Lachish was a highly important fortress in the Judean kingdom during late biblical times as it overlooked important highways, including an approach to Hebron in the mountain range. Realistically, there is not a lot to see on top of this tel since there are no reconstructions, other than the main gate, and most of ancient Lachish was either destroyed or is buried. However, because of its importance in biblical history, there are many explanations and pictorial reconstructions on the site to make up for this. A visit is well worthwhile to place the biblical accounts into their historic context, to compare Assyrian texts with the account in the Bible and to appreciate the disputes between the prophets of Israel and rulers of Judah (see below).
Lachish is in the Shefelah, close the bank of the Lachish Stream. It occupies an important strategic position since it overlooks the Via Maris between Egypt and Mesopotamia and a route between Lachish and Hebron.
Lachish was a Canaanite city that reached its peak in the Middle Bronze age. It was destroyed by fire twice in the mid-12th century BCE and was then only sparsely populated. Who destroyed it is not known, but the presumption is that it was the Israelites.
The city is mentioned in the book of Joshua as being part of the confederation of southern Canaanite cities that were defeated by the Israelites in the Valley of Ayalon. Their territory was assigned to the tribe of Judah and Lachish became part of the United Kingdom during the monarchy.
When the tribes split it became part of the southern kingdom of Judah. At this time King Rehoboam, the first king of southern Judah, increased the fortifications of Lachish with massive walls and ramparts, together with other cities in Judah (II Chronicles 11:9-12). At some time, a royal palace was also built on a platform in the center of the city on Canaanite foundations.
Lachish is well-known because of its siege and capture by Sennacherib in 701 BCE after King Hezekiah attempted to revolt against the Assyrians. King Hezekiah was the 13th king of the Kingdom of Judah and he reigned between approximately 715 to 686 BCE. Sennacherib built a stone and dirt ramp up to the level of the southern wall.
Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh was discovered in 1845. Among the discoveries was a room with illustrations of this siege on alabaster slabs. A picture of these reliefs is shown on a sign by the Visitor Center. The original alabaster slabs are in the British Museum.
According to the prophet Jeremiah, Lachish and Azeika were the last two fortified cities to fall to the Babylonians in 587 BCE before the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its inhabitants to Babylon. Lachish was resettled by the Jews on their return from exile. It was finally abandoned after the conquest of Israel by Alexander the Great.
Time: Allow about 1½ hours to go around the periphery of the tel.
Admission: Tel Lachish National Park is maintained by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The Visitor Center is not yet open, but should be so by the end of 2023. It contains exhibits and a movie is shown. There is currently no admission charge. There are a few picnic benches outside the Visitor Center. While the Visitor Center is closed there are no WCs other than some portable WCs associated with an archeological dig.
Directions: Enter “Tel Lachish” into Waze.
Public transport: There is no close public transport.
Tne main gate into the city from Israelite times.
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Foundations of a palace used by the Jewish governor of Lachish.
A Canaanite well.
If the Visitor Center is still closed, go straight up onto the tel via the wooden walkway to the Entrance Gate of the Lachish fortress. As you do so notice the ramp by the entrance to the walkway that was constructed by the Assyrian king Sennacherib as part of his successful siege of the city.
The gateway is from the time of the kings of Judah and consisted of an outer gatehouse and inner gatehouse between which was a broad, paved plaza. The outer gatehouse had towers at either end. Within the courtyard important city functions would have taken place such as commerce, law courts and other assemblies. The only access to the city was through this gate and it would have been closed at night.
The entire Israelite city was heavily fortified with a 6-meter wide wall, beneath which was a steep artificial slope built of stones and bricks (called a glacis) to prevent an enemy from scaling the wall, another wall in the middle of the slope and a moat dug around the base of the city wall.
Immediately after entering the city is a room on your right where 20 ostracons were found in paleo-Hebrew. At that time there was no such thing as paper (except papyrus in Egypt). An ostracon was a bit of pottery on which messages and letters were written in ink, and these particular ostracons relate to the situation close to the Babylonian conquest of the city.
Make your way to the fork where there is a bench for resting.
For a short walk go to the left to the palace and then return to this fork and go to the right to the southern wall. It is against this wall that a rampart was erected by the Assyrians.
For a longer walk that encompasses more of the periphery of the tel, turn to the left and climb up the stairway onto the palace. Walk across the courtyard to the other side and climb down. There is another path here marked by arrows that will take you around the tel.
The palace complex was a large structure built around the time of King Hezekiah on the highest point of the tel and on the ruins of a previous Canaanite structure. Only the foundations are now apparent. It would have been surrounded by a wall and gate house. In its center was a building for the governor of the city. It had a large courtyard, and rooms around the periphery such as residences, store rooms and stables.
The path will lead you past a section of the city wall to a well from the Middle Canaanite period. It was dug to a depth of 44 meters to reach the water table and would have been adequate to supply the Canaanite city. No equivalent Israelite structure is known.
Return to the Christ-thorn jujube tree surrounded by a low-lying circular wall (on which you can sit) and the path will lead you to the southern wall and the ramp built by the Assyrians. The Israelites responded by covering buildings near the ramp and creating a counter-ramp as an additional line of fortification. It did not help.
The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and the kings of Judah
One of the signs on the tel asks the question - Why did King Hezekiah rebel against the Assyrians? But it only partially answers the question. It gives the rather obvious answer - to break free from Assyrian domination with the help of Egypt and Philistine city-states. But this adds nothing new. The more penetrating questions are: how did Hezekiah think that he could get away with it and why did he ignore the prophet Isaiah’s advice?
At that time Assyria was the dominant empire in the Middle East and in its heyday stretched from Mesopotamia to Egypt. Militarily it was technologically very advanced. It also transferred populations that it conquered to prevent further revolts and millions of people were moved.
Hezekiah had an excellent relationship with the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of Hezekiah’s rule, to the extent that Isaiah began writing about him in his book in messianic terms. Hezekiah had taken over the Kingdom of Judah on the death of his father Ahaz. Ahaz had brought pagan practices into his kingdom, including into the Temple itself, and Hezekiah reversed this. He destroyed bamot and idol worship present throughout the country and reinstituted monotheism into the Holy Temple, although the extent to which the people followed through with this in their homes is unclear.
The prophet Isaiah had a very strong passivist approach with respect to his foreign policy advice. He believed that the Assyrians were tools of God because of the grave moral defects in Jewish society. The people should put their trust in God. He opposed the country going to Egypt to acquire more horses for their chariots (as per the Biblical law) and opposed the construction of a tunnel to divert water to inside the city and the strengthening of the city wall. It was incumbent upon the people not to oppose the Assyrians. From his visions he knew that the Assyrians had the potential to cause grievous damage. However, Hezekiah discarded this advice and made an alliance with the Egyptians and Philistine cities.
Is it possible that Hezekiah feel that his zealotry for God was sufficient to enable his revolt to be successful? He must also have felt that he was powerful enough with his alliance with Egypt to combat the technologically superior Assyrians. Whatever the case, it was a disastrous mistake. The Egyptians were defeated and unable to come to his aid. The Assyrian ruler Sennacherib devastated the Shefelah, captured the main Judean fortress of Lachish and now prepared to besiege Jerusalem. At this stage, Hezekiah was desperate and made contact again with Isaiah. Isaiah prophesied that the Assyrians would not capture the city, many of the invading army would die and that Sennacherib would be murdered. This is exactly what happened. Nevertheless, although Jerusalem was not conquered, Hezekiah’s kingdom was devastated and Hezekiah remained a vassal to the Assyrians. Neither Assyrian nor biblical texts mention why the Assyrian army was destroyed or fled. From this time on though, there was a decline in the power of the Assyrian empire and Babylon began its slow ascent to rule the Middle East.
The prophet Jeremiah had a similar passivist approach to his foreign policy advice, so much so that he was imprisoned and almost killed by the government for his opposition to King Zedekiah’s revolt against the Babylonians and for prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem. His defeatist pronouncements were no doubt regarded as demoralizing and even traitorous.
In conclusion, to what extent a Jewish state should put its trust solely in God at the expense of its arms and its military is an interesting theological question. However, what both prophets were saying was that God would not support bold military actions, and particularly their trust in a foreign power such as Egypt. History validated the approach of both prophets and confirmed their reputations as true prophets of God, even though this was not always recognized at the time.