According to the Bible, Lachish was once the second most important city in the Kingdom of Judea. But after the land was conquered by the Babylonians, it disappeared. There was a local tradition that a certain massive hill about 40 km southwest of Jerusalem was the location of ancient Lachish. Those who believed the Bible recounted historical truth, needed no proof that Lachish had actually existed. Non-believers in the Bible’s historical truth took the stories with a grain of salt.
Looking for the Assyrian Palace
About 2600 years after the city’s disappearance, European archaeologists in Iraq began excavating an area they thought was ancient Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria. Sir Henry Layard wanted to uncover the palace of the Assyrian King Sennacherib. During Sennacherib’s reign, the empire grew southward, almost to Egypt. The Bible describes how his army captured the Kingdom of Israel and exiled its population. This expulsion ultimately led to the disappearance of the ten northern tribes.
Sennacherib went on to conquer, by his count, 46 cities in Judea. Lachish was the last.
The Assyrians laid siege to Jerusalem, the capital. It must have been a frightening sight, to stand on the newly built city wall and look out at the enemy. Thousands of soldiers covered the hills as far as the frightened Judeans could see.
And then, in one night, the Assyrians vanished (Kings II, 7:6-8).
Lachish Frieze in Iraq
No evidence had ever been found to corroborate the Biblical story. Then in 1845 Layard uncovered Sennacherib’s palace. Much of the remains were in good condition. One reception room had a large frieze carved on its long wall. The carving depicted the conquest of Lachish. It shows Assyrian preparations, the battle itself, and the captured Judeans going into exile. The detail of the stone carvings is fascinating. The double wall of Lachish is clear as are the gates. Five battering rams stand on the Assyrian siege ramp and two more stand near the city gate. The weapons, including well as the bows and arrows, spears, and others are clear.
Like all proper nineteen century archeologists, Layard carefully removed the frieze from the palace wall and took it home. The original is now in the British Museum in London. A replica hangs in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
When I visited Lachish more than fifteen years ago, I didn’t understand its significance. Having studied Kings II in high school, I knew a little about its history. But it was one of the first tels I had seen, and I had little to compare it to.
Tel Lachish Today
Today, looking at the large hill in the middle of the level farmland, I understand just how large Lachish was. I now appreciate its strategic importance. It had been part of the line of fortresses between the Israelites and the Philistines. It helped protect the Israelites, the people of the mountains, from the sea people who invaded from the west.
From the parking lot the height of the tel is impressive. There must have been layers upon layers of cities built and rebuilt in this spot to make it so tall. The sides of the tel are almost vertical, except on the southwestern side. Here is the ramp, built by the Assyrians to them to break through the walls into the city. Archeologists estimate it contains 13,000 to 19,000 tons of stones. When they excavated the ramp, they found spears and iron arrow heads dating from the 8th century BCE. These ancient weapons supported both the Bible story and the illustrations in the Lachish frieze.
The Judeans rebuilt Lachish, adding another layer to the tel. The new city lasted less than 150 years. The Assyrian empire itself had even fewer years left. It was conquered by Babylonia, the new power in the Middle East.
We did not follow in the Assyrian footsteps up the siege ramp. Instead we walked up the nearby modern path to the outer city gate.
In 1935, James Starkey, the first archeologist to excavate here, found many letters in one chamber of the gate. The letters offer eyewitness testimony of the battle against the Babylonians. After conquering Nineveh, the Babylonians gobbled up the rest of the Assyrian empire. The most famous of the Lachish lettersis from Hoshiyahu, probably a military commander stationed in the area. He wrote to Ya’ush, probably the commander of Lachish. The letter reports on the Babylonian progress. It says that Hoshiyahu’s people are “watching over the beacon of Lachish, according to the signals which my lord gave, for Azekah is not seen.” One by one, the fortresses were falling, and only Lachish remained standing..
But not for long. Lachish was destroyed again, and this time Jerusalem did not escape. The Babylonians conquered the capital city and destroyed it in 586 BCE.
Lachish was a large city. After entering the outer gate, we walked about a hundred meters, still outside the main city wall, to the inner gate. Shulie Mishkin, our guide, pulled aside a wire fence to let us walk into a restricted area. I’m used to going into restricted areas with the archeologists from Ir David, so I didn’t find this unusual. We were not supposed to be there. I thought that if the archeologists didn’t want tourists wandering around, they would have secured the gate with a padlock. At least they would have hung a “Danger! Excavations!” sign on the fence. But perhaps they don’t feel it is necessary because Lachish is in such an out-of-the-way place.
The inner gate consists of six chambers, three on each side. It’s the only six-chambered gate found in Judea (so far). David Ussisskin excavated the three chambers on the northern side of the gate. The other side was excavated more recently. The remains of these chambers revealed evidence of daily activities at the gates of the city.
The innermost of the three chambers must have been a reception chamber for merchants. Benches line the room, where the new arrivals could sit while the tax collectors inspected and evaluated their merchandise. The archeologists found measuring scoops of varying sizes and clay jug handles with the word lmelekh (for the King). Some jug handles were stamped with the name Nahum Avi, who may have been the tax collector. Jug handles bearing his stamp have also been found at other First Temple period administrative centers.
The Altar in the City Gate
Not much of interest was found in the middle chamber. The outermost chamber, however, may be the most interesting for Bible scholars. The gate was built during the time that sacrificial worship was restricted to the Temple in Jerusalem. They were clearly Jewish altars. A traveler arriving safely after a dangerous journey, as all journeys were at that time, would naturally want to offer a sacrifice. However, sacrifices outside of the Temple were forbidden. Nonetheless, the practice prevailed throughout the land. Most of these sites were in cities on the frontier, the edge of civilization. It didn’t matter where they were; such worship was prohibited. That’s why the Bible prophets traveled the land denouncing the shrines and berating the people who frequented them.
In Kings II, King Josiah of Judea who ruled between the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, instituted religious reformation. He ordered all the priests of Baal be killed and the altars and idols in Jerusalem destroyed. Inspectors went through the land, searching for, and destroying, all unauthorized altars. The altar in Beer Sheva was dismantled and hidden in a basement; the one in Arad was buried. In Lachish, however, the people desecrated the altar. They cut off the horns at its corners.
But, removing the horns of the altars was not enough. A toilet was placed in the room with the desecrated altars, which shows no evidence of ever having been used. Simply putting a toilet in the room was sufficiently sacrilegious to invalidate any prayer that might be offered.
Throughout history some things just do not change. Although today’s bathroom fixtures may be connected to running water, they still look almost the same as the ancient Judean one. And we still do not pray in the same room as a toilet.