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Castle at Al Sela in Tafila, Jordan

Ancient Shards Discovered at 3000-Year-Old Nabatean Mountain Top City of Sela


A team of researchers in Amman exploring the 3000-year-old Edomite-Nabataean mountain stronghold, Sela, located on the Edom Plateau, south of Jordan, between Tafila and Busayra have discovered Iron Age remains which detail how the site was used and reused in ancient times.

The mountain of Sela suited the ancient nomadic Nabateans well, for this small mountain with its sheer rock cliffs on all sides was a perfect natural fortress for storing goods, centralizing resources and it was safe for raising their children. According to a report in The Jordan Times, last year archaeologists retrieved shards of tools, implements and artifacts including “43 rims, 23 handles, four bases and 17 body sherds.”

“42 of the sherds dated to the Iron Age IIc, 23 of them to the Nabataean period and 15 to the Roman/Byzantine period, while the remaining 14 were identified as Ayyubid-Mamluk and possibly Ottoman.”

The archeologists also noted that “No Bronze Age or Iron Age I material (pottery) was detected in the course of the survey.” Jordanian scholar Mohammad Najjar told reporters that “this evidence points to the Iron Age II (Edomite period) as the beginning of Sela’s habitation, as a few painted Edomite potteries were found, while painted Nabataean pottery sherds were completely lacking.”

The mountain stronghold of Sela (

The mountain stronghold of Sela (

The City of Sela In Ancient Times

Greek historian Strabo (64BC-24AD) described Sela as “the metropolis of the Nabataean... fortified all around by rock, the outside part of the site being precipitous and sheer, and the inside parts having springs in abundance, both for domestic use and watering gardens”. According to, traditionally, many historians thought that Strabo had described the famous Nabatean Treasury at Petra, but Petra is ‘spring free’ and located in an open valley with water piped in from miles away, so the description better describes the springs, hills and cliffs around Sela.

According to Najjar, the area in which Sela is situated was only habitable with the careful management of water and Nabateans were expert builders of water wells and deposits, channels and cisterns. And this new archaeological evidence retrieved from the site suggests Sela’s habitation “begun in the Edomite period, when the knowledge and techniques of water management [catchment, distribution and storage] were devised and mastered by settlers”.

The Nabataeans were a nomadic Bedouin tribe that herded animals across the Arabian Desert between pasture and water sources. Nabataeans were traditionally embedded in Aramaic culture but the ideas of Aramean roots are generally now rejected by modern scholars who refer to the archaeological, religious and linguistic evidence which confirms they were a northern Arabian tribe.

The Nabataeans were experts at hydro-engineering. Above, water channels carved into the side of a rock (Dario Bajurin / Adobe Stock)

The Nabataeans were experts at hydro-engineering. Above, water channels carved into the side of a rock (Dario Bajurin / Adobe Stock)

A Nabatean Monument to The Gods

In 2018, a Spanish expedition to Sela led by Rocío Da Riva from the University of Barcelona included four professional climbers (Noriega Fuente, Gonzales Hernandez, Mejias Salles and Lopez Estacio). This team uncovered “sherds of equipment and pottery dating back to the second Iron Age, and monuments rising high with carvings and inscription.”

Najjar explained “As the monument is 90 meters high up on the face of the rock, abseiling with ropes and climbing equipment was absolutely necessary. That was the reason to engage four professional climbers in our mission.” He added, “The inscriptions, the monument and its surface remain untouched," A report on Biblical Archaeology says an unintelligible “lengthy neo-Babylonian cuneiform inscription” surrounds “discernable Mesopotamian-style relief” depicting a royal figure with a conical cap carrying a long staff and facing symbols of the sun, moon and stars.”

Archaeologists generally agree that the monument’s iconography “commemorates the conquest of es-Sela and Edom during the southern campaign of the Babylonian king Nabonidus (555–539 BC), who famously took up residence in northwest Arabia during much of his reign.”

Top image: Castle at Al Sela in Tafila, Jordan (CC by SA 4.0)

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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