Ancient Lachish was the second most important city in the Biblical Kingdom of Judah, after Jerusalem. Today, the site doesn’t even make the top 100 on a must-see list for tourists, foreign or domestic. There is no gift shop, no fence, no entrance fee and no snack bar. There are no brochures and no signs with explanations. Just a dramatic hill about 12 kilometers east of the city of Kiryat Gat, or to locate it more appropriately in its Biblical context, precisely halfway between Jerusalem and the coastal plane.
In 701 BCE the Assyrian King Sennacherib had conquered much of the Near East in a rapidly expanding empire. His father Sargon II had already vanquished and exiled the Northern Kingdom of Israel, never to be heard from again (the “ten lost tribes”). Now the time had come for the Kingdom of Judah to face the Assyrian attack. Lachish, as the second most important city, the crossroads city that led to the Sea, to the Philistines and ultimately to Egypt was strategically important, but it sat on a hill with a formidable ascent from all sides. The Assyrians built a siege ramp; a man-made slope, precisely the same tactic that the Romans were to employ against the rebels of Masada seven centuries later. The ramp worked. Lachish fell, and only Jerusalem withstood the onslaught. The siege ramp can still be seen at Lachish today.
Lachish was eventually rebuilt by the Kingdom of Judah only to be vanquished by the Babylonians 115 years later. The second fall of Lachish is dramatically recounted by a series of ancient letters found in 1935. Written in Hebrew on broken shards of pottery, and sent from a lesser captain at a neighboring outpost to his commander at Lachish, the “Lachish Letters” reveal the increasing desperation as the soldier pleads for help, food, information, and ultimately a sign of life. According to the book of Jeremiah (34:7) the last two cities to be taken by the Babylonians before Jerusalem were Lachish and Azeka. “We are watching for the signal fires of Lachish…because we cannot see Azeka” writes the doomed soldier. The chilling reality of the destruction to come speaks to us from a piece of pottery from 2600 years ago. The fires of Azeka have gone out. Lachish will be next, and then Jerusalem.
Walking up to the city gate of Lachish is reminiscent of the ascent to Megiddo or Hatzor, and the remains of the First Temple Period city gate are strikingly similar. At the top of the hill, one is rewarded with a view that reveals Lachish’s important strategic location: to the East, the foothills of Jerusalem, and to the West the coastal plain and the Mediterranean Sea. On the top of the tel, one can clearly see the monumental foundation of King Rehoboam’s palace. But recently a find was discovered that shocked scholars of biblical archaeology. There at the gate was a pagan altar, with the classic four-horned design that had been turned into a toilet. The horns of the altar had been smashed and a waste-hole about four inches in width had been deliberately drilled into the altar with the clear intention of desecration. Yes, if you really want to show someone that their deity is not worth a pile of dung, turn their shrine into a latrine. This was apparently the work of King Hezekiah, who is praised in the Bible as the king who rids the land of foreign cults. (Kings II, 18:4)
In the midst of all of this history, biblical texts and archaeological curiosities, one almost forgets to look down at what is sitting at the foot of Tel Lachish today. Moshav Lachish, established in 1955, has 1500 acres of vineyards. The Babylonians have come and gone, the Assyrians have come and gone and the soldier who was searching desperately for the signal fires of Lachish fell in battle 26 centuries ago. But here, right next to the ruins of biblical Lachish, are families tending vineyards, in an area that was a major wine-growing region while Hezekiah was ruling in Jerusalem.
It is hard not to get overly sentimental about the miraculous rebirth that is the modern State of Israel. Where are the Babylonians today? Where are the Assyrians? Or for that matter, the Hittites, the Phoenicians or the Philistines? But here are the descendants of Hezekiah, growing grapes that will be blessed at a Sabbath dinner table. And the children playing in the kindergartens of Moshav Lachish are a distant echo of the children of ancient Lachish running up and down the hill, and helping their families every summer during the grape harvest. The signal fires of Lachish are burning brightly.