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Ashurbanipal: The Oldest Surviving Royal Library in the World with Over 30,000 Clay Tablets

Ashurbanipal: The Oldest Surviving Royal Library in the World with Over 30,000 Clay Tablets



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The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal has sometimes been described as the ‘first library’ in the world, or the ‘oldest surviving royal library in the world’. The library was discovered by archaeologists who were excavating at the site of Nineveh, today known as Kuyunjik. As this was the imperial capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire during the reign of Ashurbanipal, the library has been attributed to this ruler. The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal contains over 30,000 clay tablets and fragments with texts written in the cuneiform script . The subjects of these texts range from governments records to works of literature and technical instructions.

Ashurbanipal Rule

Ashurbanipal (meaning ‘the god Ashur is creator of an heir’) is often regarded as the last great ruler of the Neo-Assyrian Empire , and reigned from around 668 BC to 627 BC. During this period, the Neo-Assyrian Empire underwent its greatest territorial expansion, and the areas under Ashurbanipal’s rule included Babylon, Persia, Syria and Egypt. As Ashurbanipal ruled over his subjects with justice and fairness, he was a popular king. Nevertheless, he is also known for his ruthlessness and cruelty when dealing with his enemies. Ashurbanipal’s greatest accomplishment, however, was the creation of his royal library.

Sculpted reliefs depicting Ashurbanipal, the last great Assyrian king, hunting lions, gypsum hall relief from the North Palace of Nineveh ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Ashurbanipal had initially not been expected to succeed his father, Esarhaddon, as king, since he had an older brother, Sin-iddina-apla. When this brother died in 672 BC, Ashurbanipal was made his father’s heir. Since Ashurbanipal was not originally intended to inherit the kingship prior to his elder brother’s death, he was free to indulge in scholarly pursuits. As a result of this, he was able to read and write, and mastered various fields of knowledge, including mathematics and oil divination. It is perhaps due to this that Ashurbanipal had his royal library built after he had stabilized his empire.

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The Library of Alexandria

According to Old Persian and Armenian traditions, Alexander the Great himself saw the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal when he visited Nineveh. Inspired by it, he desired to seek out all the works of the peoples he had conquered, translate them into Greek, and store them in a great library of his own. Whilst the Macedonian conqueror did not live long enough to fulfil this dream of his, Ptolemy, who was one of Alexander’s generals, and who succeeded him in Egypt, began the creation of the Great Library of Alexandria.

The Great Library of Alexandria, O. Von Corven, 19th century

Library Remains

Subsequently, the physical remains, and perhaps the memory as well, of Ashurbanipal’s library was lost, only to be rediscovered in the 19 th century. During the 1850s, the British Museum carried out excavations at the site of Nineveh. It was during this time that the royal library was unearthed, and the man credited with its discovery is the British archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard. The excavation of Nineveh continued intermittently until the 1930s, and it was during these excavations that the more than 30,000 clay tablets and fragments were brought to light.

Tablet of synonyms. British Museum ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal is important for a number of reasons. For a start, the number of clay tablets and fragments discovered makes Ashurbanipal’s library one of the largest collections of texts during its day. In addition to this, the large number of subjects covered is astounding. The king’s personal library contained texts from such areas of knowledge as medicine, mythology, magic, science, poetry and geography. One of the best-known documents from this library is a version of the Epic of Gilgamesh , which is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. Given the range of subjects covered by the contents of Ashurbanipal’s library, this collection is of immense importance in the modern study of the ancient Near East.

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Tablet containing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The library was, according to a Guardian artcle , Ashurbanipal’s ‘enduring contribution to civilisation’ left by a powerful and merciless king. who ruled the Assyrian Empire for a relatively shot time. Through ruthless ambition and admirable organization, he maintained a great empire. That ambition is represented by the Assyrian art, which included says the Guardian, 'some of the most appalling images ever created'. it includes torture, massacres, tongues being ripped from mouths and many other atrocieties. Amidst this machine of violence somehow the value of preserving literature and knowledge was recognised.

At present, there is a project called the Ashurbanipal Library Project, which is a collaboration between the British Museum and the University of Mosul in Iraq. Set up in 2002, the project aims to bring Ashurbanipal’s library ‘back to life’, by documenting the library as fully as possible in texts and images. It is hoped that the project would stimulate interest, as well as facilitate teaching and studying of the texts, thereby increasing our knowledge of the ancient Near East.


The Great Library of Alexandria is the most famous library in classical antiquity. Over the years it has gained a mythical status as a ‘universal’ library where all scholars of the ancient world could come and share ideas. The library was located within the grounds of the Royal Palace in Alexandria a port city in northern Egypt and was built around 295 BCE by Ptolemy I. The library was a complex with shrines dedicated to each of the nine muses, lectures areas, observatories, a zoo and living quarters. It was thought to house the works of great scholars and writers including Homer, Plato and Socrates. The library’s destruction is most commonly thought to have happened in 48 BCE when Julius Caesar occupied Alexandria. When Caesar tried to leave the port town, Egyptian ships trapped him in. Caesar ordered his men to set fire to the ships however the fire got out of hand and destroyed many buildings including the library. Imagine how much knowledge we would have access to today if the library was still standing?

Illustration of what the Great Library of Alexandria could have looked like


Who Was Ashurbanipal?

Ashurbanipal was the third eldest son of Esarhaddon, and as such he was not intended to be king. The eldest son was Sín-nãdin-apli, and he was named crown prince of Assyria, based at Nineveh the second son Šamaš-šum-ukin was crowned at Babylonia, based at Babylon. Crown princes trained for years to take over the kingships, including training in warfare, administration, and the local language and so when Sín-nãdin-apli died in 672, Esarhaddon gave the Assyrian capital to Ashurbanipal. That was politically dangerous--because although by then he was better trained to rule at Babylon, by rights Šamaš-šum-ukin should have gotten Nineveh (Assyria being the 'homeland' of the Assyrian kings). In 648, a brief civil war erupted. At the end of that, the victorious Ashurbanipal became king of both.

While he was the crown prince at Nineveh, Ashurbanipal learned to read and write cuneiform in both Sumerian and Akkadian and during his reign, it became a special fascination for him. Esarhaddon had collected documents before him, but Ashurbanipal focused his attention on the oldest tablets, sending out agents to look for them in Babylonia. A copy of one of his letters was found at Nineveh, written to the governor of Borsippa, asking for old texts, and specifying what the content should be--rituals, water control, spells to keep a person safe while in battle or walking in the country or entering the palace, and how to purify villages.

Ashurbanipal also wanted anything that was old and rare and not already in Assyria he demanded the originals. Borsippa's governor replied that they would be sending wooden writing boards rather than clay tablets--it's possible the Nineveh's palace scribes copied the texts on wood into more permanent cuneiform tablets because those types of documents are present in the collection.


Ashurbanipal – Ancient Assyrian Library – the largest and the oldest in the world

Surprisingly, only in San Francisco (US) in front of the city library is a statue of Ashurbanipal, the king of Assyria, ruling from 669 to 633 BC. Nowhere else in the world is it noted that Ashurbanipal, being the only Assyrian emperor who owned cuneiform writing and was able to read in the Sumerian and Akkadian languages, collected the first library in the history of mankind.

The Ashurbanipal library is the largest surviving library of the ancient world and the oldest of all known libraries. It was compiled over 25 years and also served as the state archive.

Books were kept in the library in strict order. At the bottom of each plate was the full name of the book, and next to it was the page number. In addition, in many tablets, each last line of the previous page was repeated at the beginning of the next.

There was also a catalog in the library in which the name, the number of lines, and the branch of knowledge — the department to which the book belonged — were recorded. Finding the right book was easy: a small clay tag with the name of the department was attached to each shelf — as is done in modern libraries.

The press stamps were also stored in the library, with one click of which they reproduced the whole “page” – one side of the clay tablet – for making a large number of copies from any circular or decree. Stamps were also used not only for “printing” books but also for obtaining prints on glazed facing bricks, printing cylinders with complex patterns.

On special tablets, sealed with the Assyrian royal seal, it was written: “Let those who dare to take away these tables, let Ashshur and Belit punish them with their anger, and let his name and his heirs be forever forgotten in this country.”

After the death of the king, the funds were scattered in various palaces. The part of the library discovered by archaeologists consists of 25,000 clay tablets with cuneiform texts. The opening of the library in the mid-19th century was of great importance for understanding the cultures of Mesopotamia and for deciphering cuneiform writing.

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The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal is often described as the "first library," and was considered one of the largest collections of texts during its time.

It is named after the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Ashurbanipal (pronounced ah-shoor-bah-nee-pahl). Ashurbanipal ruled from 669 to 631 B.C. in the capital city of Nineveh in the Assyrian Empire, which today would span areas of northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, Turkey, and Iran. You can look at the map below to locate these countries:

During his reign, King Ashurbanipal was known to be very cruel to his enemies. However, unlike most kings of his time, King Ashurbanipal could read and write, and was knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects. The following image depicts a stone carving of King Ashurbanipal hunting on his horse (645-635 BC):

Image by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, via Wikimedia Commons, depicts an alabaster bas-relief housed in the British Museum, London. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The library is a collection of whole clay tablets and broken pieces of tablets. Altogether, the collection contains approximately 30,000 pieces. The information recorded in the tablets includes matters of law, finance, medicine, literature, and hymns to various gods. Researchers have determined that the tablets in the library were often organized according to their shape and subject matter. Some tablets, for example, were four-sided, while others were rounded in shape.

One important document discovered in the library was a copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is considered to be the earliest surviving great work of literature. Today, most of the library's tablets can be found at the British Museum in London.

Take a look at the next two images. They depict two examples of the remaining tablets from the Royal Library. Observe the shape of the tablets. Notice that the tablet in the first image is rectangular in shape, whereas the tablet in the second image is rounded:

First image by Fae, via Wikipedia, is of a clay tablet currently housed in the British Museum, London. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This next image shows a sample of an Assyrian wall carving. The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal would have contained many similar carvings.

  • Why do you think the ancient Assyrians made so many carvings?
  • Do you think the wall carvings were important? If so, why?

Share with your thoughts with your parent or teacher.

Next, continue your discovery about the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal.

In the Got It? section, you will challenge your knowledge about the library by identifying key features of the library using a fun interactive.


Ashurbanipal: The Oldest Surviving Royal Library in the World with Over 30,000 Clay Tablets - History

What is the Library of Ashurbanipal?

The ‘Library of Ashurbanipal’ is the name given to a collection of over 30,000 clay tablets and fragments inscribed with cuneiform – a type of writing used in Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq). Texts were written by pressing a reed pen into soft clay. The characteristic wedge-shaped strokes give the writing its modern name (cuneiform means simply ‘wedge-shaped’).

The tablets were discovered in the ruins of the city of Nineveh (now northern Iraq), once capital of the mighty Assyrian empire, ruled by Ashurbanipal from 669–c. 631 BC. They were excavated in a series of digs from the 1840s through to the 1930s, and form the remains of the Assyrian royal collections of scholarly literature and archives.

Nineveh was consumed by fire in around 612 BC. But while paper books are destroyed by fire, the clay tablets were in most cases baked harder, making them among the best preserved documents from thousands of years of Mesopotamian history.

Some of the tablets from the Library of Ashurbanipal on display in Room 55.

When was the Library found?

The first big discovery of Library tablets was made by the English explorer Austen Henry Layard in 1850. He relayed the exciting news given to him by his foreman Toma Shishman on his return from the desert:

The chambers I am describing appear to have been a depository for such documents [historical records and public documents]. To the height of a foot or more from the floor they were entirely filled with them some entire, but the greater part broken into fragments.

Layard’s Iraqi assistant, Hormuzd Rassam, continued excavations and in 1852 he discovered a second palace, and in it another large collection of tablets.

Watercolour depicting Layard’s team excavating at Nineveh

Why is the Library important?

Before the discovery of the Library, almost everything we knew about ancient Assyria came from stories in the Bible or classical historians. With the discovery of the Library, thousands of cuneiform texts were recovered, telling the Assyrians’ story in their own words. From these we can follow court intrigues, listen in on secret intelligence reports, follow rituals step-by-step, hear the words of hymns and prayers, and thumb through medical handbooks, as well as reading in incredible detail about the deeds of the kings.

The Library was also famous in antiquity – centuries after Ashurbanipal’s death (and Assyria’s destruction), scribes in Babylonia celebrated the compilation of the Library. Perhaps these stories inspired the great libraries of the Greek world – such as the great Library of Alexandria in Egypt.

While many tablets have been found at other sites over the last 170 years, Ashurbanipal’s tablets remain our primary source for most of what we know about Mesopotamian scholarship of the time.

Copy of a reply to Ashurbanipal’s demand for tablets, written centuries after the Library was destroyed.

Why did Ashurbanipal collect tablets?

Ashurbanipal was an extraordinary king. In his inscriptions he boasts about the breadth and depth of his learning. While other Assyrian kings led the army on far-flung campaigns, Ashurbanipal stayed at home. The walls of Ashurbanipal’s palaces were decorated with carved reliefs, including many of the King depicted with a writing stylus tucked into his belt.

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal fighting a lion with a stylus tucked into his belt. 645 BC – 635 BC.

Ashurbanipal’s father wanted the young prince to be educated because this would give him direct access to the expertise he relied on to run the empire. Assyrian scholarship was focused on understanding the will of the gods, so his Library focused on texts that interpreted omens from the gods. However, Ashurbanipal had an interest in literary books as well. Ashurbanipal still kept tablets he had written during his training, presumably for sentimental reasons. Many of the tablets in his collection bear a ‘library stamp’ of sorts—stating that they belong to his palace.

A scribal note recording that the tablet belonged to the collection of ‘Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria’.

A flood of interest

The arrival of Assyrian objects in the UK caused a sensation. One person swept up in ‘Assyromania’ was a young banknote engraver called George Smith. He visited the British Museum in his lunch breaks, and studied every book available on the subject of Assyria. In 1861 the Museum gave him a dream job. He was asked to bring order to the tablet collection and to re-join the fragments of the tablets. While sorting the fragments, he made an astonishing discovery – a story about a great flood just like the biblical story of Noah. Smith gave a public lecture on the subject, which even the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, attended.

The Daily Telegraph duly sponsored Smith to find the missing piece of his flood story in the ruins of Nineveh. Amazingly, he found a fragment that helped fill the gap, although it was actually from an even older version of the flood story.

George Smith (1840–1876), and the tablet he pieced together to reveal the story of the flood.

The present and future of the Library

Library tablets have been on display in the British Museum since their discovery. Today, you can see a selection of tablets on permanent display in Room 55 (the Later Mesopotamia Gallery), and remotely on Google Street View. A major display dedicated to the Library forms part of the BP exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria.

While we know a lot about some of the books from the Library, we know far less about the Library itself. The tablets were not found in place, so we know little about their storage. And although a lot of progress has been made in re-joining the broken fragments, it is not clear how many tablets Ashurbanipal once had. We don’t know how many scribes produced its books either. New research at the British Museum is working to shed some light on key questions about the Library.

In 2012, Ali Yassin Al-Jaboori began excavations at Nineveh on behalf of the University of Mosul, in search of more of the Library. Although interrupted by the security situation in 2014, it is hoped that excavations may resume within the next few years.

Want to know more?

Want to read the Library of Ashurbanipal? Thousands of texts are available in English translations at the Oracc portal (see the SAAo, RINAP, CMAwRo, DCCLT, CCPo projects). There you can also find Knowledge and Power in the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which offers an overview of Assyrian scribes and scholarship. A new project bringing together these and other translations of Library tablets, and giving information about the Library, will be launched at the Oracc portal this summer.

Tablets from Ashurbanipal’s Library on display in our current exhibition.

You can discover more about Ashurbanipal and his Library in the BP exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria, which is at the Museum from 8 November 2018 – 24 February 2019.

Supported by BP

Logistics partner IAG Cargo

You can discover more about Ashurbanipal and his Library in the BP exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria, which is at the Museum from 8 November 2018 – 24 February 2019.


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Ashurbanipal

Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE, also known as Assurbanipal) was the last of the great kings of Assyria. His name means "the god Ashur is creator of an heir" and he was the son of King Esarhaddon of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. In the Hebrew Tanakh (the Christian Old Testament) he is called As(e)nappar or Osnapper (Ezra 4:10), while the Greeks knew him as Sardanapolos and the Romans as Sardanapulus.

He achieved the greatest territorial expansion of the Assyrian Empire which included Babylonia, Persia, Syria, and Egypt (although Egypt was lost as a result of a revolt under the reign of the Egyptian Pharaoh Psamtik I). Ashurbanipal was a popular king who ruled his citizens fairly but was marked for his cruelty toward those whom he defeated, the best-known example being a relief depicting the defeated king with a dog chain through his jaw, being forced to live in a kennel after capture.

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He is best known for his vast library at Nineveh, which he himself considered his greatest achievement. Under Ashurbanipal's reign, the country of Elam (which had long been an unconquerable enemy of Assyria) was destroyed and Urartu, another long-time adversary, was dominated. Toward the end of his reign, however, the empire had grown too large and too difficult to properly defend. The Assyrian Empire was already crumbling toward the end of his reign and, with his death, fell apart completely.

Early Reign & Egyptian Campaigns

Esarhaddon had conquered Egypt in 671 BCE but the Egyptians had revolted soon after and driven many of the Assyrian governors from their posts. In 669 BCE Esarhaddon mobilized his troops and marched back to put down the revolt but died before he reached the Egyptian border. Prior to leaving on campaign, however, he had fortunately decided to set his affairs in order. When his father, Sennacherib, had been assassinated, Esarhaddon had been forced to fight a six-week war with his brother's factions to secure the crown. He did not want to see this same thing happen with his own heir.

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Esarhaddon's eldest son and heir, Sin-iddina-apla, had died in 672 BCE and Esarhaddon now chose his second son, Ashurbanipal, as his successor. He forced his vassal states to swear loyalty in advance to Ashurbanipal in order to avoid any revolts over the future succession. At about this same time, Esarhaddon's mother Zakutu issued the Loyalty Treaty of Naqia-Zakutu which compelled the Assyrian court and those territories under Assyrian rule, to accept and support the reign of Ashurbanipal. In order to avoid the kind of conflict he had gone through with his brothers, Esarhaddon also provided for his youngest son, Shamash-shum-ukin, by decreeing he should be king of Babylon.

Ashurbanipal succeeded Esarhaddon in 668 BCE and ordered a great coronation festival for his brother's ascension to the throne of Babylon. In his inscriptions, he writes how Shamash-shum-ukin was welcomed to Babylon “amidst rejoicing” as the statue of the great god Marduk (taken from Babylon in 689 BCE by Sennacherib, who sacked the city) was returned to the people. He elevated Babylon to its former status as a great city and refers to Shamash-shum-ukin as “my favorite brother”. Once he saw that Babylon and the southern territories of his empire were secure, he led his armies south toward Egypt to finish what his father had begun.

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Tatanami marched on Egypt and took each city on his route with minimal effort. At the capital of Memphis he engaged with the Egyptian-Assyrian forces under the command of King Necho. Although Psamtik was able to successfully repel the Nubian army, Necho was killed in the battle. The Egyptians preferred the rule of the Nubians over that of the Assyrians, however, and Psamtik was driven into hiding. In 666 BCE, word of the rebellion had reached Nineveh and Ashurbanipal returned at the head of his troops and again crushed the rebels.

The First Elam Campaign & Babylon's Revolt

Psamtik was not content to rule as an Assyrian puppet and so began to assert his independence by making deals with various Egyptian governors and courting the favor of Gyges, the king of Lydia in Anatolia. In 653 BCE, with the help of the Lydians, Psamtik drove the Assyrian troops out of Egypt and established his new capital at the city of Sais. Although news of this revolt was brought to Ashurbanipal's attention, there is no record that he returned to Egypt to do anything about it. Elam, Assyria's old enemy, was causing problems closer to home and Ashurbanipal considered that a priority.

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By the year 653 BCE, Shamash-shum-ukin had also grown tired of being Ashurbanipal's puppet king. Inscriptions from Babylon indicate that Ashurbanipal had been dictating his brother's decrees and managing his affairs. Other inscriptions indicate that Shamash-shum-ukin sent secret enjoys to the king of Elam asking for support in throwing off the Assyrian yoke. Ashurbanipal, it seems, knew nothing of his brother's schemes and was only aware that the armies of Elam were mobilizing for an assault on Babylon and, taking the offensive, he marched his army to Elam and attacked.

He defeated the Elamites and sacked their cities. According to his inscription, he killed the Elamite king Teumann and his son with his own sword: “With the encouragement of Assur, I killed them I cut off their heads in front of each other.” He then brought the heads back to Nineveh where he hung them in his garden as decoration. Since Ashurbanipal did not know his brother had invited the Elamites to Babylon, Shamash-shum-ukin continued with his rule and Ashurbanipal continued to dictate it.

Even if he had known his brother was complicit in the Elamite invasion, he would have had no time to deal with the problem. A coalition of Medes, Persians, and Cimmerians marched on Nineveh in the same year and brought their forces within reach of the walls. Ashurbanipal called upon his Scythian allies, known for their skill as cavalry, and defeated the coalition, killing the king of the Medes, Phraortes.

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Shamash-shum-ukin was no more pleased than he had been before at being his brother's puppet, however, and in 652 BCE openly rebelled. He took Assyrian villages and outposts and claimed them in the name of Babylon. When Ashurbanipal responded by marching his army to the region, Shamash-shum-ukin retreated behind the walls of Babylon where he was besieged by the Assyrian forces for the next four years.

Inscriptions from the time relate what the defenders of Babylon endured behind the walls: “They ate the flesh of their sons and daughters because of starvation.” When the city fell, those who had survived so long were cut down by the Assyrian soldiers and, Ashurbanipal writes, “The rest of those living I destroyed…and their carved-up bodies I fed to dogs, to pigs, to wolves, to eagles, to birds of the heavens, to fishes of the deep.” Shamash-shum-ukin set himself on fire in his palace in order to escape capture. Ashurbanipal then set an Assyrian government official named Kandalu on the throne of Babylon.

The 2nd Elam Campaign

At the same time Babylon fell in 648/647 BCE, Elam erupted in civil war. The king of Elam had died and now different factions fought for the throne. Ashurbanipal saw an opportunity to finally defeat his old enemy and drove his army again into Elam. The historian Susan Wise Bauer writes, “Elamite cities burned. The temples and palaces of Susa were robbed. For no better reason than vengeance, Ashurbanipal ordered the royal tombs opened and the bones of the kings bundled off into captivity” (414). When he sacked and destroyed the city of Susa in 647 BCE, he left behind a tablet which recorded his triumph over the Elamites:

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Susa, the great holy city, abode of their gods, seat of their mysteries, I conquered. I entered its palaces, I opened their treasuries where silver and gold, goods and wealth were amassed. I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt.

Anyone with even the slightest claim to the throne was captured and brought back to Nineveh as a slave. In keeping with Assyrian policy, Ashurbanipal then relocated enormous numbers of the population throughout the region and left the cities empty and the fields barren. Bauer writes:

Ashurbanipal did not rebuild after the wrecking of the country. He installed no governors, he resettled none of the devastated cities, he made no attempt to make this new province of Assyria anything more than a wasteland. Elam lay open and undefended. (414)

This would later prove to have been a mistake as the Persians slowly took over the territory which had once been Elam and proceeded to re-build and fortify the cities. In time, they would help topple the Assyrian Empire.

Ashurbanipal's Library

Following the destruction of Elam, however, the very idea that the empire would not last forever would have been considered absurd. There was no rival or near-rival to the might of the Assyrian Empire at that time. The Assyrian's ancient enemies of Urartu and Elam were both defeated and, even though Egypt had broken free, it had still been stamped with Assyrian culture. The other territories of the empire which had rebelled had been dealt with severely and brought back in line.

Ashurbanipal was a great patron of the arts and now turned his attention to these pursuits. He established his famous library of over 30,000 clay tablets at Nineveh. Among the works found in the Library of Ashurbanipal were the Enuma Elish (the Babylonian Epic of Creation) and the great epic tale of Gilgamesh, the oldest adventure story extant. It was among the tablets of Nineveh that the original Mesopotamian story of the Great Flood, which pre-dates the story in the Bible, was found in the 19th century CE and the library's discovery has since been considered one of the greatest and most important archaeological finds in history.

Ashurbanipal claimed to be able to read cuneiform script in both Akkadian and Sumerian and his collection of writings was vast. According to the historian Paul Kriwaczek, "Ashurbanipal went further than mere ability to read and claimed complete mastery of all the scribal arts" (250). In his own words, Ashurbanipal claimed:

I, Ashurbanipal, within the palace, understood the wisdom of Nabu [the god of learning]. All the art of writing of every kind. I made myself the master of them all. I read the cunning tablets of Sumer and the dark Akkadian language which is difficult to rightly use I took my pleasure in reading stones inscribed before the flood. The best of the scribal art, such works as none of the kings who went before me had ever learnt, remedies from the top of the head to the toenails, non-canonical selections, clever teachings, whatever pertains to the medical mastery of [the gods] Ninurta and Gala, I wrote on tablets, checked and collated, and deposited within my palace for perusing and reading.

Kriwaczek further notes that this is no idle boast of the king as there is actual proof that Ashurbanipal could compose in cuneiform and cites tablets which are signed by the author as "Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria". In collecting his famous library he wrote to cities and centers of learning all across Mesopotamia instructing them to send him copies of every written work ever set down in the entire region. Kriwaczek writes:

He was concerned not just to amass as large a collection as possible, but to ensure that he had copies of every important work in the Mesopotamian canon. In the letter [to the governor of Borsippa] he goes on to list prayers, incantations, and other texts, identified, as was usual in ancient times, by their first words. (251)

The immense size and scope of his library at Nineveh is testimony to how successful he was in collecting the works he requested from his subjects. Bauer comments:

As far as Ashurbanipal was concerned, his library was the abiding accomplishment of his reign: “I, Ashurbanipal, king of the universe, on whom the gods have bestowed intelligence, who has acquired penetrating acumen for the most recondite details of scholarly erudition (none of my predecessors having any comprehension of such matters), I have placed these tablets for the future in the library at Nineveh for my life and for the well-being of my soul, to sustain the foundations of my royal name.” Esarhaddon might have managed to keep Egypt, but Ashurbanipal's realm of the mind would last forever. (410-411)

Death & the Fall of the Empire

In between collecting his library, renovating Nineveh, and running the empire, Ashurbanipal continued to lead his own military campaigns. He also oversaw renovations at Babylon. By 629 BCE, he was in ill health and left Nineveh for the city of Harran to the north. He left the empire in the hands of his son Ashur-etel-ilani but this decision was challenged by the new king's twin brother, Sin-shar-ishkun and a civil war erupted.

The territories of the Assyrian Empire took advantage of this division and began to exercise more autonomy than they had been allowed previously. When Ashurbanipal died in 627 BCE the empire broke apart. As Bauer writes, “Disorder swallowed almost every part of the empire” as former vassal states declared their independence (416). Between 627 and 612 BCE, the empire steadily dissolved as Medes, Persians, Babylonians, Cimmerians, Scythians, and Chaldeans burned and sacked the Assyrian cities.

In 612 BCE, Ashur, Kalhu, and Nineveh were destroyed in the great conflagrations which swept the land. Ashurbanipal's library was buried beneath the burning walls of his palace and was lost to history for over 2,000 years. Their discovery, however, changed the way people in the modern day understood culture and the past.

Prior to the discovery of Ashurbanipal's library, the Bible was considered the oldest book in the world and the stories it contained were thought to have no precedent. Excavations in the 19th century CE by Sir Austen Henry Layard, Hormuzd Rassam, and translations made by George Smith brought to light a world which no one up until that time was aware of. Ashurbanipal's empire fell and the territories he conquered went on to be conquered by others and then by still others, but his library endured and, as he claimed himself, turned out to be his greatest accomplishment.


3 Silk Road Jewish Library

An ancient library of nearly 1,000 manuscripts was discovered in a cave in Afghanistan. Containing Hebrew, Aramaic, Persian, Judeo-Arabic, and Judeo-Persian texts, the collection belonged to a Jewish family who once lived along the Silk Road.

The texts contain poetry, personal letters, commercial records, and legal documents. The find sheds fascinating new light on the life, work, and family units of the Afghan Jewish community from the period. The documents are attributed to a Jewish family headed by patriarch Abu Ben Daniel.

The collection of documents was acquired by an Israeli antiquities dealer in 2013. Lenny Wolfe came across the ancient library as part of an investigation into the Afghan Genizah.

There was a cryptic reference to a storehouse of 300,000 Jewish manuscripts discovered in Egypt&mdashhinting at an even larger collection of ancient documents. Why this cache was buried in a cave roughly 1,000 years ago remains a mystery.


British Museum shines light on Assyrian 'king of the world'

Before the mighty empires of Egypt, Greece and Rome came Assyria and a leader who, a new exhibition at the British Museum will argue, is the “greatest king you’ve never heard of”.

The museum has announced details of the first major exhibition devoted to Ashurbanipal, a ruthless, bookish seventh-century BC despot who ruled a vast empire from his capital, Nineveh, in ancient Iraq.

“He is not forgotten for us, we know him very well, but for the general public no one has heard of Ashurbanipal,” said the exhibition’s curator, Gareth Brereton. “Very few people have heard of the Assyrian empire, Egypt gets all the press and everyone has heard of Greece and Rome but there is this whopping great place called Assyria that’s not taught in schools. People today don’t know it.”

Brereton said the Assyrian empire was the world’s first true empire and served as a template for others that followed. The exhibition will tell the story of the empire through the lens of Ashurbanipal who, with some justification, claimed to be “king of the world, king of Assyria”.

Brereton said the empire generally had a negative press as a place of luxury, extravagance and debauchery until discoveries were made in the 19th century by the British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, revealing what a truly “magnificent, innovative and interesting empire” it was.

A map of the Assyrian empire. Photograph: British Museum/PA

Ashurbanipal was a complex often misrepresented figure. He could be seen as a “psychopathic bookworm”, said Brereton. “He was a complicated character, quite unlike any Assyrian king who came before him. He was a mighty king who controlled a terrifying war machine, but he never led his troops into battle.”

Ashurbanipal preferred to stay at home in his library and was a renowned scholar who was always depicted with a stylus poking out of his belt.

The British Museum show will include examples of Assyrian treasures not normally on public display, such as stunning reliefs from Ashurbanipal’s palace that have been kept in a basement gallery decommissioned 20 years ago.

The museum also has about 30,000 clay tablets and fragments of tablets, which it will use to recreate Ashurbanipal’s great library, the oldest surviving royal library in the world.

There will be loans of exhibits – some travelling to the UK for the first time – from museums including the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin and the Vatican.

A fragment of a clay tablet. Photograph: British Museum/PA

About 200 objects will be in the show, including painted glazed bricks, enormous stone sculptures, rare wall paintings, gold and ivory furniture fittings and extravagant metalwork.

Brereton said the exhibition would also shine a light on the family dramas Ashurbanipal went through, including his intense rivalry with his elder brother, overlooked as emperor and not happy to be given Babylon to rule instead.

He said new discoveries were being made all the time about a king who should be more widely known, but the cause of his death was still a mystery. What is known is that within two decades of Ashurbanipal’s death the Assyrian empire fell apart and was “literally wiped out”, with the Babylonians setting fire to Nineveh.

The exhibition is supported by the Iraqi government, and the museum said many of the objects in the show came from archaeological sites in Iraq such as Nineveh and Nimrud, which more recently have been targeted and destroyed by Islamic State.

The final section of the show will highlight the challenges faced in protecting Iraqi cultural heritage and will showcase the work of the Iraq emergency heritage management training scheme.

I am Ashurbanipal: King of the World, King of Assyria is at the British Museum from 8 November to 24 February.


The Oldest Libraries of the Ancient World

Today my post is dedicated to all the book lovers out there ! Bibliophiles will surely know that no amount of hashish can ever match up to addiction that a book can offer. They deliver on their promise to take you on voyages even when the world is under lockdown. Bibliobibulis like me, who are constantly drunk on books, often wander through this maze of worlds contained in gigantic libraries, hearing and seeing nothing. Have you ever dreamt of waking up in the middle of world’s biggest and oldest libraries, surrounded by nothing but books ?

The idea of doing this write up popped up in head when I recently read about The Villa of the Papyri, well preserved under layers of solidified magma which erupted from Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD. It’s not the largest library of antiquity, but it’s the only Graeco-Roman library to have survived with over 1000 papyrus scrolls. Looking at its pictures, I was fascinated with the idea of Ancient libraries. Who built them ? What kinds of books did they contain ? What were the structures like ? The curiosity led me to find out more about such ancient temples of knowledge. Below is a list of some of the worlds’ oldest libraries. Hope you enjoy reading about them.

Oldest Libraries in the World

The ruins of this Royal Library of the ancient Kingdom of Ebla lie near Mardikh, Syria. It’s not operational but around 2000 clay tablets and around 4700 tablet fragments have survived. It was discovered around 1974-76 by Italian archaeologists from the University of Rome La Sapienza. Evidence suggests that these tablets were intentionally arranged and even classified subject wise. Evidence also suggests early transcription of texts into foreign languages and scripts, categorization and cataloging for easier retrieval, and arrangement by size, form and content.

Today, these tablets are held in museums in the Syrian cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and Idlib. They provide a wealth of information on Syria and Canaan in the Early Bronze Age. The content of these tablets reveal that Ebla was a major trade centre. They focused mainly on economic records, inventories recording Ebla’s commercial and political relations with other Levantine cities and logs of the city’s import and export activities. The language used is Sumerian and Eblaite (Sumerian Logograms). You can read more about Ebla here. If you wish to know more about these Sumerian Tablets, you can watch this informational video of Professor Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge. For a detailed video on the ancient kingdom of Ebla, watch this video.

Archeological evidences highlighting the existence of a rich literary legacy in Syria are suggestive of the fact that ancient Syria was an important centre of its own and not a mere bridge between Mesopotamia and Egypt. Ugarit Archives were discovered in 1929 and thousands of clay tablets were discovered. These findings revealed that there was not one but multiple libraries at that time, including two private libraries which were uncommon and mostly unheard of around that time. One of those belonged to a diplomat named Rapanu. There was a temple library and a palace library as well. The archives discovered dealt with all aspects of the city’s political, social, economic, and cultural life.

The ruins of Ugarit, today known as Ras Shamra, have managed to survive the erosions of time and fires to preserve these ancient texts, whose alphabet is today known to be the greatest contribution in the evolution of humankind. Developed around 1400 BCE, the Ugaritic alphabet consisted of 30 letters, each corresponding to sounds. Although the letters were similar to other cuneiform signs, they were unique. The Ugaritic alphabet is considered to be the first alphabet in history. Learn more about Ugaritic Alphabet here. If you wish to read more about Ugarit, you can check out this blog.

Named after Ashurbanipal, the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, this library was earlier believed to be the oldest surviving ancient library in the world. Though presently in ruins, it has managed to preserve around 30000 tablets from 7 th century BCE. The most famous text – which has remained intact – from Ashurbanipal is the Epic of Gilgamesh. This tablet is regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. English writer HG Wells calls it “the most precious source of historical material in the world.”

Discovered around 1850s, the site today lies near the city of Mosul in Iraq. However the tablets and archives are present in the British Museum. The texts were principally written in Akkadian in the cuneiform script. The tablets were often organized according to shape: four-sided tablets were for financial transactions, while round tablets recorded agricultural information. They have dealt with a wide array of subjects, including medicine, mythology, magic, science, poetry and geography. The British Museum’s collections database counts 30,943 “tablets” in the entire Nineveh library collection, and the Trustees of the Museum propose to issue an updated catalogue as part of the Ashurbanipal Library Project. You can maybe take a virtual tour of the archives from the British Museum here.

One of the best known and largest libraries of the ancient world, it’s a pity nothing survives of it today. According to some, it was a dream project of Alexander the great. who apparently was inspired by the Royal library of Ashurbanipal. Post his untimely death, his able general Ptolemy built the great centre of knowledge. According to others, the idea of a universal library in Alexandria may have been proposed by Demetrius of Phalerum, an exiled Athenian statesman living in Alexandria, to Ptolemy I. Whatever be the story behind the genesis, the Library quickly acquired many papyrus scrolls, due largely to the Ptolemaic kings’ aggressive and well-funded policies for procuring texts. It is unknown precisely how many such scrolls were housed at any given time, but estimates range from 40,000 to 400,000 at its height.

Many influential scholars worked in the library over time. Some of the notable names include : “Zenodotus of Ephesus, who worked towards standardizing the texts of the Homeric poems Aristophanes of Byzantium, who invented the system of Greek diacritics and was the first to divide poetic texts into lines Callimachus, writer of the Pinakes, considered to be the world’s first library catalogue Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who calculated the circumference of the earth within a few hundred kilometers of accuracy Apollonius of Rhodes, who composed the epic poem the Argonautica and Aristarchus of Samothrace, who produced the definitive texts of the Homeric poems as well as extensive commentaries on them.” The library flourished until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE and it was burned down and thousands of scrolls were lost. You can find out more about this ancient centre of learning here.

Constructed by members of Attalid Dynasty, this ancient library was once home to a treasure trove of approximately 200000 scrolls. Located in the temple of Greek Goddess Athena, this library matched the likes of the legendary library of Alexandria. It continued to flourish until 133 BCE when the Kingdom of Pergamon fell to the Romans and the library grew neglected. According to a legend popularized by Plutarch, Mark Antony seized the collection of 200,000 rolls and presented them as a gift to his new wife Cleopatra in 43 BC, seemingly in an effort to restock the Library of Alexandria, which had been damaged during Julius Caesar’s war in 48 BC. Wondering what’s the enmity between Romans and books !

Located in the ancient roman town of Herculaneum, this villa is named after its unique library of papyri (or scrolls), discovered in 1750. It was situated on the ancient coastline below the volcano Vesuvius with nothing to obstruct the view of the sea. It was probably owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius. According to few, Philodemus, a Syrian poet, may have been the owner. In 79 AD, with the eruption of Mt Vesuvius, the town of Herculaneum was submerged under the volcanic material from pyroclastic flows. In 1750s, during the excavation, the library was discovered and it contained over 1,800 papyrus scrolls, now carbonized by the heat of the eruption, the “Herculaneum papyri”. Many of the finds are displayed in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. The Getty Villa is a reproduction of the Villa of the Papyri. Know more about the Herculaneum papyri here.

It was a great library of the Byzantine empire. Founded by Constantius II, it was the last great library of the ancient world. He established the library to preserve the remaining works of Greek literature. The library also comprised the remains of the Library of Alexandria. After Constantius II, Emperor Valens hired calligraphers to make copies of the Greek works onto parchment, which lasted longer than papyrus. Nearly all of the Greek classics known today are from the Byzantine copies from the Imperial Library of Constantinople. Unfortunately, not much of it remains today as it was destroyed in 1204. Fall of Constantinople, failure to maintain it, several fires etc. were causes which led to its destruction. Though most of the manuscripts have been destroyed, some managed to survive and were recovered.

Located at the base of Mt Sinai, it is the oldest operational library in the world. Saint Catherine’s Monastery Library is also the oldest functioning Christian Monasteries in the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Due to its age and significance in the Christian world, the monastery’s library has the second largest collection of ancient manuscripts and codices. in terms of collection, its only second to the Vatican City. Among its thousands of ancient parchments are at least 160 palimpsests—manuscripts that bear faint scratches and flecks of ink beneath more recent writing. You can find out more about it here.

Baghdad was a great centre of learning and culture and the house of wisdom was an integral part of this cultural centre. Established during the reign of the Abbasids, it was centered around an enormous library stocked with Persian, Indian and Greek manuscripts on mathematics, astronomy, science, medicine and philosophy. The House of Wisdom stood as the Islamic world’s intellectual nerve center for several hundred years, but it later met a grim end in 1258, when the Mongols pillaged Baghdad. According to folklore, so many books were thrown into the River Tigris that its waters turned black from ink. Those interested can further watch this documentary on House of Wisdom.

This ancient is very much operational and a major tourist attraction in Morocco. Al-Qarawiyyin is often believed to be the oldest operational library in the world. It is a part of one of the oldest universities in the world which was founded by a woman named Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy Tunisian merchant. For several decades the library had been closed to public except for few scholars. However, post renovation, the Government deemed it fit to be open to public 2017 onwards. You can read more about it here and here. Checkout this video on it here.

Located in St. Walburga’s Church in the Gelderland province of Netherlands, the church is a relic in itself. The Church itself dates back to the 11th century and the librije is a 16 th century relic. The library’s interior and exterior have remained nearly unchanged. Today, much of the book collection is still chained to reading desks.

Home to a large and diverse book collection, it also features some of the finest examples of ancient handwriting. It is the only chained library to have all of the chains, rods, and locks still intact. The library is also home to a preserved antiphonary from the 13th century and features an ancient reliquary of oak.

The Laurentian library is placed in an arcade of the Medicean Basilica di San Lorenzo di Firenze. Today, it holds more than 11,000 manuscripts and nearly 5,000 books. According to its official website: “It comprises the most lasting cultural inheritance which the Medici family has passed down to the attention, care and admiration of posterity.” Read about the library’s history with the Italian banking family and Michelangelo’s involvement in its design.

The above list was mainly focused on the ancient libraries and though I have touched upon few medieval and modern establishments, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. I would surely follow up with a detailed post on some of the most beautiful modern day libraries where you can actually linger around and lose yourself among the immortalized souls.

Till then, here’s another great read about the great old treasures from some of these ancient libraries, including Codex Sinaiticus, a handwritten version of a Greek Bible, and the oldest surviving version of the complete New Testament. Happy Epeolatry, Scrollmates !!


Watch the video: مكتبة اشور بانيبال في نينوى Library of Ashurbanipal Nineveh 668 BC (August 2022).