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Petra: A biblical destination like no other



Visit Jordan - published on 12/07/22

Named one of the most precious properties of man's heritage, Petra is mentioned in the Bible not once but twice.

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Biblical and oral local traditions claim that Moses walked across Jordan from the Red Sea in the south all the way north to Mount Nebo as he wandered through the Holy Land. In fact, all of Jordan is brimming with ancient references to Moses and his brother, Aaron. Take, for example, the name of the closest city to the ancient Petra –Wadi Musa, “Moses’ Valley.”  

Wadi Musa, also known as The Guardian of Petra, is the administrative center of the Petra Department and, according to tradition, the burial place of Moses’ brother, Aaron. His tomb, local guides claim, can be found nearby, in a cliff around Mount Hor called Jabal Harun, “Aaron’s Hill.”

The town is also just a few kilometers away from the spot that tradition has identified as Moses’ well – the place where Moses struck water from the rock, Ain Musa. From this very same spring the Nabateans would draw water, through a clay aqueduct that is still very much there, all the way to Petra ­– the legendary Red Rose City, one of the most fascinating places in the world, mentioned twice in the Bible with its Hebrew name, Sela.

Originally known to its inhabitants as Raqmu, the remains of what once was the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom are now one of the most famous archaeological marvels of the ancient world.

What UNESCO said about Petra ­(namely, that it is “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage”) is not an exaggeration at all. Originally known to its inhabitants as Raqmu, the remains of what once was the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom are now one of the most famous archaeological marvels of the ancient world, and home to Bedouins who have lived in nearby caves carved in the sandstone for centuries. In fact, it is known that Petra has been almost uninterruptedly inhabited from as early as 7000 BC.

Petra is located near the mountain of Jabal Al-Madbah, the mountain of the altar. This mountain was identified (somewhat controversially) by some biblical scholars (namely, Ditlef Nielsen and Arthur Samuel Peake) of the early 20th century as the biblical Mount Sinai. While these claims have been rejected by contemporary biblical studies, Petra itself is indeed mentioned in the Bible twice. In fact, Scripture explains the city was in the land of the Edomites, the descendants of Esau, Isaac’s son.

Located about 250 km south of the capital city of Jordan, Amman, Petra is halfway between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Dead Sea, at an altitude of between 800 and 1396 meters above sea level. It is reachable only on foot or horseback, after going through a long winding sandstone canyon ­– the legendary Siq.

It should be noted, though, that the ancient Nabatean capital is not known in the biblical text as either Raqmu or Petra, but by its Hebrew name, Sela – in Isaiah 16:1, and in 2 Kings 14:7. The biblical texts read as follows:

Send lambs as tribute to the ruler of the land, from Sela, across the desert, to the mount of the Daughter of Zion.

Isaiah 16:1

He [Amaziah] was the one who defeated ten thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt and captured Sela in battle, calling it Joktheel, the name it has to this day

2 Kings 14:7

Both names, Petra and Sela, mean “rock,” obviously referring to the fact that most of this astounding city is carved into sandstone cliffs.

Petra fell to the Romans, who annexed Nabataea and renamed it Arabia Petraea, giving it the name by which the city is known today, Petra.

Archaeologists have discovered evidence of Nabataean presence in Petra dating back as early as to the second century BC. By then, Petra was already the proper capital of the Nabatean Kingdom, and one of the most important trading hubs in the regional incense trade routes. Unearthed lapis lazuli objects and fragments prove Petra already received traders from places as distant as Afghanistan. It was this trading activity that gained the Nabateans the kind of revenue that allowed them to turn Petra, in the 1st century, into the magnificent city it still is. It was then that the famous Al-Khazneh structure, which is believed to be the mausoleum of Nabataean king Aretas IV, was built. By then, the population of the city peaked at an estimated 20,000 inhabitants.

Although the Nabataean kingdom became a client state of the Roman Empire in the 1st century BC, it was only in 106 AD that it lost its independence. Petra fell to the Romans, who annexed Nabataea and renamed it as Arabia Petraea, giving it the name by which the city is known today, Petra. As sea trade routes emerged, its importance declined, even though in the Byzantine era several Christian churches were built. ­­Most of its remains can still be visited, and even some castles from the Crusader era are still standing in the neighboring cliffs. In fact, it was in one of these churches, Petra’s famous Byzantine Church, built as early as in the 2nd century, where more than 150 papyri were once found. Although the church itself was consumed by a fire in the 7th century, its remains are still impressive.

This content has been brought to you in partnership with the Jordan Tourism Board.

Visit the slideshow below to discover other fascinating biblical destinations in Jordan.

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