According to the Hebrew Bible, King Hezekiah, the 12th king of Judea, was the pious son of a godless father, Ahaz. Immediately upon succeeding his father on the throne, Hezekiah waged a war on idolatry, ordering all false idols—objects, animals or other deities people worshipped—to be destroyed. Now, archaeologists working in the ancient city of Tel Lachish in south-central Israel believe they have uncovered evidence of the king’s war on idols: a towering gate and shrine dating to the eighth century B.C., when it was likely an important place of meeting and worship.
Early this year, archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) began excavations of the gate at Tel Lachish, an ancient city located in south-central Israel between Mount Hebron and the Mediterranean coast. A joint British-Israeli expedition discovered the gate’s northern end decades ago, and the more recent excavation, from January to March 2016, focused on uncovering it completely.
The gate, now exposed and preserved to a height of four meters (around 13 feet), consists of six chambers, measuring some 80 by 80 feet in total. Three chambers are located on each side, with the ancient city’s main street running in between them. As Sa’ar Ganor, an excavation director with the IAA, explained in a statement: “The size of the gate is consistent with the historical and archaeological knowledge we possess, whereby Lachish was a major city and the most important one after Jerusalem.”
The gate at Tel Lachish is the largest one in Israel dating to the First Temple period, named for the temple built in Jerusalem by King Solomon nearly 3,000 years ago. According to biblical narrative, the gate would have been right at the heart of the city’s most important activities. High-ranking people, including kings, governors, judges, city elders and other officials, would sit on benches while attending events there. The archaeologists uncovered the benches—complete with armrests—during their excavations, as well as scoops that were used for handling grain, jars and jar handles stamped with the seal “lmlk,” marking them as property of the king.
The IAA says these artifacts were probably part of the military and administrative preparations for the kingdom’s war against King Sennacherib of Assyria, which took place in the late eighth century B.C. They found additional evidence of the conflict in the layers of debris around the gate, including arrowheads and sling stones that indicate hand-to-hand combat likely took place nearby. The story of Sennacherib’s conquest of Tel Lachish in 701 B.C. is known from the archaeological record as well as the Bible, and was also chronicled in wall reliefs in the conqueror’s palace in Nineveh.
But before the Assyrian army destroyed the city’s gate-shrine, the archaeologists believe, it had been desecrated as part of King Hezekiah’s fierce war on idolatry. According to a passage quoted by the IAA from the Hebrew Bible (II Kings 18:4): “He [Hezekiah] removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles…”
As part of the recent excavations, the IAA archaeologists climbed the steps of the gate-shrine into a large room with a bench used for offerings. In the corner, they discovered an opening leading to a room with two four-horned altars, along with ceramic lamps, bowls and stands. Intriguingly, the horns on the altar appeared to have been intentionally cut. According to Ganor, such destruction is “probably evidence of the religious reform attributed to King Hezekiah, whereby religious worship was centralized in Jerusalem and the cultic high places that were built outside the capital were destroyed.”
But the apparent desecration of the shrine went even further: In the corner of the shrine, the archaeologists found a stone toilet. The Hebrew Bible describes other occasions on which toilets were placed in cultic areas in order to desecrate them. In the case of the earlier destruction of the cult of Ba’al in Samaria, ordered by King Jehu, the Bible stated: “And they demolished the pillar of Ba’al, and demolished the house of Ba’al, and made it a latrine to this day” (II Kings 10:27)
The gate-shrine at Tel Lachish marks the first time archaeologists have found evidence of such a desecration, outside of biblical narrative. As laboratory tests suggest the “latrine” was never used, the researchers concluded that it was likely placed there for symbolic purposes. After such desecration, the gate-shrine was then sealed, and remained sealed until its destruction by Sennacherib’s forces some years later.
The newly excavated gate is currently closed to the public, but Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority is working with the IAA in the hopes of opening it to visitors.