“The city of Azekah … located on a mountain ridge, like pointed iron daggers without number reaching high to heaven. [Its walls] were strong and rivaled the highest mountains… [by means of beaten (earth) ra]mps, battering rams … I captured, I carried off its spoil, I destroyed, I devastated…”
This is an abridged version of the so-called “Azekah Inscription,” an Assyrian tablet glorifying the siege and capture of this biblical city by King Sennacherib during his campaign against the Kingdom of Judah more than 2,700 years ago.
Now archaeologists digging among the remains of the ancient settlement in what is now southern Israel, may have found traces of the siege ramp that the Assyrian chronicle boasted about. If the theory is correct, it would seem that Sennacherib’s troops got help from an unexpected source: the Canaanite builders of a previous incarnation of Azekah, a large city raised on the site a thousand years before the Assyrians appeared. The remains of the massive fortifications of this older settlement were apparently modified by the invaders to build a ramp used to breach the Israelite defenses, postulates Professor Oded Lipschits, the Tel Aviv University archaeologist who leads the dig at the site.
“I cannot prove it conclusively but there is some evidence to support the idea that the Assyrians used the ancient fortifications as the backbone of their siege ramp,” Lipschits told Haaretz during a recent tour of the dig, one of the few expeditions in Israel not scrapped this summer due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Not just where David fought Goliath
Azekah is a tell: an artificial mound formed by the stratified remains of multiple cities built atop one another over centuries or millennia of habitation. Located just south of the city of Beth Shemesh, this particular mound dominates the access to the Elah Valley and the Judean Hills, while offering a spectacular view of the coastal plain. Azekah is perhaps best known as the putative setting of the epic duel between David and the Philistine champion Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1) but its strategic location means its history stretches well before and beyond the Israelite period: from the Early Bronze Age and onwards through the Hellenistic and Roman eras.
It was during the Middle Bronze Age, around 1700 B.C.E., that the Canaanite inhabitants built a mega-city on the hill, the largest extent the site would ever reach, and surrounded it with massive walls that were three meters thick and five to six meters tall, Lipschits says.
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This settlement was destroyed around 1140 B.C.E. as part of the turmoil and instability that accompanied the so-called Bronze Age Collapse, which saw major civilizations all around the Mediterranean basin imploding, including the Egyptian and Hittite empires. As the early Iron Age dawned, Azekah was left in ruins and would remain so for centuries: no evidence of habitation there has been found from that time.
That may be because in the meantime the Philistines had taken control of the southern coastal plain that Azekah overlooks. The neighboring city of Gath, the most powerful Philistine settlement, was less than 10 kilometers away and may not have allowed anyone to occupy the strategically important high ground above it, Lipschits theorizes. (So Azekah would have still been abandoned in the early 10th century B.C.E. when David supposedly had his tangle with Goliath, if you believe the biblical story). Azekah was only rebuilt at the end of the ninth century B.C.E. and shortly after was incorporated into the expanding Kingdom of Judah, according to the archaeological findings at the site.
Then, in 701 B.C.E., the Assyrians came. This Mesopotamian empire had already subdued much of the Levant, destroying the northern Kingdom of Israel a few decades earlier but sparing the southern reign of Judah. Following a regional revolt by their vassals including Judah’s King Hezekiah, the Assyrians invaded once again under Sennacherib. After taking Phoenicia and the Philistine city states along the Mediterranean coast, the Assyrian juggernaut turned east to the interior and “attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them.” (2 Kings 18:13)
The strongest archaeological evidence of this onslaught has been found at Lachish, another Judahite city, located south of Azekah, where a giant Assyrian siege ramp leading up to the walls was uncovered decades ago. The fall of Lachish is also dramatically depicted in reliefs from Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, which show battering rams being wheeled up the ramp to attack the city walls.
As for Azekah, which was the first target of the Assyrian campaign in Judah, archaeologists have been searching for a while for signs of the invaders’ siegeworks.
“We know that Sennacherib took Azekah based on the Azekah inscription and the archaeological evidence of destruction, but the question is how the Assyrians broke through, because we never found a ramp as they built in Lachish,” Lipschits says.
Not one but two ramps
From 2015 Lipschits led a three-year joint Israeli-German project, together with Tel Aviv University’s Professor Yuval Gadot and Professor Manfred Oeming of Heidelberg University, to seek the remains of the postulated ramp. The team dug in the southeastern corner of the tell, which would have been the most accessible to an attacking army, but what they found was a confusing puzzle of remains from the Middle Bronze Age, located just below the level of the Judahite settlement from the Iron Age.
It began to appear that in that southeastern section somebody had "trimmed" a section of the massive Bronze Age wall from the outside, "slicing" off enough to create a 45-degree angle as one would expect of a ramp leading into the city. Within the filler at the bottom of the ramp the excavators unearthed two ritual chalices that are dated to the 8th century B.C.E. and are of a type depicted on Assyrian reliefs.
Finally, on the other side of the ancient fortifications, inside the city, they uncovered the remains of a beaten earth ramp rising up toward the wall. It was formed by layers upon layers of soil, ascending against the direction of the slope of the hill.
This was most probably a counter-ramp which was commonly built by defenders in an ancient siege to shore up the walls and attempt to maintain the high ground (a similar structure was found at Lachish).
It would be nice of course to have unearthed some arrowheads or other weapons in the area to clinch the argument that this was the spot where the battle for Azekah was decided. Unfortunately, the slope of the tell is so steep there that most small finds have likely been washed away by the rains over subsequent centuries, Lipschits says.
Still, based on the existing evidence, he says it makes sense to suggest that the Assyrians creatively ‘recycled’ the thousand-year-old Bronze Age wall for their offensive purposes.
“Maybe they realized they didn’t need to build a ramp from scratch and they adapted the reality they found on the ground,” he says.
After taking Azekah and Lachish, Sennacherib went on to besiege Jerusalem, trapping Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage,” as the Assyrian annals put it. The city did not fall, but Judah was forced to bend the knee, paying heavy tribute and remaining a vassal of Assyria.
Azekah itself remained largely deserted: a small Judahite fortress was rebuilt on the tell a few decades after the Assyrian onslaught, but that too was destroyed in 586 B.C.E., when the Babylonians conquered Judah and destroyed Jerusalem and the First Temple. Azekah would only be rebuilt again after the end of the Babylonian exile, in the Persian and Hellenistic periods, when more and more layers would be added to the site’s rich history.