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

A Tour of the Tell

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Leaving the siege ramp, we ascend the long, narrow access path to the city gate (#s 1 and 2 on the photo at right). Note that an army would have great difficulty here, strung out along the path and subject to spears and arrows from the city wall on our right. In the 9th- and 8th-century city there were in fact two walls, an upper one 6 meters thick, probably with crenellations so that soldiers could stand on it, and a lower wall, 3.5-4 meters thick, which held in place the steep artificial slope (glacis) that extended to the upper wall. Here too defenders could stand and fight. The building of such fortifications requires great resources in labor and material, no doubt beyond the means of local inhabitants. It requires a central authority, meaning a national state. 

Present are the remains of gates from two different periods. There is the gate complex that the Assyrians destroyed in 701 BC, and there is one that the Babylonians destroyed when they took Lachish in 586. As we walk the modern ramp, we are roughly on the level of the access from 586. Before us (see photo below) are the remains of towers. On the left, the lower, bigger tower-base is from the 9th and 8th centuries, the higher from the 6th. On the right we see part of the restored tower from the 6th. Entering between them, we find ourselves in a normal-sized courtyard. It is from 586, but the 9th-8th century courtyard was much bigger - enormous in fact - as you can see in the photo below. 

Inside the eastern tower from the 6th century, James Starkey and colleagues found 21 ostraca from the final, catastrophic revolt against Babylon. (See the previous section.) What were the letters doing in the gate? Lachish was then a thinly settled affair. The 9th-8th century palace remained in ruins. It is possible that the local commander, Ya-ush, converted the outer gate into his headquarters. 

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We go east through the courtyard and through an opening to the inner side of the city wall. Here we find traces of the inner gate from the 8th century BC. The chambers on the left (north) were excavated in the 1930's, but those on the right were exposed quite recently. As of this writing (Februry 2018), they are covered with a wooden structure, pending the full opening of the Lachish National Park. In the SW chamber (see photo below) Saar Ganor and his co-workers discovered stone benches facing each other, so close that if a judge ate onions for breakfast, his colleagues on the opposite bench could not but be aware. This is a curious arrangement, for the benches we know from Dan and (so-called) Bethsaida were in the courtyard between the outer and inner gates, allowing sufficient space for a trial. The 8th century Lachish gate-complex boasted a huge courtyard, as we have seen. Why then were the benches not in it? Well, perhaps there were also benches there and they were plundered.

In First Testament cities, the gate could function as a court of law, especially for cases involving (1) the tenth of the local population that lived inside the city and (2) the nine-tenths who lived in surrounding villages, farming the land. The names of some cities reflect this: Gezer was a place of judicial decision (gezira), Megiddo a place where verdicts were spoken (magid), Dan a place of judgement (dan). The Bible offers examples of judicial process in the gate: for example, Abraham's negotiation to buy a burial place for Sarah (Genesis 23), Boaz's purchase of the right to marry Ruth (Ruth 4:1), the place for bringing a complaint that could end in execution (Deut. 21:19; 22:15). But the gate was also a place of commerce. The farmers brought the fruits of their labor to the city: for instance, huge quantities of grain were found in the gate chambers of e-Tel ("Bethsaida"). It was one of the judges' functions to decide on and proclaim (again magid, etc.) the value of products. Each city would have had its own rate: the word for "currency rate" in modern Hebrew is derived from the biblical word for gate, sha'ar, as in this example:

Elisha replied, “Hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Lord says: About this time tomorrow, a seah of the finest flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate (sha'ar) of Samaria.” (2 Kings 7:1).

In the southeast chamber of the inner 8th-century gate, Ganor found a platform and two altars whose horns had been deliberately damaged - likely a result of Hezekiah's reform, which included the destruction of cultic places outside Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:1-6) . This particular cultic place was further desecrated by placement upon it of what seems to have been a thick stone toilet seat, with an opening in the shape of a keyhole. (No sign of excrement was found beneath, however.) Recall what Jehu did in Yahweh's name after killing the sons of Ahab in the city of Samaria:  “Then they demolished the pillar of Baal, and destroyed the temple of Baal, and people have used it as a latrine to this day” (2 Kings 10:27).

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We climb a trail southward to the rim of the tell overlooking the assault ramp. Here the diggers discovered a Judahite counter-ramp (see the  photo on the right.) Below us was the conjunction of the city's upper wall with the lower wall, the two here forming a kind of tower. Standing on the counter-ramp and looking down, we can re-create the story that is told in the reliefs, but this time from the defenders' point of view: how they braved the Assyrian archers, throwing  torches on the chariots and stones,  trying to "hook" the big spears of the chariots to overthrow them, setting their own useless chariots on fire and hurling them down. 

The position also affords our first good look around. We can make out the smokestacks of modern Ashkelon and Ashdod to the west. Ten miles to the north is Gath (Tell es-Safi). To the east we can see Maresha and beyond it Judah's mountain, where the valley-pass from Hebron comes down to join the valley-pass just under us on the southeast. Here again is the satellite photo:

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Descending from the counter-ramp, we follow a trail north to the palace. Only its podium remains: a raised platform 76.5 meters long, 32 wide and today more than 11 meters high on the southwest corner. We should probably envision another 4 meters or so in height to approximate the original. The enlargeable photo on the right conveys an idea of the palace-fort's area in relation to the rest of the tell.

The podium was constructed in two phases. The earlier (dubbed Podium A) was a 31.5 meter square built of ashlars on the north end (outlined in red below). The number works out to 60 royal Egyptian cubits (20.6 inches each), so this must have been the unit of measurement. The contrasting southern portion, built of rough stones, is 45 meters in length, which works out to 100 short cubits (18 inches each). It is outlined in dark blue.   

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Given the different materials and units of measure, many believe that Podium A belonged to a palace-fort of the 10th century (Level V), and that Podium B was added in the 9th (Level IV) to enable an expansion. Ussishkin disputes this, because he found Level-V material beneath Podium A. If this podium also belonged to Level V, he argues, then it would have had two phases at this spot; nowhere else on the tell, however, does it show more than a single phase.

Anticipating the arrival of Assyria, the inhabitants may have strengthened the palace-fort in the 8th century, but the only sign of this today is a piece of long wall on the east side, added then. In that century, too, the palace had a large courtyard with its own multi-chambered gate, as can be seen in the photo below. A row of stables attached to its north end suggests that the courtyard was a parade- and training-ground for horses and chariots, as at Megiddo.  Fragments of many storage jars from Hezekiah's time were discovered in the south side. There was also much burnt brick.

Remarkably, the 6th-century Judahites did not rebuild the palace - lack of funds perhaps - and the presence of the Lachish letters in the gate suggests that the commander decided to improvise his headquarters there instead. 

The column bases on the podium stem from a residence or administrative center of the Persian period (538-332 BC). 

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Around the northern perimeter to the well

We take a trail around the northern rim of the tell to its northeast side, where Yosef Garfinkel recently discovered a wall dated to around 920 BC [See update]. 

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In the shade of a lone jujube some benches are arranged. The trail leads to a point where we descend a few yards (carefully) to the opening of a well.

Lachish: the well

This was the main water source, at least from the time of Judah. (No earlier pottery was found in the well.) According to Ussishkin, it was protected by the lower of the city's two walls. Like all Shephelah towns, Lachish lacked a spring (as explained in the introduction, rainwater cannot penetrate the top layer of chalky limestone). We can see a riverbed, though, beneath us. It cuts through the surface limestone, so water could penetrate downward there until stopped by a waterproof layer of rock. Those who dug the well knew they had to reach the water that had collected in the area of the riverbed. This required an extraordinary depth of at least 44 meters. Until 1948, it was the only water source for the families of Palestinian Al-Qubayba below. They used to send their children up with buckets. Not wanting them to linger, they warned about a goblin in the jujube.    

At present (2018), the trail ends here. Either we can descend the rest of the steps to the east side of the tell and then walk north beside the wadi to a road where the bus can wait, or we can return by the way we came.