Posts Tagged ‘Tel Lachish’

Buildings inside Tel Lachish
photo by Orientalizing (

Like the Assyrians before them, the Babylonians carried out a policy of extradition from the Judean cities that they conquered. Unlike the Assyrians, they sought to remove only the elite classes – the administrators, military commanders and religious leaders – leaving the peasantry to continue to work the land for the benefit of the rulers and those in the Empire’s homeland.
A large residential or administrative building, dating to the post Babylonian destruction period has been identified on the site of the former Judean Palace at Lachish. It has been suggested that this may be a Babylonian Imperial administrative centre for the farms in the West of the Shephelah. Certainly the well investigated site at Ramat Rehal continued in the east to function as such a centre throughout the Babylonian and Persian periods. It seems likely that the farmlands of the Shephelah once again operated as a government-controlled agricultural area, which was administered from the sites. The rest of site of Lachish would remain derelict until it was redeveloped, possibly as a district capital, by the Persians in the 4th century BCE, but this seems to have had a relatively short life as the site was abandoned again before the end of the century.
A Temple has also been discovered on the site, dating from the second century BCE and there are a few Roman finds from the site, although in both cases these were not accompanied by any large-scale occupation.

Buildings inside Tel Lachish
photo by Orientalizing (

Arrow heads from Iron Age Lachish

Arrow heads from Iron Age Lachish

In the North things went from bad to worse for the Assyrians and their Egyptian allies against the Babylonians. Defeats at Haran and at Carchemesh marked the end of the Assyrians as a nation and the destruction of the Egyptian army, the remnants of which headed south to regroup along the Egyptian border. Following in the pattern laid down by Sennacherib, King Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylon conquered Syria and then the Phoenician states before making his way down the Via Mara to retake the cities of Philistia. It is not clear what he did then, since the evidence strongly suggests that he approached Lachish from the North rather than from the west. During the excavations in the 1930s a series of Ostraca were found in the seventh century destruction level, which have become known as the Lachish letters.

One of the Lachish Letters

One of the Lachish Letters

These are a series of messages sent to Yoash commander at Lachish from Hoshiah, the commander of an outpost probably in the hills to the North of the city. These messages include one about a party that is travelling down into Egypt. Although it doesn’t say anything further about the nature of their mission we do know from other sources that there were missions from the Judean court to the court of the Pharaoh requesting aid against the Babylonians. Others complain of lack of support or are requests to send supplies. But perhaps the most relevant one states ‘We cannot see the beacons of Azekah’ . Azekah was the nearest Judean fortress city, 11 miles to the north of Lachish. It is thought that the only reason these beacons would no longer burn was that the city had fallen. This suggests that, unlike Sennacherib, Nebuchadrezzar had entered into Judah from Samaria and captured the chain of provincial fortified cities, of which Lachish, was the most southern. Azekah has fallen it is saying and we are next, we are alone and the Babylonians are coming.

where the lachish letters were found
The site where the Lachish letters were found
Photo by Charles Meeks (

Unlike the Assyrian campaign, we have very little information about the Babylonians siege of Lachish, other than the city fell and was destroyed sometime between 588 and 586 BCE. Having completed his destruction of the garrison cities Nebuchadrezzar turned towards Jerusalem, besieging and destroying that city as well.

Tel Lachish (The gateway)
photo by Orientalizing (

At some point in the late seventh century, the area around Lachish once again became part of the Judean kingdom. It is possible that this occurred during the reign of King Josiah, as in 622 BCE the Assyrians withdrew from ‘Eber-Nari’ – the land over the River – the river in question of course being Euphrates. Faced with increasing problems in the Eastern Empire, problems which would eventually lead to the rise of the neo-Babylonian Empire and the fall of the Assyrian empire, the Assyrians decided to throw all their resources into controlling the eastern empire. In their absence Egypt asserted its control and influence over the lands all the way to the banks of the Euphrates. The actual degree of this control is not clear. It may well be that there was some agreement between the Egyptians and the Assyrians, as in the following years a number of joint military projects were carried out against the advancing Babylonian forces. It is quite possible that as part of this readjustment, the lands of the Judean Shepelah, which had been lost following the rebellion against Sennacherib were handed back. Certainly around this period we find a new city built at Lachish, although it was by no means as well fortified or as populous as its predecessor. From the finds, it is clear that this was a Judean enterprise, rather than an Egyptian or Philistine one.

Tel Lachish
photo by Orientaliziing (

Back in Judah the site of the city and the land which surrounded it was given into the governance of the Philistine city states, most probably Ekron. This is particularly odd if we date the destruction of the city as 701 BCE, since until months before the fall of the city, these same Philistine city states had been allied with Judah against Assyria. It may be that Ekron had not joined the Alliance and was thus been rewarded for loyalty. An alternative explanation would be that if the destruction of Lachish actually happened in 688, it may have been a reward to the city states for not joining in with the renewed rebellion.
It would appear that after the campaign of 688, there was a stable relationship between the government in Jerusalem and their Assyrian overlords. Indeed, it is well documented in the Assyrian archives that King Manasseh, son of and successor to Hezekiah seems to have been a strong supporter of Assyrian rule. There are records of him sending tribute to Nineveh and later of providing support and troops for Ashurbanipal’s campaigns in Egypt. As for Lachish, it seems that the site remained in ruins with little or no evidence of occupation. It is possible that the land surrounding the city were run as an Imperial resources estate administered from a purpose-built centre, such as the one found at Ramat Rehal in the eastern Shephelah. These centres collected the produce and ship them directly back to the Empire’s homeland.


Lachish has fallen but what happened to the inhabitants? The likelihood is that a large number were killed. A burial site on the western slope of the Tel has revealed at least 1500 bodies. The Assyrian records state that in total over 200,000 people were taken from the land of Judah and transported back to Assyria. This was quite in keeping with the practice of both the Assyrian and later the Babylonian empires. They would move populations around within the Empire so that the population had little connection with the land in which it was living. The departure of the deportees from Lachish are depicted in the reliefs as they carry their worldly goods, heading for a foreign land. It has been suggested that this is the world’s first depiction of refugees. The final panel in the relief shows Sennacherrib surveying his loot both material and human as it leaves the city. The caption reads ‘Sennacherib, king of the world and king of Assyria sat on his throne and watched the booty of Lachish pass before him’


In Samaria which the Assyrians had captured in 720, it is reckoned that the vast majority of the population were deported to the Assyrian homelands and replaced by immigrants from other parts of the empire. These deportees of course are what has become known as the 10 lost tribes of Israel and about whom there are many legends as to where they ended up ranging from Africa to America. It is in fact far more likely that they ended up in Assyria. So from the Assyrian records we can see that a large number of people were deported from Judah following Sennacherib’s campaigns and this would no doubt have included the surviving population from the city of Lachish.


Recent excavations in the Kurdish region of Iraq have actually shed some light on this subject. The area excavated and surveyed by Maorandi Bonacassi was at the heartland of the Assyrian Empire close to the centres of power such as Nineveh. Bonacassi’s work has suggested that the area contained at least 130 settlements, 2 river ports, only 70 miles of canals, numerous aqueducts and the irrigation of hundreds of square miles of agricultural land. The conclusion drawn from these findings is that this was a large Imperial agricultural enterprise delivering food and water to Nineveh and other major centres. To put into some perspective the scale of the work here – it has been estimated that the canals would have required 200,000 m³ of stone to build and the aqueducts a further 600,000 m³ of stone. This is in addition to the labour required for agricultural purposes. The logical conclusion from all of this is that this whole Imperial estate required a large source of forced labour for construction, maintenance and agriculture. I think is highly likely that this or other estates like it were the final destination of the deportees from the city of Lachish.


We left Sennacherib camped outside the walls of the city. We are fortunate in the fact that we have both documentary and archaeological evidence for the nature of the siege. In order to access the city, the Assyrian army had to overcome the double city wall. To do this they attacked the south-western corner, the most vulnerable part of the city as the distance from the ground to the top of the inner wall was smallest here. To overcome the walls, they built a ramp, the remains of which still exist today -the only such siege structure that has been discovered to date. There has been a lot of debate about how this ramp was actually used. Was it to enable siege weapons or battering rams to reach the inner fortification walls or was it to enable foot soldiers to breach the top of the outer city wall. One confounding point is that the defenders build a counter ramp on the opposite side of the wall. This was probably erected to prevent the weight of the Assyrian siege ramp pushing in the wall and thus creating a breach.

Despite the best efforts of the defenders, Lachish’s walls were eventually breached and the city was captured. Archaeologically there is evidence for widespread destruction within the city, including the destruction of the defensive wall. David Ussishkin, the director of the most extensive excavations at the site summed this up as ‘sacked, burnt, raised to the ground and left in ruins’. In effect, Sennacherib wiped the city from the face of the earth.


There is some debate as to whether there were one or two invasions of Judah by Sennacherib. What has lead to this debate? If we look at these story of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah as is portrayed in the records, there is something quite strange about it. King Hezekiah, now allied with Egypt and the other client kingdoms ceases paying tribute to Assyria. Sennacherib invades Judah to re-establish his control. Seeing all his allies have been defeated, Hezekiah recants of his rebellion and offers to pay the outstanding tribute. Sennacherib agrees and takes possession of the tribute. The next thing we have is the story of Sennacherib besieging Jerusalem. The question that has puzzled historians is – if the purpose of Sennacherib’s invasion was to re-establish control and tribute from Judah, why after achieving his purpose did he then go on to besiege Jerusalem? There are other things which do not quite add up. For instance, when he is besieging Jerusalem, Sennacherib , has to lift the siege to go off and defeat an Egyptian army. One of the leaders of this army is listed as being Tirhakh, King of Ethiopia. However, from Egyptian records we know that he didn’t actually come to his throne until 690 BCE and so therefore couldn’t have been a battle 11 years earlier. We also know from Egyptian sources that Tirkakh went on an external military campaign sometime between 690 and 685 BCE. Although the identity of his opponents is not identified, it would be reasonable to suppose that he had marched north into Judah to aid his allies against Assyria. This evidence, therefore, would put the siege of Jerusalem sometime in the period between 690 and 685.
The two invasion hypothesis, goes something like this. Following the death of Sargon, Egypt and the client kingdoms align themselves against Assyria. In 700 to 701 Sennacherib restores control over Syria, the city states of Phoenicia and Philistia and the territory of Samaria. Judah now stands alone. Hezekiah, realising his desperate position reaffirms his loyalty to the Assyrian throne, and pays a huge tribute which Sennacherib accepts and returns to Assyria. Around 688 BCE Hezekiah goes back on his word, Sennacherib invades again and besieges Jerusalem. The outcome of this siege is that the Assyrians get plague in their camp and have to retreat, without any positive outcome.
If we now go back to Lachish, we have to ask the question – if there were actually two Assyrian invasions which one lead to the destruction of the city? It is in fact very difficult to come to a firm conclusion. We do know that Sennacherib was at Lachish in 701 BCE, since it is from here that he sends his messengers to Hezekiah demanding the tribute and his reaffirmed loyalty. Had the city already been destroyed, had he merely captured it or was he merely camped outside it. The sources are unclear. Assyrian records for the 701 campaign claim the capture of ‘46 strong cities plus walled forts and countless villages’. I wonder if this is an exaggeration. Remembering that Judah at this time was a relatively weak nation with an largely agricultural economy, I doubt that there were 46 cities in Judaea and certainly up until today nothing like that number have been identified. To further complicate the problems the Assyrian annals for the years 688 to 681 have never been discovered and so can throw no further light on the chronology of Sennacherib’s campaigns in Judah. There is an argument that in fact Lachish was not destroyed until the 688 campaign based on the idea that the re-fortification described by Finkelstein is more likely to have happened in the years between 701 and 688, than in the years before 701. The argument states that Hezekiah having realised his error in 701 sought to further fortify his cities, knowing that the agreement of 701 would only be temporary and it was the completion of this and his other preparations, such as improving the water supply to Jerusalem, which set the date for him to rebel again. Israel Finkelstein, one of the leading Israeli archaeologists, writes that Hezekiah had created a ‘formidable fortification system consisting of a sloping stone and development. Halfway down the slope of the mound and the massive brick wall at his crest with a huge Bastion and a six chambered gate.’


An argument for the destruction of Lachish in 701 is that Sennacherib’s new Palace in Nineveh was completed in 694. One of the rooms in that palace contains a set of wall reliefs which show the capture and destruction of Lachish. If these are contemporary with the building of the Palace, then clearly the battle and destruction must have happened in the 701 campaign.

The expansion of the Assyrian empire 900-700 BCE

The expansion of the Assyrian empire 900-700 BCE

The eighth century, marked the high point of the Assyrian Empire in Mesopotamia. Having conquered and subdued the countries to their East, the eyes of the Empire turned westward across the Euphrates River. One reason why this may have happened is that the Assyrian Empire was essentially land bound and was looking for an outlet on the Mediterranean coast to increase its trade potential. Alternatively, they may have been seeking resources which were not commonly found in the Empire as it currently existed. They first conquered Aram and Damascus (Syria) and formed a client kingdom association with the Phoenician cities on the Mediterranean coast. In 720 BCE they turned south conquering the kingdom of Samaria. However, they did not enter into Judah, but again formed a client kingdom relationship by which in return for tribute sent to Assyria the Judean’s were allowed maintain their monarchy and govern their own land. This situation lasted for 15 years but in 705, the Assyrian king, Sargon died. The client kingdoms of Philistia, Phoenicia and Judah joined in alliance with Egypt to throw off the Assyrian yoke. This was a very bad misjudgement, as Sargon was replaced on the Assyrian throne by Sennacherib, certainly one of the most formidable, if not the most formidable of Assyrian leaders. Sennacherib quickly dealt with the states in the North and then turned south down the Via Mara, where he captured the Philistine city states and defeated the Egyptian army. And then he turned inland and came to Lachish.



The Canaanite city of Lachish was destroyed in the 12th century BCE. It is unclear as to who was responsible for this destruction, but there are two main candidates. The first of these is the invading Hebrews or Israelites, who had moved down from the Eastern Judean hills, where they had initially settled into the Shephelah. Lachish is listed as one of the cities captured and destroyed during the initial Israelite invasion. There is less evidence for the alternative candidate, but some historians have suggested that by the 12th century the Israelites were already in control of this area, and thus the most likely destroyers were raiders from the coastal city states. These previously Canaanite cities had already been conquered by the Philistia or sea people, perhaps better known to us as the Philistines. Whoever owned the city or indeed destroyed it, occupation on the site was then absent for around two centuries until the city was rebuilt as a heavily fortified city in the 10th century BCE. There is firm archaeological evidence that the occupants of this city were Judean and in most timelines of Judean history, this coincides with the move form a regionally based tribal system of government to a centralised monarchical system. Lachish was not alone in being rebuilt and the fortified at this time as other cities in the Shephelah , such as Azekah and Khirbet Qeiyafa, show a similar development in this same time period. This development may have been a response to the increasing threat from the coastal city states of the Philistia, as documented in the Judean texts, but also may have reflected a statement from the Jerusalem-based government sending a message to the previously semi-independent tribes of the area regarding who had the power and control.
However, this new city was not long-lived as evidence shows that sometime in the 10th century BCE. It was destroyed again, at least to some degree. It is possible that this could be linked to the campaign of the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak or Sheshonk I, who is known to have invaded Judah in 925 BCE. This campaign was supposedly in support of an attempt by King Jeroboam of Samaria to reunite Samaria and Judah. It failed but as a result of city looting and probably tribute paid by King Rehoboam of Judah, Shishak went home a far richer man. Following this destruction, occupation continued at Lachish but on a much smaller scale. After about 100 years there was a refortification of the city and it has been commented that at this time it was the largest Judean city outside of Jerusalem.

Thebes - South Wall of Court of Sheshonk
The victory list of Sheshonk I in Thebes
Photo by Carsten ten Brink (

Tel-Lachish was probably first settled in the fourth millennia BCE by early Bronze Age farmers. By the third millennia it had developed into a heavily fortified city. At this time the area was very much under control of the Egyptians, who had built their own cities or established trade centres in independent cities throughout the area. The area, provided much of the resource material which was absent from the Egyptian homeland. It is unclear from the archaeology, whether at this period Lachish was an Egyptian founded city or an independent Canaanite city which just had strong trade ties to Egypt. In the second millennia, it appears that the Egyptian influence in the area declined and by the 15th century BCE, Lachish is clearly a large Canaanite city-state. It had obviously still maintained its trade links to the local superpower as witnessed by the discovery of 14th century BCE letters regarding the city found in the archive at Armana in Egypt. These letters are from the Canaanite kings of the area to the Egyptian Pharaoh, whom they still clearly saw as the person to arbitrate in disputes between the city-states.

A bronze age temple which has become known as the Fosse temple was built over a disused defensive ditch outside the city. Over time this temple which initially consisted of a ‘cult room’ and subsidiary rooms was enlarged and new rooms were added to the complex, suggesting that it was a flourishing centre of worship.

Ivory statuette heads from the Fosse temple

Ivory statuette heads from the Fosse temple

Bronze Statuette of a disabled man from the Fosse Temple

Bronze Statuette of a disabled man from the Fosse Temple