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Daniel Hizgilov

Dr. Killebrew
J ST 012U
30 November 2015
From the Ruins of Lachish:
A Study of Sennacheribs Siege of Lachish and its Implications on Ancient Near East Relations
Storms of arrows, siege ramps, and brutal murder followed the armies of a great empire
from Nineveh on the banks of the Tigris River, to the gates of Lachish in the Kingdom of Judah.
In their wake was left a trail of destruction and desolation unlike anything the Fertile Crescent
had ever seen. They were the Assyrians; an empire born from the fertile lands and civilizing
traditions of Mesopotamia, hell-bent on dominating the entire Near East. The siege of Lachish,
perhaps the most significant battle of the Assyrian campaign into Judah, was the Biblically
infamous King Sennacheribs greatest victory. A grand relief of the siege would eventually grace
the walls of the central room of his palace and would become the symbol of his mostly
successful campaign to subjugate the Levant. Through my analysis of the biblical account, the
relief, and the archeological evidence at the site of Lachish, I will look to uncover what exactly it
was that compelled Sennacherib to depict the siege of Lachish on the walls of his palace instead
of glorifying his general destruction of Judah; did he view his overall campaign as a failure or
victory? What made Lachish such a significant victory for the Assyrian King and what were the
implications of his victory on the state of international relations in the late Iron II period Near
East? According to the body of primary evidence and scholarly interpretation, Sennacheribs
victory at Lachish temporarily re-asserted Assyrian hegemony over the fertile crescent and
solidified the empires stranglehold on vital economic and political factors in the region, but his

ultimate failure to wholly subdue the Kingdom of Judah based in Jerusalem resulted in the
eventual decline of Assyrian dominance, shattering the myth of Assyrian invincibility and
sparking a resurgence in YAWH worship under the Judean King Hezekiah.
Primary sources regarding the Siege of Lachish can be categorized into Biblical, extraBiblical, and archeological categories. The most direct Biblical evidence for the siege comes
from the books of II Kings and II Chronicles. In II Kings 18, lines 13-15, the Judean King
Hezekiah is described as paying tribute to Sennacherib after the Assyrian armies conquered all of
the fortified cities in Judah and threatened to capture the capital of Jerusalem. II Chronicles 32
on the other hand makes a direct reference to the siege of Lachish in line 9 when the Assyrians
once again threaten to conquer Jerusalem. The Bible doesnt have an extensive description of the
Siege of Lachish, likely a result of the Judahite defeat there, but the references do point to its
relevance to the campaign in Judah. Looking towards extra-Biblical sources, the Annals of
Sennacherib, written in Akkadian Cuneiform on the Chicago and Taylor prisms, describe the
history of Sennacheribs rule and include the most detailed and direct descriptions of the
campaign into Judah. The writings, interestingly, exclude specific mention of the Siege of
Lachish, but they do describe the motivation behind Sennacheribs campaign and confirm
aspects of the Biblical account such as the capturing of all fortified towns in Judah and the
tribute paid to Sennacherib by Hezekiah (Mayer 2003: 169, 188-190).
The single most explicit archeological reference to Lachish comes from the site of
Sennacheribs Palace Without Rival at his ancient capital in Nineveh. Depicted there, in the
central room of his palace, is a grand relief of the Siege of Lachish that shows with great detail
the Assyrian military techniques, their deportation and execution practices, and the geographical
location of Lachish.

Fig. 1. Battle for Lachish, detail of Slabs 6-8, Room XXXVI, Southwest Palace, Nineveh (http://www.biblehistory.com/sketches/assyria/siege-lachish-sketch-1.gif).

Figure 1 details the Assyrian attack on the city gate and their use of siege machines to
scale the walls. The defenders throw torches in a last ditch effort to light the Assyrian siege
equipment ablaze, but they are shown to be overcome by the masses of Assyrian soldiers that
crush their defenses. In the background of the relief, a crisscrossing pattern is used to indicate the
mountainous terrain surrounding the walled city while on the lower-center of the relief is an
indication of what made the Assyrians so feared; impaled prisoners who surrendered to them.
The Lachish reliefs are considered to be some of the most complete reliefs found at the Nineveh
palace and were prominently displayed in room XXXVI, the palaces central room, to emphasize
their importance to the Assyrian king (Russell 1991: 256).

Fig. 2. Plan of Lachish Stratum III according to D. Ussishkins excavations (Ussishkin 2014: Figure 1).

Archeological excavations conducted by David Ussishkin at the site of Tel Lachish paint
the clearest picture of what happened at the fortified city. The excavations of Stratum III have
revealed large quantities of arrowheads in varying patterns attributed to the Assyrians and

Judahites, dated to the eighth century BCE by visual analysis and the presence of a siege ramp in
the southwest corner (Figure 2, location 9). The ramp (Figure 3) was composed of large stones
and would have been used by the Assyrians to scale the city walls and its presence at the site
gives strong support to the Biblical sources and reliefs portrayals of the siege. The Stratum III
destruction layer located at Lachish also includes the presence of burned remains of homes and
buildings that were set ablaze by the Assyrian conquerors after the city had been captured in 701
BCE (Ussishkin 2014: 79, 81, 84).

Fig. 3. The Assyrian siege ramp: a schematic plan and section, partially restored (Ussishkin 1982: Figure 43).

With this slew of primary evidence in mind, various interpretations of the Siege of
Lachish and overall campaign into Judah have been formulated. Christoph Uehlinger focuses on
the validity of interpreting the relief of the siege located in Nineveh as a viable primary source.

He challenges the discoverer of the relief, A.H. Layard, who in 1850 compiled it into sketches
that were later translated into a restoration of the relief slabs at the British Museum in London.
Uehlinger then moves into a discussion of Layards own interpretations of the relief, pointing out
that Layard saw the scene depicted from a Biblically driven perspective and focused too much on
the depictions of Judahites taken prisoner. What could have been used as a window into how
Assyrians perceived Judahite Lachish, became a contortion of nineteenth century anti-Jewish
rhetoric. Layards conclusions highlight a glorification of and rush to confirm the Bible rather
than the scholarly critique necessary to piece together the history of the event. After analyzing
Ussishkins later excavations at Tel Lachish and comparing them to the reliefs, Uehlinger
concludes that the Assyrian artists had no intention of realistically depicting the city as it would
have appeared in 701 BCE and thus it should not be considered an accurate primary source.
(Uehlinger 2003: 221-262).
John Russells analysis shifts focus towards the message of the Room XXXVI reliefs. He
begins by describing the placement of the room; located centrally in the palace and only
accessible through a series of three grand doorways, each decorated with massive human-headed
bull colossi, such as in Figure 4. The room clearly held significance to Sennacherib to have it
placed in such a dramatically monumental manner. Russell then states that a shrewd observer
would conclude that Lachish represents the high point of Sennacheribs campaign, but no written
mention of it is made on the inscriptions on the colossi. He points out that Sennacherib likely
manipulated the recorded events to be brief as any grand mention of the Lachish victory would
have to be followed by the failure to capture Jerusalem and would leave for an uninspiring story.
The Assyrian King avoided a sequential narrative even in the placement of the rooms of his
palace as this allowed him to avoid mention of any defeats. As a result, the verbal and visual

accounts of the campaign are commemorated differently. The verbal account takes on the role of
describing details while the visual account sends the message of Assyrian invincibility that
Sennacherib worked tirelessly to promote. (Russell 1991: 252-256).

Fig. 4. Example of a bull colossus, Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, Nimrud. Metropolitan Museum (Russell
1991: Figure 11).

Moving back to the site of Tel Lachish, David Ussishkin work stands as the single most
comprehensive account of excavations conducted at the site. He led major excavations of the
mound in the 1970s and continues to develop his interpretation of the events that may have taken
place at Lachish. Ussishkin takes a more traditionalist approach to analyzing the siege as he
points out what he believes are incidences where the reliefs match up to the archeological
material. He points out the placement of the siege ramp on the southwest side of the city as being

accurately represented and asserts that the viewpoint from the Assyrian camp, as reconstructed in
Figure 5, would have lined up with this side of the city. In a more recent scholarly article,
Ussishkin concludes that Sennacheribs campaign into Judah destroyed the state, but he did not
wish to annex it into his empire. He believes that the failure of Sennacheribs army at Jerusalem
is more attributed to the King wishing to subjugate Judah as a tribute-paying vassal rather than a
province in need of government and reflects a different strategy than at Lachish (Ussishkin,
1982: 118-126; Ussishkin, 2014: 101-103).
The convergence of biblical, extra-biblical, and archeological evidence in the case of the
Judah campaign satisfies a majority of scholars working on interpreting the events at Lachish,
but Antti Laato proposes that much of Sennacheribs written accounts are censored or falsified to
hide military failures. In many cases within the accounts, the Assyrians boast of how their
enemies, be it the Elamites or the Judahites, would flee from the battlefield and how prisoners
would be mutilated, but no concrete reference is made to any sort of political hegemony. With
regards to the Judah campaign, Laato points out that Sennacherib, after swift victories, suddenly
pulls out and returns to Nineveh with Hezekiahs tribute sent after him. No explanation is made
of why the Assyrian King left the campaign and proceeded to end it without having taken
Jerusalem. It seems likely that Hezekiah sent the tribute as a token of peace and vassalage after
holding out in Jerusalem and Sennacherib accepted, but the account avoids mention of any
reason because anything short of total victory would have been viewed as a failure. Laato argues
that Sennacheribs annals do not describe why his siege of Jerusalem was ended abruptly
because they are meant to be works of propaganda and in his contemporary time, there was no
scholarly establishment to critique and analyze the writings. The result was that anything written
down would be accepted as fact; it was literally written into stone. (Laato, 1995: 213-226).

Fig. 5. Rendering of Assyrian artists viewpoint (Ussishkin 1982: Figure 95).

Walter Mayer takes a starkly different viewpoint than that of Laato. While Laato argues
that the Assyrian accounts of the campaign of 701 BCE were merely propaganda and should not
be regarded as very historically accurate, Mayer claims that this is not a proper lens through
which one should look to interpret the events of Sennacheribs campaign. The lack of
explanation for why Sennacherib withdrew is not born out of a need to hide a failure, but rather
from the simple fact that Sennacherib had no need to prolong the campaign.
From the Assyrian point of view, launching a full scale offensive against the capital of Jerusalem
would have been superfluous and even senseless. At Lachish he [Sennacherib] accepted
Hezekiahs belated submission, leaving the Judaean relatively powerless---stripped of most of his

land and no doubt bankrupt---while distributing the occupied territory of Judah to loyal Philistine
rulers (Mayer 2003: 184-185).

He had already subjugated Hezekiah by surrounding him and either conquering or assigning his
former lands to rulers loyal to Assyria. This interpretation of Sennacheribs decision-making
paints him in a more calculating and less merciless light, adding nuance not seen in Biblical and
primary source texts (Mayer 2003: 174-185).
As the Assyrians expanded their empire and subjugated various peoples, the issue of how
to properly administrate began to take center stage. A few decades after Sennacheribs conquest
of Babylon in 689 BCE, his son Esarhaddon had to deal with the repercussions of subduing its
culture. The same rang true for the subjugation of Judah, a state which still held fast to its
cultural identity. Ann Weaver interprets the dynastic relationship between Sargon II,
Sennacherib, and Esarhaddon through the lens of their treatment of cultures within the empire. In
a work known as the Sin of Sargon written in Sennacheribs voice, Sargon II is described as
sinful because of his mistreatment of the gods of Assyria in favor of the Babylonian gods.
When Sennacherib conquered Babylon, he tried to erase his fathers sin by razing the city and
desecrating its temples in favor of the Assyrian gods. Esarhaddon was forced to deal with the
repercussions of this as he had to handle Babylonian unrest and as a result chose to adopt
Babylonian customs. Oddly enough, there is no historical basis for Sargon IIs actions, but
instead the relationship between Sennacherib and Esarhaddon appears to be represented here by
the latter king through his predecessors voice in a sort of metaphor. Weavers analysis
highlights a political-theological link that was prevalent in the cultures of the ancient Near East
(Weaver 2004: 61-65).
Lester Grabbe focuses his analysis on the role of Herodotus 2.141 in piecing together the
narrative. He does this by comparing Herodotus account of the campaign to the Near Eastern

account, including the Bible. Since most knowledge of the campaign would have been passed to
Herodotus Greek culture through contact with the Egyptians, his account takes on the
perspective of the Egyptians. Herodotus claims that the Egyptians defeated Sennacherib and this
leads Grabbe to make the conclusion that one of the likely reasons for why Sennacherib
withdrew from Jerusalem and left Hezekiah in power was because he had suffered setbacks
against the Egyptians and could not risk spreading his forces too thin. This adds a previously
unaccounted-for aspect to the reasoning behind Sennacheribs withdrawal and helps to introduce
an additional viewpoint into the narrative (Grabbe 2003: 134-139).
Mordechai Cogan shifts gears from analyzing the historicity of the campaign of 701
BCE to instead look at the relationship between imperialism and religion during the NeoAssyrian period. Assyrian imperial practices were tied inherently to religious proliferation and
Hezekiahs religious reforms were in revocation of the vassal relationship according to the
Biblical book of II Kings, yet ancient records offer no evidence of religious imposition on
subjugated peoples. In most cases, subjugated peoples who swore vassalage seemed to retain
their own forms of worship, or chose to integrate worship of the Assyrian god Ashur into their
practices. The Assyrian vassalage treaty, known as ad, involved the legal binding of a vassal
state to accept Assyrian deities into their temples and cultic centers, but no such mention of it is
made in any account regarding the Judah campaign. Cogan uses the example of the reign of
Judahite King Ahaz, who adopted some Assyro-Aramean religious practices into traditional
YAWH worship, as an example of how Judahite leaders were not pressured into religious
conversion. Ahaz gave support to the Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser III and aided him in
destroying the northern Kingdom of Israel, but was never forced to adopt any foreign religious
practices. He was in good favor with the Assyrians and had no need to appeal to them more, but

chose to without Assyrian pressure. Cogans analysis sheds light on the Biblical exaggeration of
Assyrian oppression and cultural proliferation (Cogan 1993: 403-414).
The interpretation most relevant to my question of research comes from Buzan and Little
who study various historical developments in world politics through the framework of structural
realist International Relations theory. They bring up the expansion of Assyria in the eighth
century BCE as an example of a regionalized global system which was prevalent through human
history up until the expansion of Europes influence and resulting colonial development. The
Middle East saw the rise and fall of countless empires, most short-lived and built on the cultural
foundations of a precursor, such as the Persian empire that was established on the foundations of
a conquered Babylon. Assyria developed much in this way as it rose from the traditions of Sumer
and Akkad. As Assyria grew and expanded into the Neo-Assyrian empire, it began to create a
regionalized security dilemma, a situation when a states proliferation of military strength causes
a response in another state which results in conflict when neither state sought it. This is what
happened when Assyria confronted Egypt. As Assyria grew, Egypt responded by expanding its
own military strength and the two empires were drawn into conflict in the intermediary area of
the Levant. Judah and other small states in the Levant were caught in the crossfire as a result.
The conflict that arose weakened both Assyria and Egypt, but had the greatest impact on Assyria,
which would crumble at the hands of the Babylonians in the coming century (Buzan and Little
1994: 240-255).
With the primary and secondary sources in mind, a clearer picture of the Assyrian
campaign has emerged. Evidence at the site of Lachish confirms the major battle that took place
there that is mentioned in the Biblical narrative and Assyrian texts. The Lachish relief at
Sennacheribs palace in Nineveh, although exaggerated for impact, does seem to visually line up

with the placement of the siege ramp and the vantage point of the Assyrian camp. Based on the
interpretations of Ussishkin, Laato, and Russell, Sennacheribs motive for depicting the siege of
Lachish so centrally in his palace is revealed: the Assyrian King wanted to mask his failure at
Jerusalem and avoid leaving any evidence of weakness that could be used to undermine his
regime. Mayers speculation, that Sennacherib cut his campaign short because there was no need
to prolong the conflict and Judah had already submitted, is more an educated guess than concrete
fact. There is no definitive proof for such reasoning because Sennacherib never explained why
he chose to withdraw. The Assyrian texts only describe him returning home with a tribute from
Hezekiah, instead of describing the battle at Jerusalem. There is an underlying tone in the texts
that hints at dissatisfaction with the campaign, something which would not be present if
Sennacherib had withdrawn in total victory. Consequently, the invasion of Judah in 701 BCE had
major short term and long term implications on the political environment of the ancient Near
East. Sennacheribs victory at Lachish, resulted in a short term preponderance of Assyrian power
and reasserted hegemonic stability -- the dominance of a single state -- in the region, but was
short lived. By allowing Hezekiah to retain his throne after rebelling against Assyria,
Sennacherib showed weakness and allowed for the undermining of Assyrian dominance.
Sennacheribs inability to wholly subdue Jerusalem and his purported defeat at the hands of the
Egyptians, shattered the myth of Assyrian invincibility that had preceded the campaign. The
result was a gradual decline in Assyrian dominance over the region until the uprising of Babylon
and complete collapse of the empire in 612 BCE. (Mark 2014)
With the victory at Lachish, Sennacherib was able to re-affirm the might of the Assyrian
army, but events that followed his victory had the opposite effect on the survival of the empire.
By the time his son, Esarhaddon, inherited the throne, Babylon was threatening to rebel and the

empire was struggling to maintain its chokehold on the region. For the Biblical narrative,
Sennacheribs allowing of Hezekiah to retain his throne in Jerusalem helped to preserve YAWH
worship and ultimately resulted in the survival of pre-Jewish religious practices; the precursor to
todays monotheistic triad of religions. Ironically, it was from the ruins of Judahite Lachish that
the seeds of Assyrias destruction arose and the survival of Judahite religion was ensured.

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