Just as in ancient times, Tel Lachish—the multi-layer mound at the site of the biblical city of Lachish—is surrounded by vineyards. Located in the south of the Judean lowlands, between Hebron and Ashkelon, Tel Lachish today is an Israeli national park. But thousands of years ago, Lachish was a fortified city of strategic military importance to the Kingdom of Judea.

Archeological Excavations at Tel Lachish

The first archeological excavation at Tel Lachish was conducted by the British Palestine Exploration Fund and headed by James Starkey. It began in 1932 but came to an abrupt end in 1938 with the murder of Starkey by Arab militants who must have mistaken him for a Jew.

Starting in 1966, research was conducted by archeologists from the University of Tel Aviv, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and teams from around the world.

View of Tel Lachish from the bottom of the hill.
View of Tel Lachish from the bottom of the hill.

Early History of Lachish

Like Gezer, Lachish had been inhabited since the dawn of history and was mentioned in the Amarna letters – communication between Egyptian pharaohs and the rulers of neighboring nations, dating to the 14th century BCE. Some letters were written by the ruler of Lachish.1

Amarna letter. A letter from Shipti Ba'al (ruler of Lachish), who reassures the Egyptian pharaoh (Amenhotep III or his son Akhenaten) of his loyalty. Akkadian cuneiform text. 14th century BCE. From Tell el-Amarna, Egypt. British Museum, London.
Amarna letter. A letter from Shipti Ba'al (ruler of Lachish), who reassures the Egyptian pharaoh (Amenhotep III or his son Akhenaten) of his loyalty. Akkadian cuneiform text. 14th century BCE. From Tell el-Amarna, Egypt. British Museum, London.

Conquest by Joshua

The ancient city of Lachish played a prominent role in Joshua’s conquest of the Land of Israel.

When the Jewish people, led by Joshua, crossed the Jordan, the Canaanite nations residing in the Land of Israel had a choice. They could agree to accept G‑d’s rule—which was made known to them through obvious miracles, such as the splitting of the sea and the more recent splitting of the Jordan River—and remain in the land, or they could go to war. The first two cities, Jericho and Ai, chose war. They lost and were conquered.

Neighboring kings gathered and prepared for war, but there was one nation, the Gibeonites, that chose trickery. They sent messengers disguised as travelers from a faraway land:

They took worn sacks for their donkeys, and wine bottles, rotten, split, and tied together. And worn, patched shoes on their feet, and worn garments upon them, and all the bread of their provisions was dry and moldy.2

The messengers told Joshua that their “distant” nation wanted to make peace with the Jews. Joshua agreed. Later, when he found that the messengers represented a nearby nation, he felt that despite the deception they were obliged to uphold the peace treaty.

The Gibeonites’ neighbors, however, were not happy about their treaty with the Jews:

And Adonizedek, king of Jerusalem, sent to Hoham, king of Hebron, and to Piram, king of Jarmuth, and Japhia, king of Lachish, and to Debir, king of Eglon, saying:

“Come up to me and help me, and we will smite Gibeon, for it has made peace with Joshua and with the children of Israel.”

And the five kings of the Amorites, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, the king of Eglon, gathered together and went up, they and all their camps, and encamped on Gibeon, and made war against it.3

The Gibeonites appealed to their new allies for help, and Joshua and his army went up to fight the five kings, the king of Lachish among them.

The Jews won a miraculous victory, with hailstones striking the enemy and the sun standing still until the battle was over.4 The five kings escaped and hid in a cave. They were later captured and executed by Joshua.

From there, Joshua and his army proceeded to conquer more cities, including Lachish.5

After the conquest of the Land of Israel was completed, Lachish became part of Judah’s territory.6

In 2021, Austrian archeologists published an article7 about their latest discovery at Tel Lachish – an inscription in ancient letters on a piece of broken pottery. The researchers identified the pottery piece as originating from a Cypriot milk bowl, and the find became known as the Lachish Milk Bowl Ostracon. Archeologists dated the ostracon to the 15th century BCE, making it the oldest surviving alphabetic inscription from the Southern Levant—and it’s in Hebrew!

Professor Douglas Petrovich8 believes that the ostracon was brought to Lachish by the Jews who conquered the city with Joshua. He posits that the inscription is in Hebrew and translates to “servant in charge of honey.”

Professor Petrovich points out that inscriptions in similar characters from an earlier time period were found in Egypt and Sinai, and suggests that their locations and dating reflect the journey of the Jewish people from Egypt to the Land of Israel.

Canaanite well discovered at Tel Lachish.
Canaanite well discovered at Tel Lachish.

Rehoboam Fortifies Lachish

The next mention of Lachish in Tanach is in Chronicles II,9 where it is included in the list of 15 cities fortified by King Rehoboam, son of King Solomon. Rehoboam “strengthened the fortifications, and he placed in them leaders, and storehouses of food, oil, and wine. And in every city [he placed] shields and spears, and he made them exceedingly strong.”10

At Tel Lachish, archeologists discovered fortifications and ruins of a palace that may have been built by King Rehoboam. These archeological discoveries help us picture what life was like in the fortified city.

Lachish would have been difficult to conquer. Situated on a hill, the city was surrounded by a double wall, one part at mid-slope of the hill and another part around the summit. The area between the walls was covered by glacis—an artificially enhanced slope—where any approaching enemy would be an easy target.11

If visitors were deemed friendly, they would enter the city through a massive gate consisting of an outer gatehouse, a courtyard, and an inner gatehouse.

The courtyard between the outer and inner gates at Tel Lachish.
The courtyard between the outer and inner gates at Tel Lachish.

Inside the city, the visitors would see a towering multi-wing palace flanked by stables and a storehouse, all belonging to the local governor.

The local economy centered around olive oil and wine production. Archeologists found large quantities of olive pits, as well as numerous clay jars for oil and wine storage.

King Amaziah Flees to Lachish and Is Killed There

The palace at Lachish played a significant role in the life of King Amaziah of Judah, a descendant of King Rehoboam. When he discovered that his subjects were plotting to assassinate him, King Amaziah escaped from Jerusalem to Lachish where his supporters gave him shelter in the palace. For 15 years, King Amaziah lived in Lachish, until his enemies reached him and killed him.12

Ruins of the palace at Tel Lachish.
Ruins of the palace at Tel Lachish.

King Sennacherib of Babylonia Conquers Lachish

The next prominent mention of Lachish in Tanach is connected to King Sennacherib’s campaign to conquer Judah and Jerusalem:

And in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib the king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and seized them. And Hezekiah the king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria to Lachish, saying, "I have sinned, withdraw from me; whatever you impose upon me, I will bear." And the king of Assyria imposed upon Hezekiah, king of Judah, three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. And Hezekiah gave all the silver that was found in the house of the L-rd and in the treasuries of the king's palace.13

Implied in this passage is that it was after King Sennacherib conquered Lachish that the Judean King Hezekiah offered him tribute to prevent his attack on Jerusalem.

Thanks to archeology, we have a lot of information about King Sennacherib’s conquest of Lachish. The most informative relic from the siege was discovered in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, in the excavations of the royal palace there. The palace walls featured reliefs depicting battle scenes and victories of the Assyrian kings. One set of reliefs portrays the conquest of Lachish, with an inscription that states, “Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria, set up a throne and the booty of Lachish passed before him.”

As depicted in the reliefs, the Assyrians besieged Lachish and constructed a massive ramp going up to the city walls. Archeologist and Professor David Ussishkin’s excavation determined that the ramp was built out of local fieldstones and covered with a layer of stones bonded with mortar. At the top of the ramp was a platform for battering rams, made of soil from the surrounding streambeds.

In response to the attack, Lachish’s defenders built a counter-ramp inside the city walls by dumping “large quantities of soil against the inside of the main city wall both to strengthen it and to create an additional defense line that would rise above it.”14

Professor Ussishkin believes that despite the defenders’ best efforts, the attackers “broke into the city over the wall rather than through it. When the position at the top of the tower was destroyed and the fighters there taken out, there was nothing to prevent the attackers from scaling the wall and advancing into the city. Indeed, the Lachish reliefs show ladders that were certainly used for this very purpose.”15

Other evidence of the battle found at the southwestern corner of Tel Lachish includes over a dozen slingstones and a large number of arrowheads, as well as iron scales of armor.

Once King Sennacherib’s army entered Lachish, they burned it down completely. Professor Ussishkin describes excavating the layer of Tel Lachish destroyed by the Assyrian army:

No matter where the excavators turned as they dug, they immediately found heaps of debris piled high — fired bricks, burned wood, layers of ash, smashed vessels and vessels deformed by the great heat. Some of the brick walls collapsed and the bricks themselves reddened as they were fired by the flames … I do not recall any other ancient site in the Land of Israel where devastation of such magnitude can be seen.16

Ruins of the Assyrian siege ramp at Tel Lachish, with modern-day installations depicting the attackers and defenders.
Ruins of the Assyrian siege ramp at Tel Lachish, with modern-day installations depicting the attackers and defenders.

Babylonians Advance on Lachish

After Lachish was destroyed by the Assyrians, it remained desolate for a long time. It is not known exactly when it was resettled, but the new settlement was not nearly as grand as its predecessor. Archeologists believe that the palace was not rebuilt at that time.17

In its diminished state, Lachish lasted until Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest. The Prophet Jeremiah mentions that at a certain point during the Babylonian attack on Judah, only two cities, besides Jerusalem, were left standing—Lachish and Azekah, “because they were the fortified cities left among the cities of Judah.”18

In 1935, the British archeological team was thrilled to discover what they called the Lachish letters—a collection of inscribed pottery sherds from the days of King Nebuchadnezzar’s campaign. The inscriptions seem to be letters, or drafts of letters, written by Judean army commanders. One of the letters says, “And may (my lord) be apprised that we are watching for the fire signals of Lachish according to all the signs which my lord has given, because we cannot see Azekah.19” Perhaps this letter was written after Azekah was captured by the Babylonians.

The discovery of the Lachish letters caused a sensation. One of the British archeologists, Olga Tufnell, wrote to her parents.

Letters written on potsherds at the time of Jeremiah, just before the invasion of Palestine by Nebuchadnezzar. Some passages are almost word for word the same as the Book [the Bible], so you can imagine the thrill it is to have something so close to the original document.20

It is not known exactly how Lachish was conquered by the Babylonians. The only archeological evidence of the conquest consists of two bronze triple-bladed socketed arrowheads that were known to be used by the Babylonian army in those days.

Lachish letter #4 that mentions Lachish and Azekah. Wellcome Collection gallery, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.
Lachish letter #4 that mentions Lachish and Azekah. Wellcome Collection gallery, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Jews Again Settle in Lachish in the Days of Nehemiah

After the destruction wrought by the Babylonians, Lachish was again abandoned for a long time. Archeologists found that it was rebuilt and resettled during Persian rule.21

The Book of Nehemiah describes the fortification and resettlement of Jerusalem and other Judean cities and villages after the return from the Babylonian exile. One of the cities listed is Lachish.22 Perhaps it was evidence of this resettlement that was discovered by archeologists. The city was inhabited for the next several centuries. It is not known when and why the settlement declined. Archeologists believe that Lachish was completely abandoned mid-second century BCE.23