what name was this eaglelike city called before it became known by the Greek word Petra? It is not known with absolute certainty, but Petra is generally identified with the Edomite city called Sela in the Bible. (2 Ki. 14:7) Sela is the Hebrew word meaning Rock.
Since the ancient trade route between Palestine and Arabia ran through a dark, narrow gorge near Petra, the Edomites made their living by robbing. They became very rich and filled their rock-cut homes with treasures. How their cave warehouses abounded with riches, loot stolen from the caravans and tribute exacted at the point of the sword! The sons of Esau lived up to the prophecy pronounced by Jacob upon Esau; “By your sword you will live.”—Gen. 27:40, NW.
Another strange thing about the Edomites was the way they liked to turn their swords on their kinsmen, the Israelites. The Israelites were descendants of Jacob, also the son of Isaac. Since Jacob and Esau were brothers, twin brothers at that, the kinship ties between the Israelites and the Edomites should have been especially friendly. Just the opposite was true.
For this enmity the Edomites were responsible. They never missed a chance to vex their kinsmen. When the Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land, Moses asked the king of Edom for permission to pass through Edomite territory. Despite Israelite promises not to touch Edom’s vineyards or water, the sons of Esau refused permission and even threatened to come out with swords.
JEHOVAH FORETELLS EDOM’S END
No matter who the enemy of Israel might be, the Edomites always hastened to form an alliance with that foe. When Israel suffered a defeat, great was the joy in Edom. In 607 B.C. the king of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem. What jubilation in Edom! In Petra and in Bozrah the Edomites, their happiness unbounded, celebrated.
Jehovah remembered. Shortly after Jerusalem’s destruction Jehovah, through his prophet Obadiah, said to the Edomites: “For the violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you and you shall be cut off forever. On the day when you stood by, while aliens carried off his goods, and foreigners entered his gates, and cast lots upon Jerusalem, you, too, were as one of them. You should not have gloated over your brother, on the day of his adversity.”—Obad. 10-12, AT.
But in the rock cities, such as Petra, the Edomites were not alarmed. Were they not dwelling in eagles’ nests? No matter, Jehovah declared by his prophet: “The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who dwell in the clefts of the cliff, and set your dwelling on high, and say to yourself, ‘Who can bring me down to the earth?’ Though you build your nest high like the eagle, and set your nest even among the stars, from there I will bring you down.”—Obad. 3, 4, AT.
Who would bring Edom down? Appropriately, the very ones whom the Edomites had urged on to raze Jerusalem to its foundations—the Chaldeans. Jehovah foretold this also. By the mouth of Jeremiah the prophet Jehovah said of several heathen kingdoms, including Edom: “I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.”—Jer. 27:6, AT.
About five years after Jerusalem’s destruction, Nebuchadnezzar’s armies moved against Edom. Nothing now could save the Edomites! Not even the rocky heights of Petra! Jehovah had foretold Edom’s desolation. True to the prophecy Nebuchadnezzar tumbled the cliff dwellers from their eagles’ nests, and as the Bible says: “How Esau is ransacked, and his treasures plundered! They have driven you to the very border; all those who were in league with you have betrayed you. The men who were at peace with you have overpowered you.” Impregnable Petra betrayed!—Obad. 6, 7, AT.
Nebuchadnezzar, however, did not utterly annihilate the Edomites. They still had hope. They hoped to build up their empire once again. Would they succeed? About a century and a half after Edom’s desolation Jehovah through the prophet Malachi said: “Whereas Edom saith, We are beaten down, but we will return and build the waste places; thus saith Jehovah of hosts, They shall build, but I will throw down.”—Mal. 1:4, AS.
The Edomites made strenuous efforts to rebuild the ruins. True to Jehovah’s word their efforts failed. In a short time a warlike tribe of Arabs called Nabataeans moved against Edom. By 312 B.C. rebuilt Petra had fallen. The Nabataeans drove the Edomites from their homeland into the Negeb south of Judea. Mighty Petra now became the capital city of the conquerors.
What happened to the Edomites? About 130 B.C. the Jewish king John Hyrcanus swept away the last vestige of Edomite independence. The Jewish king forced the surviving Edomites to submit to circumcision or die. Those who submitted were incorporated with the Jewish people. Thus Edom ceased to be, in fulfillment of Jehovah’s words: “Shame shall cover you and you shall be cut off forever.”—Obad. 10, AT.
And Petra? About A.D. 105 Rome conquered the Nabataean capital. For a while it became an outpost of the far-flung Roman empire, but soon the old caravan route near Petra was abandoned. With its economic lifeblood cut off parasitic Petra perished. So literally were the prophet Joel’s words “Edom shall be a desolate wilderness” fulfilled that the very existence of Petra was forgotten. For more than a thousand years Petra was as if it had never existed.—Joel 3:19.
THE LOST CITY DISCOVERED
In the year 1812 a Swiss explorer, Johann Burckhardt, ventured into the area south of the Dead Sea. He had heard reports of remarkable ruins there. Knowing Arabic and Arab culture, the explorer had dressed himself in Bedouin garb. He made it known that he had vowed to sacrifice a goat near the site he wanted to visit. One day this European in Arab garb entered a valley near the edge of the desert. A small stream crossed this valley and vanished into a wall of rock. Drawing closer, the traveler saw a fissure cleaving it from base to summit. The narrow opening in the mountain was hardly twelve feet wide. It sloped downward. The Arabs called it Siq or Cleft. Into this mysterious, winding ravine the traveler made his way along with the stream that had once been confined in an artificial channel. He wondered what lay at its end.
At no place could the Swiss explorer see far ahead. Looking upward, he could see only once in a while streaks of blue sky. The sides of the cleft were stupendous, towering straight up and making a man a mere ant by comparison. Ferns grew from crevices in the wall. For about a mile Burckhardt followed the intriguing way. Suddenly he stopped. The cleft opened up into a wider fissure running at right angles. It was as if he had reached some enchanted entrance to a fairyland. Directly before him, hewn in the face of the cliff, stood a temple. This temple to an unknown god, Burckhardt found, was called by the Arabs El Khazna, the treasury. The whole structure glowed in the morning light with the pink hue of an ocean shell.
From this place of enchantment the traveler continued to follow the gorge that elbowed sharply to the northwest; it narrowed again. He went on for about another mile in this wild gorge that varied in width from twelve to forty feet. Then the fissure expanded into an undulating plain, enclosed on all sides by precipitous sandstone cliffs.
At the left of the gorge, where it opened into the valley, Burckhardt found a Roman amphitheater cut in the rock. It had thirty-five tiers and seats for about 4,000 persons. Sitting down at the theater, the traveler could see that the valley was about a mile in length and less than half a mile broad. The sandstone cliffs surrounding the valley, he saw, were honeycombed with dwellings or tombs, cuttings that represented a fantastic amount of labor. He had discovered lost Petra!
The stream that followed the cleft by which Burckhardt entered bisected the plain from east to west and disappeared into a ravine. The Swiss explorer could see that Petra had stood upon the plain on both sides of the stream and that, at least in later times, people had lived both on the plain and in the rock-cut dwellings.
What enthralled Burckhardt were the vivid hues of the rocks surrounding Petra. Red, purple, yellow, blue, black and white were all in the same mass in successive layers or blended so as to form every shade and hue imaginable. The red shades merged into deep rose and even the hue of the lilac or violet. The white, often as pure as snow, occasionally was dashed with blue or red. The blue was that of a clear sky. The yellow rocks of Petra were as bright as saffron. Petra was a city of amazing colors.
CITY OF TEMPLES AND ALTARS
What made Petra impressive, too, were its many temples. There were religious temples by the hundreds. The best preserved ones seemed to have been cut out by the Nabataeans in Roman times. Though impressive from the outside, Burckhardt saw that inside the temples were pitiful hovels, hardly more than caves.
On the outside around the city Burckhardt noted many high places, sacred places of heathen worship so often condemned by Jehovah’s prophets. On these high places the sons of Esau once worshiped their Edomite gods. To make access to the sacred sites easy for the worshiper stairs were cut into the side of the mountain.
It was left to a later explorer to discover Petra’s Great High Place of sacrifice. Discovered in 1900 by G. L. Robinson, Petra’s Great High Place faces the rising sun. A steep flight of rock-cut stairs leads to it. Here also are two twenty-foot-high twin pillars. They were made by the pagan worshipers’ cutting away the whole top of the mountain. At this Great High Place Robinson found a sacrificial table and a rectangular altar, waiting as if pagan priests were soon about to climb the steep stairs, bringing a sacrifice.
What pagan rites were once carried on here! The Bible reader can well imagine what went on, for he remembers how King Amaziah once “brought the gods of the sons of Seir and set them up for himself as gods and before them he began to bow down and to them he began to make sacrificial smoke.” But the gods of Edom brought ruin to Amaziah. Jehovah’s prophet told him: “I certainly know that God has resolved to bring you to ruin, because you have done this.”—2 Chron. 25:14, 16, NW.
Edom’s false gods could not save Amaziah or even great Petra itself when Jehovah, the living and true God, resolved to bring them to ruin. Today Petra is desolate; no one lives there. Few are the visitors who pass through to see the ruins. In miniature fulfillment of Jehovah’s prophecy on Edom, typical Edom exists no more; and its mighty metropolis, Petra, is a haunt for wild animals. Its ruins remain as a monument to the fact that God’s words never fail: “I will make thee a perpetual desolation, and thy cities shall not be inhabited; and ye shall know that I am Jehovah.”—Ezek. 35:9, AS.