The British Museum‘s exhibits can delight a layperson, a history buff and a museum junkie at the same time. One of its more impressive exhibits is a set of stone panels known as the Lachish Reliefs. In its original form, the Lachish Reliefs (700-692 BC) would have been vividly painted. But the soft sepia tones that the frieze has acquired today (and enhanced by the lighting in the room) makes the viewer feel that is watching a documentary, albeit one etched in stone.
Lachish (present day Tell ed-Duweir) is about 40 km south-west of Jerusalem. In 700 BC, Lachish was a heavily fortified hill town in the Kingdom of Judah and was strategically located on an ancient trade route that linked Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean and the riches of Egypt. At the end of the 8th century BC, Hezekiah, the King of Judah, rebelled against the Assyrians, who had built an empire that stretched from Iran in the East to Egypt in the West, and who controlled the region. Naturally, this rebellion did not go down very well with the Assyrians, whose King Sennacharib led and won a campaign against Lachsih.
The success of the Assyrian campaign at Lachish is recorded as a shallow relief on stone panels (probably limestone) about 8 feet high. In its original form, these panels would have run as a continuous frieze around the walls of a room in King Sennacharib’s palace, narrating the story of the Assyrian victory over Lachish. The panels depict the might of the Assyrian Imperial Army marching in, engaging in a battle with the Lachish, overwhelming the resident Judaeans, King Sennacharib inspecting the spoils of the war, and finally the mass deportation of the defeated inhabitants.
I got so engrossed in the “documentary” that I held my breath as the Assyrian soldiers breached the fortified defence of Lachish. Soon the sounds of clash of spears and the cries victims of the war followed. I visualised the initial defiance of King Hezekiah and his ultimate capitulation to the Assyrians. I could feel the calm arrogance of King Sennacharib as he presided over the sacked and looted city and accepted the spoils of the war. I cried with the war victims as I saw them being forcibly deported from their homes… Yes, such is the effect of the Lachish Reliefs which have been literally brought to life by the storyteller/ sculptor.
While the Lachish Reliefs may have served as a propaganda for the Assyrians, I find it very equally fascinating that the Hebrew Bible also gives an account of this from the other side.
The Book of Kings tells us that Hezekiah, King of Judah, refused to pay the tribute that Sennacharib demanded… The Bible understandably glosses over the fact that Sennacharib responded by brutally seizing the cities of Judah until Hezekiah was crushed, gave in and paid up. (Neil MacGregor in A History of the World in 1,000 Objects)
Whichever side was right or wrong, it is clear that it was the citizens of Lachish who suffered the most due to the Assyrian campaign. And nearly 2600 years later, we find that things have not really changed, have they? It is always the innocent who suffer. Always.
The Museum Treasure Series is all about artifacts found in museums with an interesting history and story attached to them. You can read more from this series here.