Petra, Rock Fortress of the Elamites Captured by Amaziah

Petra, Rock Fortress of the Elamites Captured by Amaziah

The joys of our tour to Petra.

J. Paul Grove, Chairman, Department of Religion, Oshawa Missionary College

Cold Water! How welcome the spring of Ayin Musa was to a group of weary, dusty, and thirsty travelers could hardly be imagined unless one had been with the group that had traveled all day to reach Eljih. Eljih is the last village on the way into Petra, the ancient Edom­ite fortress of Biblical fame, eighty miles north of the GUlf of Aqaba.

We arrived at Eljih just as darkness was fall­ing, and what little could still be seen in the gathering twilight was blotted out on both sides by the sea of horses and burros through which our cars were being maneuvered. These ani­mals, brought in by the natives of the area, were to furnish transportation for the re­mainder of our journey into the "City of the Dead."

Our group left Eljih with only the stars and a few flashlights for illumination. As I sat in the saddle of a horse being led by an Arab, into whose hands I had committed myself somewhat unwillingly, some serious thoughts arose. I could easily imagine how the caravans carrying incense and other items of trade in ages gone by could have been robbed by the Nabataeans, the Arab tribe descended from Ishmael. It.was these Nabataeans who made Petra their capi­tal and carved most of the temples and tombs still visible and quite well preserved today.

For hundreds of years Petra was literally the hub, or crossroads, of the ancient caravan routes trading in the goods of Africa, Arabia, India, Egypt, and Palestine.

As we entered the Wadi Musa (a dry river bed named after Moses), ray eyes and heart were directed upward to the stars, the same that had looked down on the area when the children of Ishmael, Esau, and Jacob fought their battles with each other. When Jacob and Esau quarreled, Esau moved his family and possessions to Mount Seir, the area through which I was riding. His descendants were the Edom­ites (Gen. 36:6-8). They were bitter enemies of Israel, the descendants of Jacob's twelve sons. Saul fought against the Edomites (1 Sam. 14: 47); David conquered them, patrolled their country with his warriors, and took their gold and silver for the temple he planned to build in Jerusalem (2 Sam. 8:14; 1 Chron. 18:11-13). I thought, too, of the many troubles Moses had in this area. One of the most serious was the refusal of the Edomites around the city of Sela (Petra) to let him cross their territory on the way to the Promised Land with the children of Israel (Num. 20:14-21).

The wadi deepened, and we entered the Siq, the cleft through the mighty barrier of the eastern range of the red sandstone mountains that enclose Petra. The cleft narrowed so that in spots it seemed that I could reach out and touch either wall from the saddle in which I rode. The height of its walls was unbelievably great in comparison to the cleft's width.

At times the towering walls of the Siq com­pletely blotted out the stars above, and then we were in total darkness. But I wanted to see! So I turned on my flashlight to scan those walls for the carvings I knew would come soon. Finding none, I turned it out and immediately was beseeched by my barefooted boy guide, in a burst of polite-sounding Arabic, to turn it on again. He did not know a word of English, nor I a word of Arabic, but I plainly understood his wishes. That tiny light in the complete dark­ness of a mountain fastness had made it easier for his nimble feet to traverse the rocks of the stream bed. Just a few moments before he had been doing well enough without the light, but once the light was experienced, its loss was cause for concern. I thought of Psalm 119:105, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path." Previous to this the Arab boy had joined his friends in singing and shouting to drive away the evil spirits. Now he was more concerned about the light. How much like the light of the gospel dispelling the superstition of heathenism!

We were in the saddle about an hour when the stars again became visible over a wide ex­panse of the sky. We had passed through the Siq and emerged into the expanse of a valley floor. Across the valley a light could be seen. Immediately our path turned in that direction. Even though it was small, it had a tremendous drawing power for us. It was the light from our camp! John 12:32 came into my mind as I thought of Jesus, the Light of the world, and "I, if I be lifted up ... , will draw all men unto me." As soon as we turned out of the darkness toward that gasoline lantern away off in the dis­tance, the feet of my guide no longer stumbled. So it is when one turns from the darkness of unbelief into the way of the Lord. "But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day. The way of the wicked is as darkness: they know not at what they stumble" (Prov. 4:18, 19).

At the light I was met by one of my room­mates. When I had dismounted, he led the way up a path and on up some steps to a cave tomb in the face of the cliff. That was to be our "room" for the next few days. I wondered how many other people had slept here before us. Perhaps even Paul, who spent three years in the desert of Arabia before he returned to Damascus, found natural shelter here in these caves, as we were doing!

Sabbath at Petra

Sabbath morning at 4:45 three of the group in our "tomb" arose and went out to study and commune with God in the midst of nature, wild yet majestic, that now could be seen in the light of the rising sun. As I looked through my binoc­ulars I noted many from other "tombs" making their ways to chosen places for their private devotions. It seemed the normal, natural thing to do in these unusual surroundings on a Sab­bath morning.

After breakfast we walked leisurely for about one-half hour to a spot that had been chosen for our Sabbath school and church services. We appropriately turned our backs on the Roman theater on one side of the wadi, to find shelter from the sun below the natural cliffs on the other side. We were probably the largest group that had ever held Sabbath services in Petra. Our audience also was unique. Besides our reg­ular group and missionary visitors, there were fellahin, an Arab policeman, our guide, a few horses, and a braying donkey!

When the services were over we walked back out through a part of the Siq with eyes turned neither to the right nor to the left to avoid missing a monument that we knew was there. We walked only far enough so that we could turn around and have it burst on our eyes as many others had described. We rounded a bend in the narrow gorge and there it was! El Khaz­neh is the surprising temple that was probably dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. The Arabs call it "Pharaoh's Treasury." This was the finest of Petra's monuments, glowing in the rays of the sun like a huge cameo cut in the cliff facing us. Men can spend a lifetime build­ing great treasuries here on earth, but when all is said and done, they must stand as empty and ghostlike as did this great hand-carved building at which we were staring. Not so with our treasures stored up in heaven.

Some of the most interesting features of Petra are its "high places." We climbed to the larg­est one that same afternoon. On the way we stopped to admire the only cave that was dec­orated with pillars and panels carved on the inside. The human workmanship was excellent, and the beautiful colors of the rock seemed to be as vivid as any I had seen.

When we reached the top we saw sun pillars, the court, the ablution tank, and the place of the slaying of the sacrifice. Whole tops of moun­tains were cut off to leave these structures, which were carved, yet still attached to the rock on which they stood. The altar itself faces directly on Gebel Harun, the most holy moun­tain. It could have been hallowed in the time of the Israelites, when Aaron died atop a moun­tain in the borders of Edom (Num. 20:22-27). This was one of the "high places" that was the basis of the clash between Jehovah and Baalim in Kings, Chronicles, Judges, Jeremiah, and Hosea.

 How the children of Israel could have be­come involved in the worship of a god who required, at times, even human sacrifices, is hard to understand. It was more understandable as we viewed the barren terrain of the country­side all around us, almost devoid of any living foliage, and then realized that the god they worshiped was the god of fertility. The whole land was a confusion of Baalim in their day. Every village had a local high place requiring the blood of men and animals, which fact also encouraged licentiousness. Elijah led a counter-revolt against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, as recorded in I Kings 18. Jehu killed them in their own temples (2 Kings 10), and Josiah pulled down their temples throughout Judah (2 Kings 23). Here was a system of re­ligion based on works and fear that was as useless and dead as the bare rocks on which we stood. The religion of faith in a living and lov­ing God, on the other hand, is as vibrant today as it was in the time of Christ. What a pleasure it was to climb down from this high place and worship the true God during the Sabbath vesper time, in the old Roman theater near our camp!

Climbing Sela

Sunday morning at 5:00 A.M. about half of us were up preparing for the most difficult and dangerous climb of the whole tour—Mount Sela, the most imposing peak in the entire Petra area. Umm el-Biyara, the Arab name for this flat, plateau-topped peak, was an Edom­ite stronghold, inaccessible except by the aid of a sort of staircase built, in one spot, in a passage so narrow that it could be closed with a gate. On the top were great cisterns hollowed from the rock and plastered. In these the de­fenders of the mountain stored water for use in case of a prolonged siege.

We were glad that its top was not being de­fended as we began our climb, for the ascent was difficult enough as it was. There were places where some climbers had to be practically lifted up from one section of the pathway to another, where one slip could have meant a dan­gerous fall onto the rocks below. In many of these places one man could have held off an army storming the fortress. This city was prob­ably a challenge to David, the mighty warrior, who said in Psalm 108:10, "Who will bring me into the strong city? who will lead me into Edom?"

Exploring the top of the plateau, we found several of the large water cisterns. The mouths of these were cleverly hidden. We could under­stand how, when the Edornites were warned of an approaching enemy, they could transfer the weak and old up to this plateau and then live there until the enemy was defeated and driven away. We had some idea as to the vessels they might have used while living there, for so few people have climbed the peak that pieces of pottery still could easily be picked up. The pottery was Edomite, dating from the eighth to the tenth century B.c.

I was particularly interested in looking for projections or abrupt cliffs where Amaziah could have killed the ten thousand captives mentioned in 2 Chronicles 25:12. King Amaziah of Judah made war against the children of Seir and took Sela (Petra), smiting ten thou­sand. "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, that they all were broken in pieces." As we looked, there were several sites from which this could have been done, but the cliff with the greatest sheer drop was on the side facing our camp. This great victory of Amaziah over the Edom­ites in 790 ac. made him so proud that he at­tempted to defeat Israel in order that it might be reunited with Judah. His plan did not suc­ceed, for he was defeated by Jehoash.

The Edomites must have had defenses on Umm el-Biyara even before the time of Ama­ziah, for they refused to let Israel pass through their borders on the way from Egypt to the land of Canaan. The story is told in Numbers 20:14-18: "And Moses sent messengers from Ka­desh unto the king of Edom, Thus saith thy brother Israel: . . . Let us pass, I pray thee, through thy country: . . . we will go by the king's high way, we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed thy borders. And Edom said unto him, Thou shalt not pass by me, lest I come out against thee with the sword."

Because of their harsh treatment of the Is­raelites, the Lord sent messages through His prophets denouncing the Edomites. One exam­ple is that found in Jeremiah 49:16, 17: "Thy terribleness hath deceived thee, and the pride of thine heart, 0 thou that dwellest 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. . . . Edom shall be a desolation: every one that goeth by it shall be astonished." Surely it is evi­dent that the prophet was picturing the Petra country of today, especially Umm el-Biyara.

The next morning before sunrise our horses galloped into camp, and we rode back out through the Siq to Eljih and the long trip back to Amman. I could not help wishing for more days in which to explore the Petra stronghold. Time and schedules called us, however, so we rode away.

Few of us will ever have the opportunity of revisiting Petra. The ride in through the dark­ness, sleeping in tombs, Sabbath services under the shadow of a cliff, the first glimpse of Phar­aoh's treasury, the climbs to the high place and Umm el-Biyara—all are now joys of the past that linger only in the memory of those for­tunate enough to have been members of this first Seminary Tour to the Holy Lands.


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J. Paul Grove, Chairman, Department of Religion, Oshawa Missionary College

January 1958

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