What if something very important happened in the past, and no one now knows about it – is that still history? The world we live in today is the cumulative result of all the events – many of them in the remote past – that have occurred up to the present time. By studying history, we are able to trace back the sequence of events that has led up to the present; but only up to a point. Whatever region of the world we are studying, at a certain point of time – usually the point at which writing first appears – the past dives irrecoverably into the realm of unrecorded, pre-history. In the Middle East, we are fortunate to be able to trace our history much further back in time than in most other parts of the world; no one site in our region exemplifies this better than Tel Lachish, in the Judean Shephela.
Like most ancient mounds, Lachish has many layers of settlement, the earliest going back as far as the New Stone Age, 6000 years ago. Until about 3,500 years ago, we can see the general history of the region reflected in the archaeological layers of Lachish – starting with scattered dwellings, becoming an unfortified village, and then a heavily fortified city – each layer separated from the previous one by traces of catastrophic destruction by fire. But, thanks to a remarkable series of letters written by local rulers to their Egyptian overlord in the fourteenth century BCE, Lachish breaks out of its shroud of historical anonymity. In these letters, we even learn the names of three of the kings that ruled Lachish at the time.
From that time on, events at Lachish are unwaveringly illuminated both by the history of its Israelite conquerors and later inhabitants – as recorded in the Biblical books of Joshua, Kings and Chronicles – and by foreign invaders of the Land of Israel – Sheshonq of Egypt (925 BCE), the Assyrian Sennacherib (701 BCE), and Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (586 BCE) – each of whom judged their conquest of Lachish significant enough to record in their own annals.
Each of these events left its mark in the archaeological record too. But uniquely, for one of these events we also have a contemporary visual record. Sennacherib conquered Lachish – then second only to Jerusalem in the kingdom of Judah – by building a ramp up against the city walls, so that he could bring his catapults and other siege engines up close.
When he returned from Lachish, Sennacherib had a magnificent relief of the siege made to decorate the walls of his palace in Nineveh. The relief shows Sennacherib’s archers and catapults advancing up the siege ramp, while he sits regally at a distance observing the battle.
You can see the original relief in the British Museum in London, or a copy in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. And. when you’ve read the book and seen the picture, why not take a trip to Tel Lachish and see the actual siege ramp for yourself.