• Albert Benhamou - Tour Guide Israel

History agrees with the Bible in Lachish

The site of Tel Lachish (תל לכיש) is of great historical importance. Unfortunately it is not well developed for tourism and visitors because there is neither signage nor explanation of what is seen. Hopefully this is about to change because a visitors center is currently being built.

I recently conducted a tour in this site which I love in particular because it is one of the rare sites where Bible and History meet together. In essence, there are four sources about Lachish: (1) the Bible where the city is mentioned 10 times, (2) the Annals of Sennacherib, written in cuneiform on a clay prism, (3) the Lachish reliefs, discovered in the ancient palace of Sennacherib in Nineveh by a British expedition in the 19th century (they are now displayed at the British Museum in London which I visited), and of course (4) archaeological findings from the excavations.

Lachish started as a "city" in the Middle Bronze (MB) when the Canaanites built a first massive wall made of large stones at the base and with addition of sun-dried mud bricks, as seen in other city states of this MB era. The city was mentioned in Egyptian sources such as the El-Amarna letters, as the king of Lachish was vassal to the Pharaoh. In the Late Bronze period (LB), the Bible mentions that the city was conquered by Joshua: remains of destruction exist in the archaeological layer of that period. Then starts the Iron Age (or Israelite period). After the campaign of Shishak against the Judean kingdom, its king Rehoboam (the legitimate son of King Solomon) reinforced the cities of his realm. Lachish is strategically located in the South, at the border with Philistia and controlling the main road to/from Egypt that give access to the Judean Mounts (Hebron, Jerusalem). The city gained a second wall of defense, an outer wall compared to the Canaanite wall. This wall was mostly made of hewn stones as it was the building technique in that period. Lachish was by then a quite large city, with royal palace at the summit, a system of dual walls and dual gates. The city was in fact second of importance in the Kingdom of Judea, after Jerusalem of course. And here starts the narrative of the main events for which Lachish became famous.

We started our tour at the bottom of the "Tell", after walking from the car park, and before going up access ramp to the city gates on the left side (south side). This is where the Assyrian army led by Sennacherib arrived in 701 BCE after they conquered all the other cities of Judea (the Annals of Sennacherib mentioned they conquered 46 walled cities). The only two remaining Judean strongholds were Lachish and Jerusalem. Facing the visitors is the ramp that the Assyrian built. It was made of rocks and mortar, on which the Assyrians laid wooden planks in order to bring up their war machines up the ramp. Signs of burning are clearly visible with any stones blackened by fire.

Here we told of the dramatic siege of Lachish with the help of the reliefs from Nineveh and of archaeological findings. The reliefs are a set of stone plates describing the siege in vivid details. We clearly see the types of weapons used by the Assyrian army (bows, slings, torches) and more importantly the ramp they built and the siege machines they brought up on it. The defenders must have been surprised by this tactics as it is believed that it was the first occurrence of such warfare machines in History (the Romans used similar ramp and machines against Masada, about 800 years later). But they reacted quickly enough and started to build a counter-ramp on the side of the city in order to end up on a higher position than the Assyrians when they would be reaching the walls.

Ultimately nothing helped and the Assyrians finally conquered the city. On the reliefs, we see the Judean people abandoning their city, the military commanders submitted to awful death in front of their family, and Sennacherib sitting on a throne with a cuneiform inscription stating that the bounty of Lachish passes in front of him.

Then we went up the ramp to reach the ruins of the city gates. Two systems of wall and gates were built: one, inner, at the Canaanite (MB) period, and another, outer, at the Israelite (Iron) period. Between the two, there is the broad place where outsiders would meet merchants of the city, and where guards stood in adjacent rooms. In one of this room were found the famous "Lachich letters" during the British excavations led by Starkey in the 1930's. These letters are ostracon's dating from the Babylonian conquest of Judea in 589 BCE (Jerusalem fell over two years later). The most famous one is letter IV which mentions both names of Lachish and Azekah (Jeremiah 34:7) and has been represented in a stamp of the State of Israel (see below).

Equally important is letter II which mentions an "insult" which is also mentioned in the Bible for this same period (II Kings 8:13). But, to me, the most important ostracon is letter III. In there we read the story of a posse that came from orders of the King in Jerusalem, on their way to a mission in Egypt, and to which some guards from Lachish are joining into. The text mentions the name of Elnathan and a "prophet" who was warned. The incredible fact is that this enigmatic ostracon finds an explanation in the Bible (Jeremiah 26:20-23) which talks about a prophet who fled to Egypt to avoid a death sentence and was brought back to Jerusalem by a posse with a person called Elnathan to be executed. It makes sense that this posse passed through Lachish, as it was the Southern border city of the Judean kingdom. It is quite unique to find such match between Bible and Archaeology about a narrative, a person's name (Elnathan) and a person's role (prophet).

After passing the recent excavation site where they found a toilet seat used to desecrate a "high place" following Hezekiah's religious reform (to read more about it, click here), we went up to the point where the Assyrian ramp met the city walls. On the inner side of the city, we see the counter-ramp that the defenders erected in their desperate attempt to spoil the Assyrian effort. There we talked about the throne of Sennacherib, as depicted on the Nineveh reliefs, with one simple question: does it make sense for a king to go to war with his throne? The quick answer is no. The complete answer is found in the Bible as well, with incredible matching details between the Annals of Sennacherib, the visual aspect of the throne on which Sennacherib sat, the archaeological findings from Nineveh, and the Biblical narrative from the two books of Kings (for more details, click here).

We continued our walk through the site and reached the place where a royal palace once stood. The interesting point there is that it is located at the summit of the mound and offers a 360o view of the region. Most notably, from this location we can see three of the five cities of the Lords of the Philistines: Ashkelon and Ashdod towards the sea, and also Gath (Tel Tsafit) recognizable with its white cliffs made of chalk rock. It is a spot where visitors can realize why the location of Lachish was strategic in ancient times.

The trail continued towards the Northern side where a water well was discovered at the edge of the city walls. It is clear however that this well was not built for the sole purpose of the city and wouldn't have been sufficient to supply its inhabitants with water. So, somewhere underneath the mound, a bigger water system still waits to be discovered. Meanwhile, the well has been chosen by a colony of pigeons for their abode !

Back towards the city, we sat under a tree which is the only ancient tree remaining on the mound of Lachish. This tree is a Ziziphus Spina-Christi commonly called Christ's Thorn Jujube (שיזף מצוי). It is so-called because Christians believe that the crown of thorns that the Romans made for Jesus Christ was made from this specie of tree which is quite thorny. A signpost next to the tree says "The Ghost Tree" (עץ השדים). This is because that, according to local stories, kids sent from a nearby Arab village of el-Qubeibeh (pre-1948) to fetch water from the well in Lachish (then called Tell ed-Duweir) were told not to approach the tree which was considered as the resting places of ghosts ! When the Turkish fought in the region in WW-I, they cut off most of the trees of the Land of Israel in order to supply wood to burn for their engines. But this tree survived because it was considered as sacred by the locals.

The circular trail then took us back to the car park, through some other minor spots of past excavations. The whole site of Lachish would really benefit from further seasons of excavation. There is so much importance attached to this place, and a proven correlation with the Bible narrative based on the existing findings, that one can only imagine what other historical treasures lay waiting beneath the mound. But I guess it is a matter of budget. Meanwhile the new visitors' center being built next to the car park would help draw more and more visitors to the site. Let's hope that the center would also have a copy of the Lachish reliefs, of the Annals of Sennacherib and of the Lachish Letters (ostracon's). That would help !

Albert Benhamou

March 2017

#lachish #sennacherib #nineveh #hezekiah