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Library of Ashurbanipal


The Assyrian Empire was the greatest kingdom until the seventh century BC, the Assyrians called it the “King of the World.”

The greatness of the Assyrian Empire

Their world was Mesopotamia, but Assyria's possessions extended far beyond that, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, and from Egypt to the mountains of southeastern Turkey.

The Assyrians were certainly aware that there was beyond other lands, peoples, tribes, and cities, but they referred to what was outside their realms as “empty lands”: useless lands, occupied by uncivilized people who had no value to offer.

The last times of the Assyrian Empire were tumultuous, violent and even brutal, and Ashurbanipal needed to practise all his military and diplomatic talents, to hold that empire together, safe from those nameless hordes of so-called empty lands.

The origins of Ashurbanipal

Ashurbanipal was born in 685 BC to King Esarhaddon, when he was twelve or thirteen years old, Esarhaddon began preparing him to succeed him, king Ashurbanipal and his older half-brother Shamash-shum-ukin appointed crown princes, he appointed Shamash-shum-ukin to rule the city of Babylon, which was under Assyrian control, Ashurbanipal remained in the capital.

Crown Prince Ashurbanipal was trained in military and diplomatic affairs and also received lessons in history, literature, archery, hunting, and horsemanship, he mastered the teachings of the priests and scribes and learned to read Sumerian and Akkadian, perhaps through the intervention of the Queen Mother and his grandmother Naqi Zakoto, he was given heavy responsibilities in dealing with the nobility and the royal court, controlling government appointments and supervising construction projects within the nation.

Building for the library

The process of building the Assyrian library was long and complex, the king ordered his officials to seize the holdings of all the libraries of Assyria and Babylon, in this way, he obtained the library of Nabu-Zaqub-Keno, the former scribe of Sargon II and Sennacherib, which included a large collection of divination texts based on astronomical and meteorological observations.

Ashurbanipal devoted as much time as we expect from his office, sometimes he supervised the copying process himself, even making modifications according to his point of view, and this policy conflicted with the practice of writing, because it contains texts on ancient knowledge passed down by gods or sages from previous ages, temple writers were therefore comfortable not creating changes, Ashurbanipal's choice to break this need suggests that he believed himself in a place among the high group of the Seven Sages.

The nature of the library and its importance

The library, of course, is a result of the invention of writing, since the inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia were the first to invent writing, the first library must have been established in their land, specifically in Uruk, the capital of the Sumerians. This is if we assume that the library refers to any book collection, legal or commercial archive.

If we talk about the library in a sense that is close to its definition in our time, then the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal is the first library of history.

Indeed, the history of burning libraries began with their burning fourteen years after the death of Banipal by a hostile alliance.

 This indicates the importance of the library’s antiquities introducing the Assyrians, burning a library or even a book means excluding and destroying others.

Reasons for establishing and burning the library

It is known that the ancient Iraqis were fond of the idea of immortality, and this is clearly evident in the epic of Gilgamesh, the seeker of immortality, as death is a journey, as is life. Moreover, their invention of writing and the sculpture of their military victories is further evidence of their interest in the issue of immortality.

In addition to development the gods of the underworld and the idea of evil spirits to whom they attributed causing diseases.

 They also believed that the sky was an open book that a person should read, and perhaps that is why they introduced interpretations and explanations of the sun and stars.

So, it is not strange to establish a library to commemorate the achievements of the Sargon family ruling the Assyrian Empire. This is based on the will of King Esarhaddon, the father of Ashurbanipal and one of the greatest kings of ancient Assyria who defeated the Pharaoh of Egypt.

“I have placed these clay tablets of the future in the library at Nineveh for my life and the well-being of my soul, to preserve the foundations of my royal name.”

Banipal was also fond of knowledge and knowledgeable in several languages, as he claimed to have translated the tablets that survived the great flood.

He is also able to read cuneiform writing in Akkadian and Sumerian, according to historian Paul Krywaczek: “Ashurbanipal went beyond the mere ability to read and claimed complete mastery of all the arts of writing.” He even appears in sculptures on the walls of his palace with a pen in his pocket.

In his own words, Ashurbanipal claimed:

I am Ashurbanipal. Within the palace, I understood the wisdom of Nabu [God of Learning], all the arts of writing of every kind, and I made myself master of them all, I read the cunning tablets of Sumer and the black Akkadian language that is difficult to use correctly

I enjoyed reading the Inscribed Stones before the Flood, the best of the art of writing, such works as no king before me had learned, the remedies from the top of the head to the toenails, the illegal selections, the clever teachings, all that pertained to medical mastery. [The gods] Ninurta and Gala wrote on clay tablets, examined and arranged them, and deposited them inside my palace for viewing and reading.

Krywazek also believes that the tablets signed with the name “Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria” are clear evidence of Banipal’s ability to write in the Sumerian language.

Krywazek adds that Ashurbanipal was not only interested in assembling the largest possible collection, but in ensuring that he had copies of every important work in Mesopotamian law.

In his letter [to the governor of Borsippa] he proceeds to narrate the prayers, incantations and other texts, as was usual in antiquity, from .their first words

Library contents

Indeed, Ashurbanipal succeeded in collecting works from his subjects, as evidenced by the vast scope of his library, which is believed to include half a million small written tablets and about five thousand books.

Among the most important works included in the library was the oldest literary work in history: 

the original Mesopotamian story of the Great Flood, which precedes the story in the Bible (before this book was found, the Bible was considered the oldest book in the world and its stories had no precedent), the Babylonian epic of creation, and other literary monuments and records of military and legal victories.

Furthermore, the organizational structure of the library is closer to that of a library today, with clay tablets arranged in different rooms with the names of texts listed, but it was not a completely public library, perhaps because not everyone at that time knew how to read yet.

In fact, I am not exaggerating if I say that Ashurbanipal was the first to introduce the custom of having a library in his palace.

Today, no political leader's office is without one.

But because they were clay tablets, they survived and the fire may have cooked them well, but they were buried for more than 2,000 years, in the nineteenth century, through excavations in the Iraqi city of Mosul, the library was found by “Sir Austin Henry Layard, Hormizd Painter,” revealing a lot about the inhabitants of Assyria. Nearly 30,000 clay tablets were found, and they are now distributed in museums in France and Britain.

 Thus, Ashurbanipal achieved what he aspired to, and that his knowledge was stronger than his military victories.

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