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Episode 21 - Lachish Reliefs

Lachish Reliefs (made around 700 BC). Stone panel, found in northern Iraq

Three thousand years ago, the world was, as usual, at war. On the face of it this might seem surprising, as the entire population of the world three thousand years ago was only about 50 million people - roughly the number that now live in England. So you'd have thought there might have been enough land and wealth to go round without major conflict. But, however you look at human history, it's quite clear that one of the constants is the urge to fight. And, around 1000 BC, we find evidence for war on a quite new scale � but with exactly the same results as war always brings with it.

"Rulers wished to establish their total power. It was a demonstration of their supremacy." (Anthony Beevor)

"There's always wars, there's always deaths, there's always refugees - they're a bi-product of war, and have been since the very very earliest times." (Paddy Ashdown)

This warfare transformed the political landscape from the Mediterranean to the Pacific . In what's now Iraq, the Assyrians created a model of empire which would last for centuries. Established powers ruling Egypt and China were invaded by outsiders, and indeed, across the whole world, we encounter new peoples and new powers. This week's objects take us into the minds of these peoples and powers of three thousand years ago, and our first object takes us straight into the heat of battle.

I'm in a room whose walls are completely covered with stone carvings about eight feet (2.5m) high. They tell the story of a great siege. The siege of Lachish in Judea, in 701 BC. Think of a film in stone - an early Hollywood epic, perhaps, with a cast of thousands. The first scene shows the invading army marching in, then comes the bloody battle around the besieged town, and then we move on to the dead, the injured, and the columns of passive refugees. And finally we see the victorious king presiding triumphantly over his conquest: Sennacherib, ruler of the great Assyrian empire, and the terror of the ancient Middle East.

By 700 BC, the Assyrian rulers based in northern Iraq had built an empire that stretched from Iran to Egypt - covering most of the area that we now call the Middle East. Indeed. you might almost say that this was the beginning of the idea of the Middle East as one single theatre of conflict and control. It was the largest land empire that had yet been created, and it was the result of the prodigious Assyrian war-machine.

Lachish, about 25 miles (40 km) south-west of Jerusalem, is today known as Tell ed-Duweir. At the time of the siege, it was a heavily fortified hill town, the second city after Jerusalem of the kingdom of Judah, which had managed, just, to stay independent of the Assyrians. Lachish stood at a vital strategic point on the key trade routes linking Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean and to the immense wealth of Egypt. But around 700 BC , the king of Judah, Hezekiah, rebelled against the Assyrians. It was a big mistake. Sennacherib mobilised the Assyrian imperial army, fought a brilliant campaign, seized the city of Lachish, killed its defenders and deported its inhabitants. And the resounding success of the Assyrian campaign is what is celebrated in these carvings.

They're in shallow relief, and they'd have run like a continuous frieze pretty well from floor to ceiling all around the walls of Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh - near modern Mosul in Iraq. They would once have been brightly painted but, even without any colour today, they are astonishing historical documents.

Like any good propaganda war film, the sculptor has shown us the Lachish campaign as a perfectly executed military exercise. He sets the city among trees and vineyards, while below, the Assyrian soldiers, archers and spearmen, are marching. As you look across the frieze, wave after wave of Assyrians scale the city walls, and eventually overwhelm the resident Judeans.

The next scene shows the aftermath. Survivors flee the burning city, carrying what they can. These lines of people, carrying their worldly goods and heading for deportation, must be one of the earliest depictions of refugees that exists, and they are almost unbearably poignant. It's impossible, looking at them close up, not to think of the millions of refugees and displaced people that this same region has seen over the centuries ... and is still seeing.

We showed the Lachish Reliefs to Paddy Ashdown, soldier, politician and international diplomat, who's had long experience of the human cost of military conflict, especially during his work in the Balkans:

"I saw refugee camps right across the Balkans and, frankly, I could never stop the tears coming to my eyes, because what I saw was my sister and my mother and my wife and my children. But I saw Serbs driven out by Bosniacs, Bosniacs driven out by Croats, Croats driven out by Serbs, and so on. I even saw the most shameful refugees of all ... the Roma people, a huge camp of Roma people, maybe 40 - 50,000, and they were driven out when my army, the NATO army, was in charge. And we stood aside as their houses were burnt and they were driven from their homes. And that made me feel not just desperately sad, but also desperately ashamed. What is true, and what the reliefs show, is in a sense the immutable and unchangeable character of war. There's always wars, there's always deaths, there's always refugees. Refugees are normally the sort of flotsam and jetsam of war. They are left where they were washed up when the war finished."

The heartland of the Assyrian empire lay on the fertile river Tigris, over 500 miles (800 km) north-east of the devastated Lachish. It was an ideal location for agriculture and trade, but it had no natural boundaries or defences, and so the Assyrians spent huge resources on a large army, to police their frontiers, expand their territory and to keep potential enemies at bay.

Lachish was just one victim in a long series of wars but, and this is what I think makes Lachish so fascinating, we know about this particular war from the other side as well, from the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Kings tells us that Hezekiah, King of Judah, refused to pay the tribute that Sennacherib demanded:

"And the Lord was with him: and he prospered whithersoever he went forth: and he rebelled against the king of Assyria, and served him not." (II Kings, 18, v. 2)

The Bible understandably glosses over the disagreeable fact that Sennacherib responded by brutally seizing the cities of Judah - until Hezekiah was crushed, gave in, and paid up. An Assyrian account of the episode, also here in the British Museum, gives us Sennacherib's view of what happened, allegedly in his own words:

"Because Hezekiah, King of Judah, would not submit to my yoke, I came up against him, and by force of arms and by the might of my power I took 46 of his strong-fenced cities; and of the smaller towns which were scattered about, I took and plundered a countless number. From these places I took and carried off 200,156 persons, old and young, male and female, together with horses and mules, asses and camels, oxen and sheep, a countless multitude."

These are the people that we see on the relief - the victims of war, who pay the price of their ruler's rebellion. Families with carts packed high with bundles are being led into exile, while Assyrian soldiers carry their plundered spoils towards the image of the enthroned King Sennacherib. An inscription credits the king himself with the victory: 'Sennacherib King of the World, King of Assyria, sat on a throne and watched the booty of Lachish pass before him.' He presides over the sacked city and its defeated inhabitants as an almost divine overlord, watching the citizens as they're deported to another part of the Assyrian empire.

This practice of mass deportation was standard Assyrian policy. They shifted large groups of troublesome people from their homelands to resettle them in other parts of the Assyrian empire, including Assyria itself. Deportation on this scale must have been logistically challenging - but the Assyrian army had been through so many campaigns by now that this programme of moving people had been refined to a point of industrial efficiency.

The strategy of shifting populations has been a constant phenomenon of empire ever since. Perhaps our nearest equivalent - just about in living memory - is Stalin's deportation of peoples during the 1930s. Like Sennacherib, Stalin knew the value of moving rebellious peoples out of strategic areas and relocating them far away from their homelands. Military historian Anthony Beevor puts these two imperial heavies - Sennacherib and Stalin - in historical perspective:

"Well I think one sees the way that in the past, for example in the deportation of the Judeans after the siege of Lachish, rulers wished to establish their total power. It was a demonstration of their supremacy.

"By the twentieth century there was much greater element of notions of treason, particularly political treason, as one saw with Stalin and the Soviet Union. When it came to the real waves of deportations which were punishing whole peoples, this was because Stalin suspected that they had collaborated with the Germans during the invasion of the Soviet Union from 1941 onwards.

"And the peoples who were most famously affected were of course the Crimean Tartars, the Ingushes, the Chechens, the Kalmuks - one is certainly talking of three to three and a half million. In many cases they reckon that 40 per cent of those died during the transport, and of course during the forced labour when they arrived. And when I say 'arrived' ... usually what happened was, a lot of them were just literally dropped by the railhead, with no tools, no seeds, and were literally left there in the desert, so it's not surprising how many died. It was interesting to see that in Lachish, in the early deportations of the pre-Christian times, that they took their sheep with them, but in these cases they had to leave everything there."

So Sennacherib may not have been quite as bad as Stalin - cold comfort for the victims. The Lachish Reliefs show the misery that defeat in war always entails, but of course their main focus is not the Judeans, but Sennacherib in his moment of triumph. They do not record Sennacherib's less than glorious end ... assassinated by two of his sons while he was at prayer to the gods who'd appointed him ruler. He was succeeded by another son, whose son, in his turn, conquered Egypt and defeated the pharaoh Taharqo, who is the subject of our next programme.

And so the cycle of war that these reliefs show - brutal, pitiless, and devastating for the civilian population - was about to begin all over again.

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