In this post, we will explore images of the Siege of Lachish Reliefs and the story they depict. While these reliefs have been studied by countless people, not many do so through the eyes of the Lachish people. This time, we will consider the Lachish people and hopefully gain a humanitarian perspective.
By 701 BCE the Assyrian kings, based in Nineveh (modern-day Mosul Governorate, Iraq), built their enormous empire. It stretched from modern-day Iran to Egypt and covered most of the modern-day Middle East. The Assyrian Empire was the largest land empire yet created, the product of the prodigious Assyrian war-machine. The Assyrian heartland on the Tigris River was an ideal agricultural and trade area, but it was a bare one, with no natural boundaries or defences. Thus, the Assyrian rulers built a great army to police their frontiers, expand their territories, and keep potential enemies at bay.
Lachish (modern-day Tell ed-Duweir, Israel), lies about 800 kilometres south-west of the Assyrian heartland, but only 40 kilometres south-west of Jerusalem. It was a critical point, linking Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean and the immense wealth of Egypt. By 701 BCE, Lachish was a heavily fortified city, located on a hill. It was the 2nd city, after Jerusalem (within the Kingdom of Judah), which had just managed to stay independent of the Assyrians. At the end of the 8th century BCE, King Hezekiah of Judah made a fatal mistake; he rebelled, supported by the Egyptians, against Sennacherib and declined to pay tribute.
Victors and Vanquished
“And the Lord was with him: and he prospered whithersoever he went forth: and he rebelled against the king of Assyria, and served him not” (2 Kings 18:7).
“Him” refers to Hezekiah, King of Judah. This is what is written in Book of the Kings, but the Bible understandably glosses over the disagreeable fact that the ruler of the great Assyrian Empire, Sennacherib, the terror of the Middle East, responded aggressively, without showing any mercy. Sennacherib mobilised his massive, professional, well-trained, and well-equipped imperial army and seized several Judaean cities. He destroyed Lachish and crushed Hezekiah by executing his soldiers and officials and sending his people into exile. Hezekiah finally paid the tribute and was subjugated. It should be noted that the military forces of Lachish were composed mostly of local militias and mercenaries and therefore was very insignificant when compared with the Assyrian army. In addition, the Lachish’s infantry of spearmen and archers were much less organised.
“Because Hezekiah, King of Judah, would not submit to my yoke, I came up against him, and by force of arms and by the might of my power, I took 46 of his strong-fenced cities; and of the smaller towns which were scattered about, I took and plundered a countless number. From these places, I took and carried off 200,156 persons, old and young, male and female, together with horses and mules, asses and camels, oxen and sheep, a countless multitude.”
This is an Assyrian account of the aftermath of this rebellion in the British Museum and its gives us Sennacherib’s view of what happened allegedly in his own words.
The Siege of Lachish Reliefs
Sennacherib recorded this victorious military campaign in a series of wall reliefs, which decorated Room XXXVI of his South-West Palace at Nineveh. These reliefs were probably painted, but even without any colours, they are astonishing historical documents, just like a film in stone. The reliefs were about 2.5 meters in height and would have run in a continuous frieze, almost from the floor to the ceiling within that room. Neglected for 2500 years, today these wall reliefs are now housed in Room 10b of the British Museum.
Despite being out of context in the British Museum, they undoubtedly make a lasting impression on the visitors today as they did in the past. The British Museum says that these gypsum wall reliefs were excavated at the city of Nineveh (ancient Kouyunjik), Northern Iraq, by Sir Austen Henry Layard, John George Taylor, Sir Henry Rawlinson, Hormuzd Rassam, and William Loftus. The reliefs reached the British Museum in 1856. The reliefs decorated Room XXXVI, within the central area of the palace. This may indicate that this military triumph meant a lot to Sennacherib. The South-West Palace (and thus the reliefs) was discovered between 1845-1847 by Austen Henry Layard.
The reliefs talk about the military siege and capture of the Judaean city of Lachish. The Assyrians at first reached the area and established a base camp for its army. They then laid a siege around the city for weeks. Meanwhile, the Assyrians gradually built artificial mud-brick ramps in order to transfer their war-machines and warriors to the city gate and walls. Then, the fighting begins and the Assyrian siege engines ascended up the ramps, followed by artillery containing archers, slingers, and spearmen and the rest of soldiers.
The Lachish defence forces, positioned on city wall’s towers, desperately tried to dampen this attack; they threw arrows, stones and rocks, and fire torches on the Assyrian army. The attacking wave was overwhelming, well-prepared, and did not stop. The defenders started to collapse rapidly, and the inhabitants of the city fled the city through its gate, heading to the Assyrians, bringing their personal belongings, food, water, and whatever they could hold. The Lachish military forces were taken prisoners of war. The city was destroyed and looted by the Assyrian army; booty was brought to the outside of the city. The inhabitants of the city were gathered together and were deported into exile. The heads of the rebellion and many of the prisoners were executed.
Sennacherib sat on his magnificent chair on a low mound (in front of his royal tent), greeted by his commander-in-chief, and surrounded by his bodyguards. His soldiers brought the prisoners before him; some of the prisoners prostrated, kneeled, and asked for mercy. Some of the prisoners were beheaded while others were brutally impaled or de-skinned. There are 2 Akkadian cuneiform inscriptions above the figure of the king; one talks about the prisoners and the city (left) and the other one about the royal tent (right).
Hezekiah’s decision to not pay tribute and rebel against Assyrians resulted in devastating consequences. Lachish was destroyed and its Jewish inhabitants were exiled. Sennacherib besieged Hezekiah within Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage”, he states in his annals of Sennacherib. Ironically, Hezekiah did pay the tribute at the end.
The population demographics of the Middle East had changed since then. The reliefs might be the very first evidence of mass deportation, as a policy to protect against future rebellions and uprisings. I’m not an archaeologist, but I have read several books and articles about the siege of Lachish and its reliefs. All of these resources talk about the history of the area, Assyrians, Judaeans, the palace of Sennacherib and its marvellously carved reliefs,…etc. But, no one cared about the victims of this “wonderful story”, the people and inhabitants of Lachish.
The inhabitants of Lachish were deported to other areas within the Assyrian Empire. Where did they go and with whom did they live? Language barriers, religious differences and cultural conflicts had to be adjusted in order to live peacefully. For how long did they live in their exile and for how many generations? Are their descendants part of the Jewish population of Iraq, my country? I think Lachish’s people are braver than Hezekiah and Sennacherib.
Unfortunately, drafting this article reminded me of today’s issues. One-third of Iraq was attacked and occupied by ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). The affected Iraqi Governorates and their people faced the same scenario as Lachish; destruction, looting, brutal methods of execution, and mass deportation.