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

Lachish (pronounced lah-kheesh) offers a combination that is not found anywhere else in Israel: After conquering this Judahite fortress-city in 701 BC, the Assyrian king Sennacherib had the story pictured in stone on a wall of his new palace in Nineveh. These "Lachish reliefs" can today be seen in the British Museum; we have a copy of a portion in the Israel Museum; and there will also be a copy in the Visitors Center that is currently (March 2018) being built on the site. Depicted are the battle and its aftermath, including the Assyrian siege ramp. Remarkably, a ramp is still visible at Lachish, and other things on the reliefs have also been found, such as the crest of an Assyrian spearman's helmet, the rounded stones that the Judahites hurled from above, and hundreds of arrowheads. With the help of Sennacherib's artists, therefore, the event can be brought to life. In addition, the historical and theological consequences reach to the present day. It is a site, therefore, of great drama, which can be re-created from below, where the Assyrians launched their assault, and from above, where the Judahite defenders attempted to fight them off. 

Lachish is part of the Shephelah, meaning "low land," so-called from the viewpoint of Judah's mountain dwellers. The Shephelah is the most excavated and least toured region in Israel, and as of this writing, groups rarely visit Lachish. That may change when the Visitors Center is ready (rest rooms!). Although the site has recently been laid out with paths and signs, there is still a feeling of untamed solitary majesty. The story is so rich that it's best to visit, if possible, when people are fresh. For the same reason, in reading these pages feel free to go first to the siege.      


The historical geography

On the satellite map below, you can see that Lachish stood roughly midway between Ashkelon, the only port city in the area (Ashdod and Gaza being a bit inland), and Hebron in the highlands.


Like other Shephelah towns, Lachish was able to develop relations with the coastal cities on the west or with the highlands on the east (sometimes with both at once). [Note: If the green links don't work, try a different browser.] David Ussishkin, who supervised the dig here from 1973 till 1994, found much evidence for a coastal connection in the years 1750-1550 BC (part of the Middle Bronze Age), namely cedar beams from Lebanon, shells from the Mediterranean and the Nile, also fish bones from both, and pottery from Cyprus. Again in the years 1300-1130 BC (the last part of the Late Bronze Age), "Lachish was a thriving Canaanite city-state maintaining strong connections with the Canaanite city-states in the Coastal Plain, and through them with other countries...." (Ussishkin). There is no evidence, though, of contact between Late Bronze Lachish and the highlands to its east, which - archaeologically speaking - seem to have been almost empty of settlements then.  


Late Bronze Lachish was destroyed, along with most other urban centers in Greece, Asia Minor, and the Levant, in the Great Upheaval of the 12th century. For the next 200 years it was a ghost town, and just a few thousand people lived in the Shephelah as a whole, while on the coast the new Philistine cities prospered. At some point however (the time is disputed), Judahites began descending from their mountain and settling the region, including Lachish. Distinctive pottery of the resettled Judahite highlands begins to appear at Shephelah sites: it was coated red and burnished to a shine in irregular patterns by hand. The region's population grew to 50,000 or more. As for Lachish, its Judahite version did an about face from the Late Bronze Canaanite city: The friendly contacts were now to the  east and up the mountain (see photo on the right). Toward the west, Judahite Lachish was a fortress-city, set up to counter potential threats from the international road. Trade with the Philistine coastal cities like Ashkelon fell to nothing: Ussishkin found hardly any fish bones, molluscs, or coastal-style pottery for the 9th and 8th centuries at Lachish. 

The maps of the Palestine Exploration Fund from 1879 (pre-automobile, pre-road-cutting machines) enable us to see how Lachish and the other Shephelah towns could turn east or west, to the mountain or the coast, exploiting the potential commercial link or sealing it off. This link consisted of valleys and unbroken ridges. The valleys posed too high a risk for an ascending army, but they provided peacetime passage. To catch the geography in detail, I show the link in two parts.

Western portion:


In the map above, notice Tell Zayit. I shall refer to it later. 

Eastern portion:


As a fortress-city, Lachish was the mightiest in Judah for most of that kingdom's history. Jerusalem, by contrast, does not seem to have had a wall in the 9th century (see the recent Givati excavations), while Lachish had two, upper and lower, not to mention its gate system and its palace-fortress (the biggest Iron Age edifice found in Israel). 


The task of the Judahite fortress-city

What was the function of Lachish as a fortress-city? To defend Jerusalem? Yes, but not directly. As mentioned, an army attacking from the coast could not risk ascending through the valleys as long as there was highland opposition. Instead the attacker would have had to take one of only four ridges that weren't broken by a wadi. From north to south these were (1) the way through the Valley of Ayalon up the Beth Horon ridge, guarded by Gezer and, farther up, by the Beth Horons; (2) the way through the Sorek Valley and up a ridge, guarded by Beth Shemesh; (3) the way through the Valley of Elah up the ridge to Bethlehem, guarded by Azekah and Soco; and (4) the way through a wadi south of Lachish, via Tell Beit Mirsim (biblical identity unknown), up to Adoraim (Dura today) and thence five miles to Hebron. (For 3 and 4, see the P. E. F. map of the eastern portion above.) To repeat: Apart from these four routes there was no defensible ascent from the west. To the south and east of the mountain were desert buffers. Evil came from the north.

Of Lachish as a fortress-city, then, we can say this: Near its part of the international road, it had the function of preventing an enemy from penetrating the Shephelah and marching to one of the four ridges leading up. Just as important, though, was its task of protecting the Shephelah itself, for this made up around half the kingdom in the 9th and 8th centuries BC. It was chosen for its role as fortress, above the other Judahite cities in its area, because it triply outranked them in capacity: 18 acres compared with 6 or 7. 


Other reasons why there was a city here

There were other factors too, apart from size and location, that explain why there was a city here. For one thing, the hill was well-proportioned in relation to demography, farmland, and water supply. The corners of the tell rise about 40 meters above the surrounding valleys (except at the southwest corner, where the Assyrians chose to attack: here a natural saddle reduces the height to 23 meters). Lachish was as well defended as many of the better known cities on the ancient international road. The surrounding hills hug in so closely, though, that we do not see its massive thrust until we are quite near. We round a bend and suddenly it looms above us.

As for farmland, Lachish had plenty (so-called Lachish grapes are the best in modern Israel). But as for water, this was a problem in the Shephelah. The entire region has no springs, because its surface limestone is waterproof; as a result, rainwater cannot percolate into the ground and collect there to gush out somewhere as a  spring. Yet beneath the wadis (riverbeds), which are cuts in the limestone surface, water does collect, and along the east side of Lachish there stretches a wadi. We would expect the ancients to have dug a shaft reaching groundwater from inside the city, as they did elsewhere, but no such system has been discovered. There is in fact a shaft (25 by 22 meters and 22.5 meters deep), but it seems to have functioned only as a quarry for the city's building stones. At some unknown time, though, the inhabitants dug a well 44 meters deep on the upper part of the northeast slope. It was protected by the lower city wall (Ussishkin ).     


We shall now take a closer look at the history of Lachish, connecting it, where we can, with what can be seen at the site.