The Edomite Stronghold of Sela

Is this where 10,000 Edomites were thrown to their deaths?

Surrounded by deep ravines amid the rugged highlands of southern Jordan, the steep-sided “rock” of es-Sela may be where King Amaziah of Judah slaughtered 10,000 Edomites.

In one of the Old Testament’s colder and more brutal episodes, King Amaziah of Judah (c. 801–783 B.C.E.), after having slain nearly 10,000 Edomites in battle near the southern end of the Dead Sea, is said to have thrown another 10,000 captives from the top of nearby Sela, where they were “dashed to pieces” (2 Chronicles 25:12; 2 Kings 14:7). While the Biblical account provides only vague clues as to where this horrible event took place (Sela simply means “rock” in Hebrew), the archaeology of a little-known mountaintop stronghold in southern Jordan may hold the answer.

Located just 3 miles north of the Edomite capital of Bozrah (modern Buseirah) in the rugged highlands of southern Jordan is an imposing natural rock fortress that still carries the name es-Sela. Surrounded on all sides by deep ravines, the towering, steep-sided rock of es-Sela rises more than 600 feet above the surrounding valleys, culminating in a broad, flat summit that can only be reached by an ancient, well-hidden staircase that follows a narrow cleft in the eastern face of the mountain. Though es-Sela has not been excavated, surface finds from the summit indicate it was occupied during several periods (including the Early Bronze Age and Nabatean period), but saw its most extensive occupation and use during the early to mid-first millennium B.C.E., the time of the Biblical Edomites.

The gate area and natural rock tower that forms the only entrance to the mountaintop fortress of es-Sela. The narrow entryway leading into the city can be seen at lower left. Photo by Ian Rybak.

Es-Sela’s defensive character is immediately apparent after one ascends the many switchbacks of the worn staircase and passes through the narrow, rock-cut passageway that served as the stronghold’s only entrance. Flanking the passage are natural rock towers outfitted with guard chambers and topped by the remnants of well-built fortification walls. Positioned along the edges of the summit are numerous rock-cut rooms and chambers with strategic views over the surrounding valleys, while more than two dozen cisterns are carved in the plateau’s white sandstone bedrock, all of which collected vital, life-sustaining rain water through an interconnected system of channels and diversion walls.
 


 
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Since es-Sela has not been excavated, it is difficult to know how or on what occasions the Edomites made use of their mountaintop fortress, although some sense of the site’s importance is evidenced by the mysterious rock-cut buildings and features that cover the summit. In addition to the myriad chambers and rooms carved into the summit’s numerous stony domes (which probably functioned as dwellings), there are more enigmatic features, like a carved staircase that seemingly goes nowhere, and a massive “throne-like” seat positioned in the center of an otherwise empty chamber. And on a large stone slab just peaking out of the soil, there is a worn but delicately carved image of a bull’s head, probably a depiction of the widely worshiped storm god Hadad.

Carved into the cliff face is this depiction of a Mesopotamian royal figure standing before several astral symbols. The scene likely depicts the Babylonian king Nabonidus, who campaigned through Edom in the mid-sixth century B.C.E. Photo by Arkady Alperovitch.

But the clearest indication of es-Sela’s importance during the time of the Edomites comes from a monumental relief carved into a sheer rock face about half way up the steepest part of the mountain. The heavily worn but clearly discernible Mesopotamian-style relief shows a royal figure with a conical cap carrying a long staff and facing symbols of the sun, moon and stars. These figures are surrounded by the faint traces of a lengthy neo-Babylonian cuneiform inscription, much too worn to be read. The scene’s iconography, however, strongly suggests it was carved to commemorate the conquest of es-Sela and Edom during the southern campaign of the Babylonian king Nabonidus (555–539 B.C.E.), who famously took up residence in northwest Arabia during much of his reign.*

Of course, none of this sheds any light on Amaziah’s slaughter of the Edomites as recorded in the Bible. Indeed, other candidates for Biblical Sela have been proposed, namely the steep-sided mountain of Umm el-Biyara in nearby Petra.** Although we won’t know more about es-Sela’s Edomite history until the site is systematically explored and excavated, the available evidence shows that this fascinating mountaintop stronghold was certainly an important place of refuge for the Edomites throughout the Iron Age, at least down to the time of Nabonidus and perhaps during the reign of Amaziah as well.


Originally published December 2012, updated May 2014.
 


 

View a slideshow of images from es-Sela.

Hover cursor over image to read caption.
Click the arrow in the bottom right corner to view in full screen.

 


 

Notes

* See “Who Was Nabondius?” sidebar to Matt Waters, “Making (Up) History,” Archaeology Odyssey, November/December 2005.

** See Joseph J. Basile, “When People Lived at Petra,” Archaeology Odyssey, July/August 2000.

 


 

Glenn J. Corbett is associate editor with the Biblical Archaeology Society. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern archaeology from the University of Chicago where his research focused on the epigraphic and archaeological remains of pre-Islamic Arabia. Since 2005 he has directed the Wadi Hafir Petroglyph Survey in southern Jordan.

Posted in Biblical Archaeology Sites, People in the Bible.

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  1. Bob says

    In this article, The Edomite Stronghold of Sela, the photo of the “staircase leading to nowhere” seems to provide a clue to its purpose. When looking at the photo, it appears that the steps lead up the back of a large stone head, upon which their leader may have sat or judgments were pronounce. I can see definite head features of the rock, although from the side – jaw, nose, cheek, nose.

  2. Jess says

    It seems like that in either location of where 10,000 Edomites were thrown to their deaths there would be skeletal remains?

  3. Jack says

    The place you speak of had many names Seir, Sela, Edom, Petra. I visited this city,now called Petra in Jordan . The power of God wiped out this heathen kingdom for inflicting harm to the people of the One true God.

  4. Matheny says

    I was there at es-Sela about a month ago, and also have a number of pictures and short videos of the hill top fortress. I was impressed with it. I kept imagining how it might of been to have lived there back in the Bible days. I believe you are right in having this the site of Sela in the Bible and not Petra. I also got some pictures of the “bull’s head” but really thought it looked recent to me, it was sand stone and look to well defined to have been there for centuries. Especially because it was on the ground not on the side of a rock and anyone, including the goats that graze up there, could walk on it. I thought perhaps someone from the area had done it, at any rate that is just my opinion.

    As a side not I thought it possible it might also be one of the many possible locations for the Ark of the Covenant. I found about a dozen ancient sources that say Jeremiah the prophet buried the Ark. These all are found online and all translated into English. These have Jeremiah burying the Ark at different locations, namely Mt. Nebo and Mt. Sinai but other locations as well. There are so many different ancient text that have the Ark buried in different locations that one could get the impression someone purposely set out to confuse people on this, perhaps to keep it hidden? At any rate a few of the Jeremiah accounts of the hiding of the Ark have it at a place “the rock”, as you said, “Sela simply means “rock” in Hebrew”.

    1) JOHN, BISHOP OF NIKIU (about 700 AD) (Pp. 1-14 from the CXXII Chapter)

    “And Jeremiah took those objects and the stone, and went hastily to the rock and hid them there until this day.” Only calling the place “the rock” leave you with the impression it was well know. And that it was, according to him, still there in his day,

    2) LIVES OF THE PROPHETS (Jeremiah, verses 9-14). Most consider this work to be of Jewish origin dating from the 1st century. Torrey, whose translation I am using here, suggested a date before 106 AD. “This prophet, before the destruction of the temple, took possession of the ark of the law and the things within it, and caused them to be swallowed up in a rocky cliff….The rock is in the wilderness where the ark was at first, between the two mountains on which Moses and Aaron are buried…” Again “The rock”, but more precisely “between the two mountains” where Moses and Aaron are buried. This would have to be the el-Sela of your article, for it is between these two mountains. Both Mt. Nebo (where Moses is buried) and Mt. Hor (at Petra, where Aaron is buried) are in Jordan, and if you draw a line between them it goes right by el-Sela. Both Mt. Hor and Mt Nebo are the “traditional” locations, and both are disputed, especially Mt. Hor. But Josephus (Antiq. IV, Ch. 4:7) believed Mt. Hor was at Petra (the traditionally location) and even if he was wrong, still that was the belief in the days of those who wrote these texts of Jeremiah burying the Ark. The site of el-Sela is about an hour and 15 minutes north of Petra by car, and you can rent cars at the airport.

    I really do not know how much trust to put in these ancient accounts, as I said they contradict themselves. But I do not know of anyone looking there for the Ark and so pass it along.

  5. Jack says

    I was at Petra February 2006 with Dr. of Archeology. The O.T. Prophet Obediah tells us all we need to know concerning the utter destruction of the Edomite kingdom. It’s only 1 chapter with much insight. This was the people of Esau who brought affliction to true seed of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob. As for the Arc of the Covenant, a smart dig would be near the empty Tomb of Messiah.

  6. David says

    Bob, you are very observant. Perhaps, the leader stood on the top of “his own” skull making this the world’s first “jumbotron”!

  7. Toma says

    Thus says The Lord: Did you think My wrath would tarry forever?! Did you think My judgment sleeps?! Are My eyes closed to all these atrocities committed upon the earth, day and night, without ceasing?! Are My ears also stopped from hearing?!… Lo, I have seen and I have heard!

    My face draws near to this earth!…

    My eyes are filled with fire and fury!…

    My forehead wrinkles, and is set hard against you,
    O inhabitants of the earth!…

    For it is time!

    It is time to shake the cities of men by measure, and to bring up wrath from beneath! City by city shall be punished… One here and another there. Behold, it shall come upon them suddenly, and men shall fear, and with great perplexity shall their hearts fail!… A great trembling shall now come upon all people!…

    THE TERROR OF THE LORD IS AT HAND!…

    It shall come in swiftly, and you shall not know from where it shall come!
    It shall come upon city after city, without warning!

    For I have caused the earth to become angry. Lo, the depths of the earth tremble at My nearness, and soon this planet shall rage!… It shall rage against you, O deceitful generation! It shall devour and consume this generation!… Scouring from the earth all man has made!
    The Scriptures do not lie! And My prophets speak, yet the people refuse to hear!… They will not listen. Even My own people will not believe, yet their belief is not at all required… For My will is set, and can in no wise be turned back! The truth of My Word stands! It speaks throughout the generations and echoes throughout eternity!…

    For I AM THE LORD!… YaHuWaH!…I am EL Shaddai!…And I shall surely perform all I have spoken.

    I shall not cease, nor relent, nor shall I be turned back from My purpose!… The kingdoms of men must die! And the evil of men must be destroyed!… All must be wiped away!

    Peoples of the earth, you have hated life!

    You have polluted MY garden!

    DISEASED AND AWFUL GENERATION,
    YOU HAVE DESTROYED THE GARDEN!…

    And so I am come to cleanse! And to wipe away!…

    I am come down!…

    MY FACE IS VERY NEAR!

    Do you feel the heat of My wrath, O ignorant and vain peoples?!… You retain no knowledge at all! Only greed and wickedness, wickedness upon wickedness, passes before your eyes without ceasing… And oh how you love to have it so!
    DEAD GENERATION! Your hearts are stone!… Day after day you build up wrath, the vessels overflow! Day by day, the bodies are stacked up in heaps! Day by day, the unborn are slaughtered!… Whole generations of people murdered without cause! Multitudes of innocent cast off as refuse!… Yet you think Me too harsh, and My punishments too severe, My judgments unfair?!

    I AM THE LORD, AND THIS IS MY EARTH!
    THESE ARE MY CHILDREN!…

    All you see, from the ground beneath your feet
    To the farthest reaches of the universe, is MINE!…

    And I shall do as I please!

    I shall do according to the counsel of My own will…

    For I am God!

    Therefore, O peoples of the earth, because you have slaughtered the innocent and murdered your neighbor… Lo, you have even made for yourselves laws, that all may do their pleasure in unrighteousness and perform evil at their leisure… So then shall I also declare MY Law, and it shall fall hard upon the backs of all nations!
    Yea, I have put forth the decree, and hasten to carry out your sentences, O peoples of the earth! And what is the sentence, you ask?… Look upon the slaughtered innocent, look upon their torn and broken bodies… Behold how they are torn in pieces! See how their blood pours down and their limbs are strewn about!… LOOK!!! Look how they are scraped out of their mother’s womb!… Look upon the works of your hands, you evil and most wicked generation!… LOOK UPON YOUR WICKEDNESS!!! LOOK UPON ALL YOU HAVE DONE!

    THE TIME HAS COME!

    Hear the WORD of the LORD spoken to THIS modern generation!
    free at:
    TrumpetCallofGodonline . com

  8. Tim says

    The most important thing about the Edomites, were their export of balsam (or balsam of Gilead or balm of Gilead.) The hight prized resin was valued as a medicine and perfume. It was the “Royal Perfume” of the Parthians. The Edomites may have been absorbed by the ancient Hebrews, but their unique legacy of the balm of Gilead remains. “There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole,” as the song goes.

  9. becky says

    The “steps to nowhere” could have been like the “steps to an aircraft” we use today. Haven’t you seen the “stairs to nowhere many airports roll out to planes even today? If someone from 1,000 years from now saw them, wouldn’t they describe them the same way? Only these were made in stone — maybe as a permanent boarding and disembarking platform for aliens and visiting UFOs. The Edomites were half-angel, half-human Nephilim, and they use UFOs…Another thing, the huge throne could have been for a Nephilim ruler (who would have been 9 feet to 28-feet tall according to scripture, history and what we know of these hybrids. It’s all biblical and historical!

  10. Low says

    Toma quotes God in #7 and I ask you, do our “leaders” hear what God is telling us? Does Obamma acknowledge and bow down before God? Can he in any way resist the will of God? Three times “no”. Watch for yourself and see who is right and what will be. Repent.

  11. Victor says

    Great article! Just wanted to add, as written that Hebrew is the ONLY spiritually inspired language(Zeph. 3:9, Acts 26:14, 1 Cor. 4:6) & the name “Jesus” added in the early 1300′s by Petrus Galatinus in Rome CAN NOT be translated into Hebrew, although “horse” comes close, don’t you think? WATCH!

  12. ancient says

    Howdy just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know a few of the pictures aren’t loading correctly. I’m not sure why but
    I think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same outcome.

  13. Victor says

    Just thought that I’d add that in Hebrew, “Baal” is translated as “LORD!” If Hebrew is the ONLY SPIRITUALLY SET-APART LANGUAGE AS WRITTEN(ZEPH. 3:9, ACTS 26:14, 1 COR. 4:6), looks like also as written: “The whole world has been deceived”! Just saying what’s really written…

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