Lachish PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
Historical outline to 701 BC
The Siege
The long aftermath
Tour of the Tell
Logistical note

The Assyrian Siege of Lachish
When we drive into the site and descend from the bus, the first thing we see is the most dramatic find of all: the remains of an assault ramp at the southwest corner of the tell. The drama is heightened by the fact that an Assyrian artist recorded his king's conquest in stone reliefs. After the victory over Judah, Sennacherib had a palace built (by exiled Judahite workers?) at his capital in Nineveh, and he lined one side of a large hall - his throne room, perhaps - with the Lachish reliefs. The British discovered them around 1850, cut them into strips, and shipped them to the British Museum in London, where they take up 18 meters of wall. The Israel Museum in Jerusalem has a partial copy, and there will soon be another, it is hoped, in the Lachish Visitors Center which is now being built.


On site, when we emerge from the trees, we are so close to the ramp that it is easily missed. The British archaeologist J. L. Starkey, who dug here in the 1930's, saw what resembled a big bulge in the side of the hill almost reaching the top. He mistook the stones inside the bulge for masonry that had collapsed from above during the intensest part of the battle. He had most of them carted away while clearing the face of the city's lower wall. Starkey was murdered before he could remove it all, and you can see the surviving part in the photo. It contains masses of uncut fieldstones, at least 13,000 tons of them. Visiting  in 1973, the first year of the renewed excavations under David Ussishkin, Yigal Yadin (who had excavated Masada with its Roman assault ramp) remarked that if these stones came from the city walls, one would expect to see ashlars among them - yet there weren't any. He suggested that it might be an assault ramp.   

The Assyrians chose this position for the ramp because it was beneath the city's most vulnerable point. First, as said earlier, the land below rises in a natural saddle that lessens the difference in height. The saddle connects to a lower hill on the south, where the Assyrians probably built their camp. Secondly, the main city wall on the perimeter, stretching south from the western gate, was here forced by the topography to make a north-eastward turn, forming a corner. You could place defenders on the left and right sides of the corner, but the corner itself was hard to protect. 

Of course, the Judahites who first fortified Lachish in the 9th century BC had recognized the twofold vulnerability, and so they'd paid special attention to this corner. Elsewhere the lower city wall was built to surround the hill halfway down the slope; its main function was to support the layered soil and mortar-bound rocks of the glacis, which stretched steeply up as far as the main wall on the upper perimeter. Here at the southwest corner, however, the two walls shifted toward each other. The fortifiers built a large tower in front of the lower one, behind which it and the main wall formed a structure 15 meters thick. Despite this massive fortification, to Assyrian eyes the southwest corner still seemed their best chance.     

Before we proceed, though, we must take up a troubling question. After the destruction by the Assyrians, Lachish lay in ruins, unoccupied for many years. It was restored by the Judahite kingdom as a fortress in the late 7th century and used in the revolt against Babylon. Does it make sense that the new generation of Judahite rebels, while re-fortifying Lachish, left the Assyrian assault ramp in place for Babylonians to climb? So asks Peter James in a review of Ussishkin's excavation report. Could it be that what we see is a Babylonian remake? In fact, a part of the ramp on the lower west side is stratigraphically puzzling; it seems to be covering a section of wall that belonged to the 6th century roadway leading to the gate (Ussishkin). Yet this could instead be an effect of pieces sliding down from the defunct Assyrian ramp. In any case, as Ussishkin points out, most of the ramp that we see today must be the original Assyrian one, because farther uphill the pottery beneath the fills of the Judahite counter-ramp (to be discussed below) belonged to the 8th century or earlier, not a single sherd to the 6th. What is more, the top of the counter-ramp was covered by the 6th-century city wall. 

In the final excavation report of 2004 (henceforth I call it "Final Report,"available here under the title "Area R and the Assyrian siege"), Ussishkin attempts a reconstruction of what happened. After deciding to attack at this spot and pitching their camp, the Assyrians forced the locals to gather boulders from the fields. The workers piled up thousands of tons of them on the natural saddle in line with the southwest corner. 

"Once the heap of stones had reached the required height, a large quantity of lime plaster was prepared, and the face of the ramp was cemented. Finally, large amounts of soil were brought from a nearby valley and dumped at the top of the ramp, in order to prepare a platform at the foot of the Outer Revetment Wall [what I've been calling the lower wall - SL]" (Final Report, p. 741). 

The whole project was heavily resisted, of course. The Assyrian archers provided cover. Once the platform was ready at the foot of the tower in the lower wall, the attackers heaved five siege machines onto it. (Five are shown in the reliefs, and the platform - 20 meters broad at this stage in the ramp - would have sufficed for five.) The siege machines were elaborate affairs, including large spears "to ram the projecting balconies and balustrades of the tower-buttress of the Outer Revetment Wall" (Final Report, p. 741). The spears were not designed to smash a structure 15 meters thick, but rather to whittle away at its top balconies, which is why the reliefs show them pointed upward (enlarge photo on right). In the back of each machine was space for a water container: The Judahites were hurling torches (as in the photo) and even flaming chariots (their own, otherwise useless to them now), so the Assyrians had a soldier in the machine whose task it was to pour water on whatever caught fire (also in the photo). In addition to hurling stones, the Judahite defenders tried to catch the big spears in loops of iron chains (a chain was found) or to knock the machines away with perforated stones on ropes that they wielded like pendulums (the stones and ropes were found). 

The attack took place under cover of archers. Apart from the arrowheads found by the British expedition, Ussishkin's found 859 in the ramp area. "Apparently, all the arrows were shot by Assyrian archers at warriors standing on the balcony on top of the tower-buttress of the Outer Revetment Wall, and possibly on top of the Main City Wall. The discovery of so many arrowheads in such a small area shows how concentrated the Assyrian firepower was. Many arrowheads were bent, an indication that they had been shot at the walls with powerful bows from close range" (Final Report, pp. 736-738).

To step back a few days: When the Judahites saw that the Assyrians were building a ramp, they set about constructing a counter-ramp on the identical axis. The people living in houses near the focal point had to vacate. All citizens probably joined in the effort, bringing soil from various parts of the tell. In the layers, the archaeologists found sherds from all the ages of Lachish down to Level III, the time of this battle. The counter-ramp was layered carefully, under instruction, and topped by limestone chips. It reached its peak 10 feet above the main wall. 

The battle is in full pitch. Under the ramming of the siege machines, the top of the tower in the lower wall collapses. The Assyrians place ladders (seen in the reliefs) against what was left of the tower and try clambering up, "perhaps struggling face to face with defenders who still held their positions" (Final Report, p. 742). The defenders redeploy along the top of the counter-ramp. Now the Assyrians "were forced to prepare a new base for attack by extending and raising the siege ramp" (ibid.). They piled on about a meter of soil, on top of which they heaped stones to make a second, higher ramp; it covered the remains of the tower and lower wall, aiming toward the apex of the counter-ramp. (See the photo in the Final Report, p. 722.) 

"The extended siege ramp enabled the Assyrians to attack and overcome the new defence line and force their way into the city" (Final Report, p. 742). Everywhere on the tell were signs of destruction by fire. Large quantities of pottery turned up in this destruction layer; the types provide the basis for dating similar Judahite pottery found elsewhere. (Ussishkin, p. 907.)

The Assyrian reliefs jump forward in time, and we see the surrender. Three captives are impaled on spears. Near the roadway leading up to the western gate, mass graves from this time were excavated. One of them held at least 1500 skeletons and separated skulls of men, women and children. A study of the crania, in the 1930s, found that their closest match was Kerma in Upper Egypt, the Kushite homeland (Risdon 1939: 110, cited in Franklin, op. cit.).  

And we see the Judahites who survived going into exile – the eternal image of the refugee, people carrying their belongings in sacks as they depart through the city gate. (See the photo "Siege machines at the gate" above.) The artist focuses on a procession of captives (photo on right), including children who grasp their parents' garments in dread. The ribs of the oxen are showing - a depiction of hunger. Two men, held horizontally, are being flayed alive. The procession lines up before Sennacherib, who is about to decide their fate (see photo at bottom of page). Beside his head is an inscription: "Sennacherib, King of the World, King of Assyria, sat upon a throne, and the captives of Lachish passed before him." The king wields two arrows, which seem to be part of a ceremony between him and an official facing him. Servants fan the king from behind. Above this scene of carnage and terror, olive trees, fig trees and the famous Lachish grape vines go about their everyday business.

In addition to the reliefs, Sennacherib also had the results of his campaign inscribed in cuneiform on a clay prism. (Compare it to 2 Kings 18: 13-16, quoted in the earlier section, "Historical Outline"). In the prism's third column we read:

"As for Hezekiah the Judahite, who did not submit to my yoke: forty-six of his strong, walled cities, as well as the small towns in their area, which were without number, by levelling with battering-rams and by bringing up siege-engines, and by attacking and storming on foot, by mines, tunnels, and breeches, I besieged and took them. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil. (Hezekiah) himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city. I threw up earthworks against him— the one coming out of the city-gate, I turned back to his misery. His cities, which I had despoiled, I cut off from his land, and to Mitinti, king of Ashdod, Padi, king of Ekron, and Silli-b?l, king of Gaza, I gave (them). And thus I diminished his land. I added to the former tribute, and I laid upon him the surrender of their land and imposts—gifts for my majesty. As for Hezekiah, the terrifying splendor of my majesty overcame him, and the Arabs and his mercenary troops which he had brought in to strengthen Jerusalem, his royal city, deserted him. In addition to the thirty talents of gold and eight hundred talents of silver, gems, antimony, jewels, large carnelians, ivory-inlaid couches, ivory-inlaid chairs, elephant hides, elephant tusks, ebony, boxwood, all kinds of valuable treasures, as well as his daughters, his harem, his male and female musicians, which he had brought after me to Nineveh, my royal city." (Translated by Daniel D. Luckenbill; boldface added.) 

Yet Sennacherib did not conquer Jerusalem or dethrone Hezekiah. Dr. Doron Sar Avi suggests that the difference between the way the Assyrians treated the Shephelah and the way they treated the mountain is reflected in the fact that, in the case of the Shephelah, no trace survived of the Hebrew city names; on the mountain, in contrast, today's Arabic names preserve the biblical ones. For example, the Arabic name for what scholars call Lachish has nothing to do with Lachish: it is tell ed-duwer ("hill of the monastery"). (How Lachish was identified) . On Judah's mountain, in contrast, the ancient Hebrew names are echoed in the current Arabic ones: Gibeon became el-jib, Rama e-ram, and so on. In effect, then, Sennacherib eradicated not just the Shephelah's Judahite settlements but also the memory of them. According to an archaeological survey by Yehudah Dagan: out of 354 towns in this region that are known to have existed in the 8th century leading up to Hezekiah's revolt, only 39 show remains from after it (7th-6th centuries). Even these – Lachish among them - were only partially settled. The scant, short-lived revival did not suffice to re-impress the names into local tradition.

As stated in Sennacherib's prism (see above), the beneficiaries of Judah's defeat were the Philistine cities of Gaza, Ashdod, and Ekron, whose leaders had refused to join the anti-Assyrian alliance. These cities rose from stagnation into immense economic growth (in Ekron, for instance, 115 olive-oil presses have been found from the 7th century BC). Of Judah, Isaiah lamented (1:7-9):

"Your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire; your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you, laid waste as when overthrown by strangers. Daughter Zion is left like a shelter in a vineyard, like a hut in a cucumber field, like a city under siege. Unless the Lord Almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah."

A final note for this section: In all the reliefs from Sennacherib's palace in Nineveh, only one face is rubbed out: his own. He was murdered – by his sons, the Bible says (2 Kings 19:37) – 20 years after the victory at Lachish.
Sennacherib receives the surrender of Lachish

Excellent photographs of the Lachish reliefs, with detailed commentary, may be seen here and then here