Museum Treasure: The Lachish Reliefs

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.

The Lachish Reliefs

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.

Detail from the Lachish Reliefs

Detail from the Lachish Reliefs

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.

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18 thoughts on “Museum Treasure: The Lachish Reliefs

  1. That is a breathtaking story preserved in the sepia tones of the frieze. You are like Sanjay to this poor Dhritrashtra: I am loving and cherishing the visions of the world I may never personslly visit. Excellent post, as usual.

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    • Thank you so much. I am so glad you enjoyed this, Umashankar. I don’t think I am a Sanjaya, but look at me as someone who might help someone titlt the scales at choosing a travel destination. And in this case, I will always say “Go Britain” :-)

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  2. Wow–you know so much. If I had gone to this museum, I would probably uhh-ummd it. But as I read your piece I am beginning to reflect how much have I missed already, how many places have I already dismissed in my mind. Your posts are treasure trove, Sudha! Thank you for writing them!

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    • I am a history buff and a museum junkie, Bhavana. And the two combined make museum visits a much anticipated thing. Add to the fact that most museums I have visited have allowed photography, which has meant that I am able tos hare them here. Don’t look at what you have missed, look at what all you are going to see when you visit a museum next time. :-)

      And *blush* thank you so much for your comments.

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  3. Beautifully written Sudha. If , I ever go to London, I think I will head first to the British Museum and see all the exhibits that you have written about. I am going to read the Book of Kings today.

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