Out and About with Cliff – Tel Lachish

Welcome to “Out and About with Cliff” a blog about travels and activities all over Israel.  Today’s item is about Tel Lachish, a place of great historical importance but that is often overlooked.  Please note that the site is currently undergoing renovation so may be a bit difficult to get around.

Although we tend to think of the First Temple period as an era of glorious Jewish independence from foreign influence, in fact, that was not the case.  From soon after the death of Solomon to 586 B.C.E.  the two Jewish kingdoms of Judea and Israel were often under the thumb, at least to some degree, of either Egypt or a Mesopotamian superpower.

During the 8th century BCE the dominant power was Assyria, a voracious master who constantly demanded large tribute payments.   In 722 BCE the Israelite kingdom sought to break away from Assyria with disastrous results.  Promised support from Egypt did nothing to help the Israelites and the Assyrians completely destroyed their kingdom leading to the exile of the ten northern tribes.

However, less than two decades later, the Assyrian king Sargon II was killed by an army of nomadic horsemen  leading many, including King Hezekiah of Judea, to conclude the end of Assyrian oppression was over and it was time to shake off their yoke.  However, Sargon II’s heir, Senncharib, had different ideas launching a large-scale military campaign evidence of which appears in art, archeology and the Bible.

While the Bible focuses on the Assyrian’s unsuccessful efforts to conquer Jerusalem, the Assyrians, shockingly enough, had more to say, about their success in razing 46 “strong cities” in Judea. Foremost among these was Hezekiah’s second, most important city, Lachish.  Senncharib was so enamored of his success here that he devoted several walls of his palace to a series of reliefs portraying the siege and capture of Lachish.

Today the dramatic story of Lachish is hidden within a small hill just east of Kiryat Gat.  Below the hill is a parking area with a number of trees nearby and picnic tables.  Looking around the hilltop we see acres and acres of vineyards and realize the importance of this highly fertile area back in times of the Temple.  Even today the area is well known for its high quality (eating) grapes.

Today, just as back then, vineyards surround Lachish

It was here on this hill where archeologists discovered whole jars bearing the famous LMLK stamp on their handles.  These stamps bear the Hebrew letters LMLK presumably meaning “For the King.”  Some archeologists link these handles, which have been found in several various places, to a massive project launched by Hezekiah to gather food supplies before the Assyrian attack on Judea.

There is also gentle slope rising up to the top of the hill, what seems to be a surprising weak point in the city’s defense until upon closer examination we realize that this is a man-made ramp, in fact what may be the oldest siege ramp found in the Middle East.  It was up this ramp that the Assyrians launched their battering rams to hammer at the city walls, a scene clearly displayed in the Assyrian reliefs.

Field Stones used to build the Assyrian ramp

As we climb up the hill we encounter the city gates with chambers on either side for use by the city garrison.  It was near here that archeologists unearthed  ostraca, or pottery shards  with writing on it not from the Assyrian siege but from about a century and half later when Judea rebelled against its new overlords, the Babylonians.  On one ostracon the commander of the Lachish wrote to the king that he was keeping the signal fires burning but that he could no longer see the fires of Azeikah, indicating the nearby fortress had fallen to the enemy.

In the city itself, opposite the ramp we see indications of the desperate fight put up by the defenders as the enemy inexorably made their way toward the city.  In addition to throwing stones, lit torches and even chariot wheels at the besiegers, the Judeans built a counter-ramp, trying to strengthen their defenses opposite the Assyrian ramp.

Finally, continuing our journey into the city we come across a large structure, in fact the remains of the largest First Temple building found so far in Israel.  This was where the governor of the city would have sat and where we can contemplate the tragic end to Lachish.  The Assyrian army was, in the end, able to break through and capture the city.  The Lachish reliefs portray some prisoners being impaled on stakes while others were flayed alive.  Still others are portrayed as begging for the lives before the Assyrian king.  Senncharib himself notes that by the end of the campaign he had carried off 200,150 people and numerous horses, mules cattle and sheep.  However, as we all know one battle is not a campaign and, according to the Bible at least, this campaign did not end well for the Assyrians.  But to discuss this we must travel to Jerusalem and that we’ll leave for another time.

Do you have a particular place or story you would like to see discussed here?  Please mention it in the comments section.

About the Author
Cliff Churgin is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.