The Library of Ashurbanipal - 2,600 Year-Old Mesopotamian Books

A 2600 Year Old Neo-Assyrian Library

Detail of relief depicting triumph of king Ashurbanipal, from ancient Nineveh, Iraq
Detail of relief depicting triumph of king Ashurbanipal, from ancient Nineveh, Iraq. Assyrian civilization, 7th Century BC, British Museum. DEA / G. NIMATALLAH / Getty Images

The Library of Ashurbanipal (also spelled Assurbanipal) is a set of at least 30,000 cuneiform documents written in the Akkadian and Sumerian languages, which was found in the ruins of the Assyrian city of Nineveh, the ruins of which are called Tell Kouyunjik located in Mosul, present-day Iraq. The texts, which include both literary and administrative records, were collected, for the most part, by King Ashurbanipal [ruled 668-627 BC] the sixth Neo-Assyrian king to rule over both Assyria and Babylonia; but he was following the established practice of his father Esarhaddon [r.

680-668].

The earliest Assyrian documents in the library's collection are from the reigns of Sargon II (721-705 BC) and Sennacherib (704-681 BC) who made the Nineveh the Neo-Assyrian capital. The earliest Babylonian documents are from after Sargon II ascended the Babylonian throne, in 710 BC.

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 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's Library Stacks

During Ashurbanipal's day, the library was located in the second story of two different buildings at Nineveh: the South-West Palace and the North Palace. Other cuneiform tablets were found in the Ishtar and Nabu temples, but they are not considered part of the library proper.

The library almost certainly included considerably more than 30,000 volumes, including fired clay cuneiform tablets, stone prisms, and cylinder seals, and waxed wooden writing boards called diptych. There was almost certainly parchment as well; murals on the walls of the southwest palace at Nineveh and the central palace at Nimrud both show scribes writing in Aramaic on animal or papyrus parchments.

If they were included in the library, they were lost when Nineveh was sacked.

Nineveh was conquered in 612 and the libraries were looted, and the buildings destroyed. When the buildings collapsed, the library crashed through the ceilings, and when archaeologists got to Nineveh in the early 20th century, they found broken and entire tablets and waxed wooden writing boards as much as a foot deep on the floors of the palaces. The largest intact tablets were flat and measured 9x6 inches (23x15 centimeters), the smallest ones were slightly convex and not more than 1 in (2 cm) long.

The Books

The texts themselves--from both Babylonia and Assyria--include a wide variety of documents, both administrative (legal documents like contracts), and literary, including the famous Gilgamesh myth.

  • Medical: special diseases or parts of the body, plants, and stones for the curing of diseases
  • Lexical: syllabaries and archaic word lists, grammatical texts
  • Epics: Gilgamesh, Anzu myth, the Epic of Creation, literary myths about Ashurbanipal
  • Religous: liturgies, prayers, cult songs and hymns, both monolingual and bilingual, lore from exorcists and lamentations
  • Historical: treaties, state propaganda about Ashurbanipal and Esarhaddon, letters to the kings or officials in the service of the king
  • Divination: astrology, extispicy reports--the Neo-Assyrians told the future by investigating sheep entrails
  • Astronomy: movements of the planets, stars, and their constellations, mostly for astrological (divinatory) purposes

The Ashurbanipal Library Project

Almost all of the material recovered from the library currently resides in the British Museum, mostly because the objects were found by two British archaeologists working at Nineveh in excavations funded by the BM: Austin Henry Layard between 1846-1851; and Henry Creswicke Rawlinson between 1852-1854, The pioneer Iraqi (he died in 1910 before Iraq as a nation existed) archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam working with Rawlinson is credited with the discovery of several thousands of tablets.

The Ashurbanipal Library Project was initiated in 2002 by Dr. Ali Yaseen of the University of Mosul. He planned to establish a new Institute of Cuneiform Studies in Mosul, to be dedicated to the study of the Ashurbanipal library. There a specially designed museum would hold casts of tablets, computer facilities, and a library. The British Museum promised to supply casts of their collection, and they hired Jeanette C. Fincke to reappraise the library collections.

Fincke not only reappraised and cataloged the collections, she also tried to refit and classify the remaining fragments. She began an Ashurbanipal Library database of images and translations of the tablets and fragments available on the British Museum's website today. Fincke also wrote an extensive report on her findings, upon which much of this article is based.

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