The Edomite Stronghold of Sela

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

This Bible History Daily article was originally published in 2012.—Ed.


 

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.
 


 
This Bible History Daily article was originally published in December 2012.
 

 
Glenn J. Corbett is associate director of the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) in Amman, Jordan, director of the Wadi Hafir Petroglyph Survey and contributing editor at 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.
 

 

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.
 


 
View more images from es-Sela:


The top of es-Sela can only be reached via an ancient staircase (the lowest flights of which have recently been refurbished) that follows a narrow cleft in the rock face.

The top of es-Sela can only be reached via an ancient staircase (the lowest flights of which have recently been refurbished) that follows a narrow cleft in the rock face.


In the area near the gatehouse, the towering, dome-shaped rocks atop es-Sela were further fortified with well-built stone walls, the remains of which can still be seen today.

In the area near the gatehouse, the towering, dome-shaped rocks atop es-Sela were further fortified with well-built stone walls, the remains of which can still be seen today.


Spread across the summit of es-Sela are numerous rock-cut rooms and chambers, including this dwelling or guard chamber that was outfitted with a cistern. Photo by Ian Rybak.

Spread across the summit of es-Sela are numerous rock-cut rooms and chambers, including this dwelling or guard chamber that was outfitted with a cistern. Photo: Ian Rybak.


Among the more interesting features found atop es-Sela is this carved staircase that appears to lead nowhere.

Among the more interesting features found atop es-Sela is this carved staircase that appears to lead nowhere.


Inside one of the many carved-out chambers on the summit of es-Sela is this large stone block, seemingly carved in the shape of a giant seat or throne.

Inside one of the many carved-out chambers on the summit of es-Sela is this large stone block, seemingly carved in the shape of a giant seat or throne.


Carved in shallow relief into the summit’s sandstone bedrock is a worn but easily discernible drawing of a bull’s head, most likely the widely worshiped storm god Hadad.

Carved in shallow relief into the summit’s sandstone bedrock is a worn but easily discernible drawing of a bull’s head, most likely the widely worshiped storm god Hadad.


The location of the Nabonidus relief on the rock of es-Sela is circled in red on this photograph. Photo by Ian Rybak.

The location of the Nabonidus relief on the rock of es-Sela is circled in red on this photograph. Photo: Ian Rybak.


 

 

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  • Tina says

    The “steps to nowhere” are not to be found only in Sela but in all Europe (as far as I know). You find a couple in Spain, one in central Italy (they say it’s etruscan), one in France, another in Chekia, one in Turkey, one in Portugal, cities in Trakia (Bulgary), another in Germany etc. etc. They are MANY. what we can presume is a) that the same people went around these countries b) that a common culture spread from somewhere around. I have not an answer.
    It would be interesting to know the ADN of the Edomites, and verify if other people in the world have the same haplogroups.
    P.S. the idea that the steps to nowhere was a “silence tower” of Mazdeism was also my idea. The silence tower where a high place for the dead to be devored by the rapacius. The Mazdeists thought that neither the fire could receive a dead body, as it was impure. They were worshippers of the fire and for that they had “fire altars” where to burn a flame forever.
    Nevertheless, if one observes these steps on the top, one can see that there is a Platform where presumably a sacrifice was made, and its blood could fell down into small traces on the rock up to fertilize the ground…..
    For those who want to know more, I invite them to see the FB Group “Megalithic altars, Altari Megalitici, Altares Megaliticos”

  • Ramzi says

    I tell you my friends lots of things from Exodus time and many other things from the Bible both the Old and New Testament were going through Jordan. You must be careful though when you read anything because it is not an easy thing to consider all the ditails together in your mind since that it is many articles done by different minds of thinking

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