Unusual and interesting toilets from all around the world.

King Hezekiah Ritually Defiles a Shrine to Ba'al with a Latrine

The Discovery

In 2016, archaeologists at the site of Tel Lachish in Israel discovered a toilet that very likely played an important role in a religious reform in the Kingdom of Judah during the eighth century B.C.E. King Hezekiah carried out sweeping religious changes throughout his kingdom. He abolished the local worship of traditional deities in favor of centralized worship of the one God of Israel at the Temple in Jerusalem. The toilet discovered at Tel Lachish seems to have been used to ritually defile a temple dedicated to the Levantine god Ba'al.


Ba'al, known as בעל to the Israelites, 𐎁𐎓𐎍 in Ugaritic cuneiform, 𐤋𐤏𐤁 in Phoenician, and Βάαλ to the later Greeks, was a prominent deity of the ancient Levant. The name Ba'al was used to refer to the primary god in the local religions. He was associated with the storm and rain god Hadad in the northwest Semitic and ancient Mesopotamian religions. The earliest Israelites sometimes used Ba'al to refer to their god Yahweh.

In Canaan, Ba'al eventually replaced El as the leader of the gods and the patron of the kingship. Ba'al, like Hadad, was a weather god, attributed with power over lightning, wind, rain, and thus with fertility.

Scholars propose that the actual name Hadad or Yahweh became too holy to be spoken aloud by anyone other than the high priests. An alias, basically "Lord", was used instead. This was Ba'al or Bel in place of Marduk. Or, for the Hebrews, Adon or אֲדׂנ ("Lord"), or Adonai or אֲדׂנָי ("My Lord), both of them alternative ways to refer to Yahweh, the Lord of Israel, without saying the holy name.


Hezekiah, or חִזְקִיֶ֫הו in the original, was the 13th king of Judah. He witnessed the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel by Sargon's Assyrians in about 720 BCE, and was the king of Judah during the invasion and siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 BCE. According to 2 Kings 18-20, Isaiah 36-39, and 2 Chronicles 29-32, Hezekiah assumed the throne at the age of 25 and reigned for 29 years, in 715-687 BCE.

Hezekiah imposed a restriction for the sole worship of Yahweh within the Jerusalem Temple, forbidding the veneration of other deities. Yes, until that time you could go to the Temple in Jerusalem and pray or make an offering to any deity you chose. Ba'al, Marduk, El, Gozer, Cthulhu, whomever. Ecumenical and then some. Hezekiah started by cleansing and repairing the Temple in Jerusalem, and then reforming the priesthood. Hezekiah was driven by his belief that his ancestors had not properly worshiped Yahweh the God of Israel.

According to 2 Kings 18:4, he "removed the bamot (or high places), broke down the masseboth (or pillars), and cut down the Asherah (or the sacred pole)." That is, he destroyed the facilities where the other deities were worshiped.

Tel Lachish

Tel Lachish, or תל לכיש in the original, later called Λαχις by the Greeks, was the second most important city in the Kingdom of Judah. The Iron Age version of Lachish was a city covering over 7 hectares within a city wall with a six-chambered gate complex. Tel means "mound". Ancient cities were usually built on a high spot that grew taller over time as waste material and old construction layers accumulated.

The site of Lachish was occupied since the Neolithic period, in about 5500-4500 BCE. It began to be developed as a community during the Early Bronze Age, in 3300-3000 BCE. Later, during the period 2000-1650 BCE, Egypt influenced the growing settlement at Lachish.

Lachish became more significant and grew under Egyptian patronage. The city was destroyed by fire in about 1150. The Canaanites rebuilt the city, under the protection of New Kingdom era Egypt. But another fire, perhaps caused by an attack by either the Sea Peoples or the Israelites, soon destroyed the city again. The site was abandoned for two centuries.

The Israelites resettled the site during the Early Iron Age, in the 10th and 9th centuries BCE. The site wasn't fortified yet, and may have been destroyed by forces of the Egyptian Pharaoh Sheshonk I around 925 BCE. After that, in the early 800s BCE, Lachish was rebuilt and fortified. That was when they built the massive walls and gate complex explored in the 2016 archaeological dig.

That gate complex was 24.5 meters on each side. The archaeologists found some storage jars labeled with LMLK, meaning "Belonging to the King". A large room, apparently a shrine, was part of the gate complex. The shrine room held two four-horned altars, with the horns deliberately damaged, plus several ceramic lamps, bowls, and stands. This was as referenced in the Biblical description of Hezekiah's effort to reform religion by centralizing worship in the Temple of Jerusalem and abolishing it elsewhere.

One corner of the shrine room contained a toilet. The archaeologists concluded that this was the toilet-based desecration described in 2 Kings 10:27: "Then they demolished the pillar of Ba'al, and destroyed the temple of Ba'al, and made it a latrine to this day." Lab tests failed to find fecal remains. It hadn't been used there. Its presence was entirely symbolic.

This process of desecrating a site with a toilet had been described multiple times. However, this 2016 discovery was the first to document an example of the action.


See the Biblical Archaeology Society article "Ancient Latrine: A Peek into King Hezekiah's Reforms in the Bible?", and the Israel Antiquities Authority article "An Important Archaeological Discovery: A Gate-Shrine Dating to the First Temple Period was Exposed In Excavations of the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Tel Lachish National Park".

Stone Age

The archaeologists described the object as a stone seat with a central hole, very clearly a toilet. It was a functional toilet, moved from elsewhere within the site. So, Lachish at approximately 700 BCE in the Iron Age had toilets, and therefore some type of sanitary drainage. Lachish was on a local high spot, a tel. Waste could drain out of the city through small openings in the defensive walls.

Bronze Age
Bronze Age

Above is an earlier sewage drain through defensive city walls. This is at Tiryns, in Greece. Tiryns, like the nearby Mycenae, reached its peck in 1400-1200 BCE during the Bronze Age.

Below is a sewage drain within the Phrygian settlement built on the earlier Hittite capital of Hatuşaş or Hattusha. The Phrygian occupation of the site dates to about 1200-700 BCE. This is next to today's small Turkish farming village of Boğazkale, east of Ankara and north of Cappadocia.

Hezekiah's Reforms

Hezekiah was a religious reformer. In addition to destroying the indigenous religion's high places and centralizing and formalizing worship in Jerusalem, he re-established the Passover pilgrimage. He restarted the tradition of inviting the scattered tribes of Israel to a Passover festival in Jerusalem.

Sennacherib of Assyria Moves Against Judah

Sargon II, the King of Assyria, died in 705 BCE. States that were subject to Assyria, including Judah, saw an opportunity to break their subservience to Assyria. Hezekiah quit paying the tribute established by his father.

In 703 BCE, Sargon's son Sennacherib began a series of military campaigns. Having dealt with rebels to his east, in 701 BCE Sennacherib turned to the west, including Judah. Hezekiah had entered into a league with Egypt, but Egypt did not come to his aid.

Hezekiah's Defenses, Including His Water Tunnel

Hezekiah built the Broad Wall around Jerusalem, a defensive wall seven meters thick. That construction is described in the book of Nehemiah.

Hezekiah was also quite the hydraulic engineer, or at least the director of impressive water projects. He built the Siloam Tunnel connecting the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam and further securing the water supply for Jerusalem.

Seige warfare, especially in the Iron Age Levant, relied on waiting until the besieged fortress ran out of clean water. Hezekiah's tunnel was intended to provide Jerusalem with enough water to withstand a siege.

Sennacherib's Assyrian forces captured Lachish in 701 BCE. They besieged Jerusalem, but Hezekiah made a deal that kept him in power. The details depend on whose record you read.

Assyrian records say that Hezekiah formally recognized Sennacherib as his overlord and paid tribute. Archaeologists discovered Sennacherib's Prism in the ruins of the palace in Nineveh. This was a cuneiform document more three-dimensional than the usual bun-shaped tablet. It describes the Assyrian conquest of 46 strong towns "and uncountable smaller places", plus a siege of Jerusalem in which Sennecherib says "As to Hezekiah, the Jew ... Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage."

The Hebrew Bible says that Hezekiah paid three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold, taking precious metal off the doors of the Temple to make the payment. But after the payment, Sennacherib renewed the siege. He sent a Hebrew-speaking representative to talk to the soldiers on the defensive walls, saying that Hezekiah's destruction of the traditional High Places would lose the support of the associated deities.

Sennacherib's Prism records a payment of 800 silver talents, not 300. This may have been because of differing units of measure, but it's likely due to what historians have noticed as an Assyrian tendency for exaggeration.

Several ancient descriptions report large numbers of Assyrian deaths. One theory is that may have been an outbreak of the bubonic plague. The Greek historian Herodotus said that it was a plague of mice. According to 2 Kings 19:35 in the the Hebrew Bible, the angel of Jehovah killed 185,000 Assyrian troops in one night.

Sennacherib eventually ended the siege and withdrew his military forces. He was assassinated in Assyria 20 years later, in 681 BCE. Meanwhile, in Judah, Hezekiah continued as sole ruler until 697 BCE and then was co-regent with his son Manasseh until his death in 687 BCE.

Judah was the strongest nation along the frontier between Assyria and Egypt during this time. Jerusalem grew during Hezekiah's rule, reaching a population of about 25,000, five times what it had been under Solomon. Most of the population of the kingdom of Judah lived in the city of Jerusalem, the other cities were much smaller. Some of the population growth was probably due to people from the northern Kingdom of Israel fleeing Assyrian destruction. Literacy and the production of literary works both increased under Hezekiah.

The Siloam Water Tunnel

Hezekiah's Tunnel, the Siloam Tunnel or Nikbat HaShiloah, נְקְבָּת השילום, is 533 meters long. If the description we have of its construction is accurate, it's an amazing example of Iron Age tunneling.

The tunnel was dug by two teams. They started from each end and managed to meet in the middle. In modern times the tunnel was first described by Franciscus Quaresmius in 1625. Other scholars explored and described the tunnel in the 19th century.

The Canaanites had built a fortified tower around the Gihon Spring, and by 1800 BCE a Canaanite tunnel had collected the spring water. However, that tunnel released it into the Kidron Valley. This supported farming crucial to Jerusalem, but it made the water available to besieging armies.

Hezekiah blocked that earlier tunnel and redirected the Gihon Spring water into a new tunnel leading to the Pool of Siloam.

'Ain Silwân or the Pool of Siloam was between the Fountain Gate, at the southern tip of the city, and the King's Garden, a tract at the junction of the Kidron Valley and the Tyropoeon Valley.

'Ain Silwân or the Pool of Siloam as seen in 1914

'Ain Silwân, the Pool of Siloam, as seen in "A Wanderer's Notes on Foreign Water Supplies", Louis L Tribus, Journal of the American Water Works Association, vol 1, no 2, 1914, pp 384-402.

The 9th chapter of the Gospel of John describes Jesus healing a blind man at 'Ain Silwân or the Pool of Siloam.

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus' disciples asked, "Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?"

Jesus answered, "Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God's mighty works might be displayed in him. While it's daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world." After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man's eyes. Jesus said to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (this word means sent). So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.

The man's neighbors and those who used to see him when he was a beggar said, "Isn't this the man who used to sit and beg?"

Some said, "It is," and others said, "No, it's someone who looks like him."

But the man said, "Yes, it's me!"

So they asked him, "How are you now able to see?"

He answered, "The man they call Jesus made mud, smeared it on my eyes, and said, 'Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.' So I went and washed, and then I could see."

They asked, "Where is this man?"

He replied, "I don't know."

Then they led the man who had been born blind to the Pharisees. Now Jesus made the mud and smeared it on the man's eyes on a Sabbath day. So Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.

The man told them, "He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see."

Some Pharisees said, "This man isn't from God, because he breaks the Sabbath law." Others said, "How can a sinner do miraculous signs like these?" So they were divided. Some of the Pharisees questioned the man who had been born blind again: "What do you have to say about him, since he healed your eyes?"

He replied, "He's a prophet."

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