Sennacherib’s Siege Camp Discovered?

Scholar proposes identification for hundreds of Assyrian camps

Sennacherib's siege

Replica of the Lachish Reliefs, showing Sennacherib’s siege of Lachish. Courtesy Photo Companion to the Bible, 2 Kings.

Have the siege camps set up during Sennacherib’s campaign against Judah (c. 701 BCE) been identified? According to an article published in the journal Near Eastern Archaeology, they have. Relying on Assyrian depictions of siege camps and historical geographic details, academic Stephen Compton proposes that nearly all of the archaeological sites across Israel and the Levant known as Mudawwara are likely the locations of ancient Assyrian siege camps, several of which are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible’s depiction of Sennacherib’s campaign. Other scholars, however, remain extremely skeptical of Compton’s conclusions.

Identifying a Camp

Perhaps the most famous of the Assyrian siege camps was that set up against the Judahite stronghold of Lachish, immortalized in a lengthy Assyrian relief now on display in the British Museum. It was long supposed that the camp was located within bowshot of the city’s southern wall; no archaeological evidence of the camp has ever been found in the suggested area, however. Reexamining the Lachish relief and early aerial photographs, Compton made a new proposal. According to him, the relief shows the Assyrian camp set a long distance off, hidden behind a hill to the north of the city. The camp itself appears as an oval structure, with a road leading down the center.

Sennacherib's siege camp

Sennacherib’s camp at Lachish. Courtesy Zunkir, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Turning to mid-20th century aerial photographs, Compton suggests the true location of Sennacherib’s camp at Lachish must instead be the site of Khirbet al-Mudawwara, which better fits the topographic information found in the relief, and even shows the remains of a possible defensive wall. This wall might be the result of Sennacherib’s own experience; his father, Sargon II, was slain when his siege camp was overrun by enemies. This could have led Sennacherib to heavily fortify his own camps.

According to Compton, the name Mudawwara may also be a clue as to the history of the site, as the Arabic term Mudawwara refers to the tent of a sultan’s military expedition, a fitting description of Sennacherib’s siege camp. If true, this name may then contain the distant memory of the site’s original function.

However, this is not the end of the story, as dozens of other sites in the area bear names derived from the term Mudawwara, including one near Jerusalem. Examining the other attestations of such toponyms, Compton suggests that perhaps nearly all of these sites reveal the location of ancient Assyrian siege camps. Just a few miles from ancient Jerusalem, for instance, sits the site of Jebel el-Mudawwara (now Ammunition Hill). Although the site was largely destroyed in the 20th century, early aerial photos reveal a site that looks nearly identical to Khirbet al-Mudawwara near Lachish.

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Indeed, examining these various Mudawwaras, Compton suggests it is even possible to recreate the map of Sennacherib’s conquest of Jerusalem, tracing Mudawwaras from the region of Philistia to Judahite Azekah and south to Lachish, before heading back north to Jerusalem. If true, this theory could even prove the accuracy of Isaiah’s (10:24–32) account of the campaign, which appears to describe Sennacherib attacking Jerusalem from the north, as Compton’s line of Mudawwaras extends north, past Jerusalem, before eventually cutting back south towards the capital.

Some archaeologists, including Chris McKinny, who is a specialist in historical geography, find Compton’s theory unconvincing, saying that while it is possible that a few of his proposed sites might have been Assyrian camps, the suggestion that this name can be relied on to prima facie identify such camps is without merit.

Mudawwara, which simply means ‘circle,’” says McKinny, “cannot be a kind of secret code for finding Sennacherib’s campaigns. There are dozens of sites with this name, and it refers to a variety of circular features on sites including ruins with circular walls. After visiting the Mudawwara near Lachish, it is quite obviously referring to a circular terrace wall that surrounds the site and certainly not an Assyrian wall made by Sennacherib.”

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Sennacherib’s Siege of Lachish

Defending Against Sennacherib at Tel Burna

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Sennacherib’s Siege of Jerusalem: Once or Twice?

In the Path of Sennacherib

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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