The Assyrians’ mastery of siegecraft conquered ancient Judah.
The opening stanza of Lord Byron’s imortrtal poem “The Destruction of Sennacherib” resonates with a sense of the overwhelming catastrophe the Assyrian “wolf” inflicted on the Israelites in the eighth century B.C.:
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Two hundred years before the Assyrian onslaught referenced in Byron’s poem, the powerful kingdom of Israel had split apart following the death of King Solomon. To the south lay Judah with Jerusalem as its capital, and to the north was Israel with a new capital at Samaria.
In time, the new predatory power of Assyria arose in northern Mesopotamia, boasting a military system more lethal than any before it. The Assyrians looked upon the two small Israelite kingdoms as vulnerable prey. In 722 B.C., Sargon II, the Assyrian king, fell upon Israel and destroyed it. The Assyrians were masters of siege warfare and no city or fortress could stand before their assault. Sargon carried off almost 30,000 Israelites and then resettled the land with other conquered peoples. After the fall of Israel, Judah quickly submitted as a vassal and began delivering annual tribute payments to Assyria.
Two decades later, in 701 B.C., Sargon’s son, Sennacherib, turned his attention to Judah, whose King Hezekiah had resolved to defy the rapacious Assyrians and cease paying tributes. Sennacherib decided to do to Judah what his father had done to Israel. He determined he would strike at Jerusalem by way of the maritime plain of Philistia; however, the route was blocked by the fortress city of Lachish in the region between Mount Hebron and the plain. Built circa 931-913 B.C. by Solomon’s successor, Rehoboam, Lachish was one of the strongly fortified cities that protected Jerusalem and Judah’s interior. By the time of the Assyrian invasion, it had become Judah’s second most important city.
Lachish was built upon a high mound surrounded by an outer revetment wall positioned mid-slope and a 20-foot-thick main city wall extending along the upper edge of the mound. Separated by a smooth glacis, the two walls featured stone lower courses surmounted by mud-brick upper portions and battlements. They were connected on the southwestern side of the city by the largest double gates in Judah, and inside them lay a massive palace-fortress complex that was the largest known structure in Judah.
Even for the Assyrians, who were so accomplished in siege warfare, Lachish presented a great challenge, not only because of its fortifications and natural defenses but also because of the resolve of its defenders. Yet this was a challenge Sennacherib proved eager to meet.
The ensuing siege of Lachish is unique in the history of antiquity in that it is recounted in multiple sources: the Old Testament; Sennacherib’s Assyrian annals; and depictions in the magnificent bas-reliefs carved for Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh. Modern archaeology has added even more detail to the story.
Once the Assyrians arrived at Lachish, they realized it was most vulnerable near the huge gates. Elsewhere, the approaches were naturally fortified by steep canyons, but to the southwest a saddle connected the city with a hillock. The Assyrians gathered large stones to build a massive ramp to reach from the saddle to the upper city wall. The ramp’s base was 230 feet wide and its surface was stabilized by mortar to allow the Assyrians to drag up five large, four-wheeled siege machines with battering rams to break down the main city wall. Meanwhile, the defenders built a counter-ramp behind the wall that topped it by 10 feet.
The fighting at the top of the ramp and the wall was intense, as evidenced by the huge number of sling stones and arrowheads archaeologists found in the ruins. The Judeans attempted to burn the siege engines by flinging torches down upon them, but special Assyrian “firefighting troops” put out the blazes with water poured from long ladles. The defenders also tried, unsuccessfully, to smash the siege machines with up to 400-pound stones they hung from ropes and swung against them.
Eventually, the Judean defenses collapsed and the Assyrians broke into Lachish. The bas-reliefs from Sennacherib’s palace depict the defenders and their leaders suffering hideous tortures as the population is marched out of the city into exile. Yet the cost was high for the Assyrians as well; a nearby mass grave contained the remains of 1,500 of their dead. Sennacherib burned Lachish in a fire that was so intense it left a 3-foot layer of charred debris.
Sennacherib then swept through Judah, taking city after city until he besieged Jerusalem. Speaking in Hebrew, his officials told the inhabitants lining the wall not to put their faith in Hezekiah or their god, for neither had saved mighty Lachish or any other place. The Old Testament indicates that the Assyrians were driven off by a plague – a serious threat to ancient armies. A lack of untainted water sources near Jerusalem may have made another siege too difficult. Nevertheless, Sennacherib, in his accounts, claims he withdrew because Hezekiah submitted to Assyrian over-lordship and paid a massive tribute, with some of the gold being stripped from the doors of Solomon’s temple itself.
In Assyrian annals, Sennacherib boasts that he was well satisfied with his campaign: “As for Hezekiah the Judahite, who did not submit to my yoke, forty-six of his strong, walled cities, as well as the small towns in their area, which were without number, by leveling with battering-rams and by bringing up siege engines, and by attacking and storming on foot, by mines, tunnels, and breaches, I besieged and took them. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil.”
Peter Tsouras is the author of 26 books on military history. He served in the Army and Army Reserve and worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency until retiring in 2010 to devote himself to writing, his roses and his grandchildren.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Armchair General.