Restoring the Great Gate at Lachish
BAR’s Archaeological Preservation Fund makes substantial contribution
The largest and most impressive city gateway in ancient Israel is being restored. It stands at the entrance to the ruins of the great Judean city of Lachish—a mighty reminder of past glory.
In fact, it is really several gateways, one piled on top of the other. To untangle them, we must first untangle their history.
The earliest gateway at Lachish dates to the beginning of the Judean monarchy. After King Solomon died in about 928 B.C., the united kingdom of Israel split in two—the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south. Judah, consisting of only the tribe of Judah and the tribe of Benjamin, continued the Davidic line of rulers unbroken; and Judah’s capital continued to be maintained in Jerusalem. But the glory days of David and Solomon were clearly gone; the divided monarchy was far more vulnerable to attack by the new superpowers of the ancient world.
We do not know the precise circumstances that led to the rebuilding of Lachish. We do not even know precisely which king of Judah, in the late tenth century B.C., or early ninth century B.C.,a decided that the southwest flank of the now-diminished kingdom was vulnerable and needed a new fortified city for protection. Was it military rumblings across the border in Philistia, through which the road to Egypt ran, that posed the threat? No one knows for sure.
In any event, ancient Lachish—it was ancient even then—was rebuilt and turned into a tremendously strong, fortified city, second in importance only to Jerusalem, the royal Judean capital. Massive fortifications were erected around Lachish. A large palace-fort, the residence of the governor, was constructed in the center of the city, and a strong garrison, probably including chariot units, was stationed inside the city.
Just how strong and important Lachish was is reflected in the campaign against Judah, in 701 B.C., by the mighty Assyrian monarch Sennacherib. Instead of proceeding directly to Jerusalem, Sennacherib first attacked Lachish.b Only after destroying Lachish did Sennacherib lay siege to Jerusalem. For reasons not clear—the Bible says a miracle, Herodotus suggests a plague decimated Sennacherib’s army—the Assyrian monarch’s siege of Jerusalem failed.
When Sennacherib went home and decorated his palace with reliefs depicting his military victories, pride of place went to his victory at Lachish. The famous reliefs of Sennacherib’s conquest and destruction of Judean Lachish adorned a central room at Sennacherib’s mammoth palace in Nineveh.c
For more than half a century, Lachish remained abandoned and desolate in a region dominated by the kings of neighboring Philistia. Then the city was rebuilt, probably by King Josiah (639–609 B.C.). Josiah’s Lachish, however, was much inferior, both in importance and strength, to its predecessor.
As the previous Judean city had been destroyed by the Assyrians, so the later Lachish was destroyed by the Babylonians—also on their way to Jerusalem. But unlike the Assyrians, the Babylonians were successful in Jerusalem also, destroying the city and burning the temple in 588/6 B.C. Lachish fell to the Babylonians shortly before. The prophet Jeremiah described the last desperate days of Judah, not long before the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem, when “Lachish and Azekah … were the only fortified towns of Judah that were left” (Jeremiah 34:7).
Later—and for the last time—Lachish was once again rebuilt. This was the Persian-period city (sixth–fourth centuries B.C.), which possibly represents the work of the returning Babylonian exiles who now governed the Persian province of Judea (Yehud). Once again Lachish was fortified. A small governor’s palace was built on the ruins of the massive palace destroyed by Sennacherib in 701 B.C. The city continued to exist during the Hellenistic period (fourth-second centuries B.C.), slowly deteriorating until it was finally abandoned at the end of that period. Inexplicably, settlement here was not resumed in later periods.
Each of these three cities—the major Judean fortress city established at the beginning of the divided kingdom and destroyed by Sennacherib, the rebuilt city destroyed by the Babylonians, and the Persian-period city—has been identified on the ground, at different levels of excavation. The earliest Judean Lachish (late tenth century/early ninth century B.C. to 701 B.C.) lasted about 200 years and existed through two excavation levels—Level IV and Level III. (Level III marks a rebuilding of the palace fort and the city gate, possibly following an earthquake.) destroyed by Sennacherib.
The city above this—Level II—was destroyed by the Babylonians in about 588/6 B.C.
The Persian-period city—on top of Level II—has been identified as Level I.
The city gate was located in the same place in each of these three cities—one on top of the other at the southwest corner of the city, where the ascent to the summit is relatively easy. Incidentally, the present-dayapproach to the mound follows this same path, passing through the ancient gateway.
I have not mentioned the large Canaanite city that existed here until the 12th century B.C.d The gate to this city was probably in the same area. The topography of the mound and its surroundings hint at this location—but we can’t be sure; and in any event, the Canaanite gate has not been excavated.
Even before excavation, the massive city-gate complex could be identified above ground. When the British archaeologist James Leslie Starkey worked at Tel Lachish between 1932 and 1938, the city-gate area naturally became a principal focus of attention. Working on a large scale with hundreds of Arab peasants, Starkey first uncovered the gate of Level I; he removed most of its remains, and then he uncovered the Level II gate complex in its entirety. Here he made his most famous discovery: the “Lachish Letters.” Sealed under the ashes of the destruction debris of the Level II gate (destroyed by the Babylonians in 588/6 B.C.), Starkey found, on the floor of a gate chamber he called the “guard room,” 17 ostraca (inscribed pottery sherds), inscribed in ink in pre-exilic Hebrew letters, dating from the last days before Judah’s destruction. The letters comprised file copies of correspondence from, or to, the commander of Lachish. Even today, more than 50 years after their discovery, the Lachish letters remain the most important cache of written documents from the Biblical period ever found in ancient Israel.e
After completing the excavation of the Level II gate, Starkey started to uncover the earlier gate (from Level IV–III). But his excavation came to an abrupt halt when he was murdered by Arab bandits in 1938.
Beginning in 1973, excavations at Tel Lachish were renewed by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Exploration Society under my direction. Naturally, we continued excavation of the gate area. It took us several years to fully uncover and study the Level IV–III gate, the gateway of the largest and most important Judean Lachish, destroyed by Sennacherib in 701 B.C.
When the royal government of Judah decided to build Lachish as a central fortified city in the late tenth or early ninth century B.C., enormous effort went into the construction of the city gateway. A wide roadway, flanked by massive walls, led from the bottom of the mound to the gate complex. At the upper end of this roadway was an outer gate, flanked by a pair of massive towers protruding from the edge of the slope. The roadway led directly through this outer gate without requiring a turn.
Inside this outer gate was a large, open, paved courtyard. From the courtyard, one turned right, directly up the hill, to face the inner gateway.
The outer gate adjoined, upslope, the revetment wall—an outer fortification line that surrounded the city half-way down the slope. The inner gatehouse was built astride the main city-wall that ran around the upper periphery of the mound.
To appreciate the size of this gateway complex, we may compare it with the contemporaneous city-gate of Megiddo, a royal city in the kingdom of Israel. The gate at Megiddo is known as the “Solomonic gate” because it is believed by many scholars—but not by me—to have been erected by King Solomon. At Megiddo the inner gate measures 61 feet by 53 feet. The inner gate of Level IV–III at Lachish measures 75 feet by 75 feet. The walls are massive and the foundations deep. The lower part of the gate was built of stone; the upper part, of mud bricks.
Usually archaeologists are unable to determine with any certainty what the uppermost part of buildings and walls looked like. The Level III city of Lachish destroyed by Sennacherib, however, is an exception. The Lachish reliefs from Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh portray the attack on the city gate, showing it to its full height.
The later, Level II gate complex was built on the ruins of the gate destroyed by Sennacherib, using the ruined structure as a base for its foundations. The later gate complex is smaller and less massive; many large stones retrieved from the ruined gate were reused in this later gateway. Both the inner and outer gate were rebuilt in Level II and were approached by the same roadway. The courtyard inside the outer gate also continued to be used.
The Persian city-gate (Level I) was, in turn, built on the ruins of the Level II gate, again using the same pattern. But as noted above, Starkey almost entirely removed the remains of this gateway to get to lower levels, so we have not even made any attempt to restore this gateway.
When we completed our excavation of the Level IV–III gateway, retaining above it the Level II gateway, the ruins formed, even then, an impressive monument atthe entrance to the site. With the passage of time, however, the walls began to disintegrate and collapse. Rains damaged the adjacent trenches, undercutting the support level of the gate-complex walls. The number of visitors to the site also steadily grew, and this too began to take its toll.
Moreover, even at best, it was difficult for the nonspecialist to understand the maze of walls and strata in the gate area.
To remedy this situation, the Friends of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, with the generous support of BAR’s Archaeological Preservation Fund, initiated in 1985 the preservation and restoration of the Lachish gate complex. A large donation by Jacob M. Alkow of Herzliya (formerly from Los Angeles) will enable us to continue the work in the coming years. On the one hand, we are trying to preserve the remains, and, on the other hand, to restore part of the gateway so that visitors to the site will understand what they are looking at.
It is an ambitious project. And the work is by no means easy. A major difficulty stems from the fact that we are trying to retain the remains of two superimposed gates, both very impressive structures.
Based on plans prepared by our architect Lawrence Belkin, the restoration will be done so that the visitor can see both gates at once and still separate them.
During the 1985 and 1986 seasons, in the initial stage of our work, we concentrated on consolidating the walls and rebuilding the parts that have collapsed since excavation. We also removed Starkey’s dump and filled his old trenches. This work is not yet completed, but already it has dramatically improved the appearance of the site.
In each trench that we fill, we first cover the bottom with a layer of sea sand or quarried gravel, and with it we bury a wine bottle, sealed with wax, containing a dated statement. In this way, future archaeologists will not be misled by the filled trenches. Moreover, in each restored wall, we paint a cement line along the wall,between the originally preserved and the restored parts of the wall. (This method of marking restored walls was first used by Yigael Yadin at Massada and has proved very successful.) The cement lines are not obtrusive, and yet they permit the visitor to see precisely what has been restored. This is in marked contrast to many restored sites—the most famous (or infamous) being the Minoan palace at Knossos, where no one can tell what is original and what is restored.
The first room we worked on was the “guard room” of the later, Level II gate, where the Lachish Letters were uncovered. This room was actually one of the towers flanking the passageway of the outer gate. After Starkey’s excavation, the tower stood to a height of more than 10 feet. Later, however, the corner of the tower collapsed. But we located an old photograph of this corner, taken by the British expedition, and succeeded in identifing the individual stones shown in the photograph. This enabled us to rebuild the corner exactly as it was, with each stone replaced in its original position.
We have also removed a large dump, left by the British expedition, at the foot of the roadway leading to the gate complex. And we cleared the area on both sides of the outer gate, where it joins the revetment wall. In this way, the gate structure, previously largely hidden from view, now looms prominently before anyone approaching the site.
In 1987 we began to restore the massive left-hand tower of the outer gate of Level IV–III. This is surely the gate tower portrayed as under attack in the Lachish reliefs at Ninevah. The lower part of the tower, built of large stones, was preserved, but the upper part was destroyed in the Assyrian attack, or collapsed since then. To restore it, we had to find proper stones and adapt the construction to the ancient style. Once the facade of the tower was raised, the appearance of the gate completely changed: We can already appreciate in a new way what a massive structure the city gate at Lachish had once been. We hope that additional digging, cleaning and restoration will eventually allow the gate complex to be seen as it appeared nearly 3,000 years ago.
The work done so far is only the beginning. We hope to complete the restoration of the gate complex in four years. The restoration of the gate complex is, in turn, part of a still larger program to preserve and restore the entire site, now planned by the Jewish National Fund and the National Parks Authority.
We would like to express our gratitude to all the contributors to BAR’s Archaeological Preservation Fund. Please come and visit us at ancient Lachish to see what we have done with your generous support.
Archaeological Preservation Fund Seeks Contributions
If you would like to do more than read about the archaeological work done by others, you have an opportunity to play an important part in the restoration and preservation of the Holy Land’s Biblical-historical heritage. You can play this part by contributing to BAR’s Archaeological Preservation Fund, which was established in 1977 to provide money “for the restoration, preservation, maintenance and appropriate marking of excavated sites of Biblical archaeological interest.” In the decade since its inception, the Fund has helped to restore and preserve a number of sites in addition to the Lachish gate, including Izbet Sartah, an early Iron Age (1200–1000 B.C.), Israelite village, which may be Biblical Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4); and Herodian Jericho, which is still undergoing excavation and restoration. Another current project supported in part by the Fund is a systematic archaeological survey of Judean desert caves, a search that holds the hope of discovering additional scroll fragments and artifacts.
If you would like to assist these and other worthy endeavors in the field of Biblical archaeology, please send your checks to the Biblical Archaeology Society, Archaeological Preservation Fund, 3000 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20008. All contributions are fully tax-deductible under U.S. income tax laws. Make checks payable to the Biblical Archaeology Society, the publisher of BAR, which has been declared a tax-exempt charitable organization by the Internal Revenue Service.