The other day I was walking into my apartment with a friend, excited to introduce her to the masterpiece that is Summer Heights High, when all of the sudden a name popped into my head: Assurbanipal. And I was like “Why is an Assyrian-sounding name popping into my head?” It was clearly a sign.
Assurbanipal (685 BCE– 627 BCE) was the last great emperor of the neo-Assyrian Empire. Despite his popularity amongst his own people, he was known for the brutality he showed to his enemies; he once put a dog chain through the jaw of a defeated king and forced him to live out the rest of his life in a dog kennel, and he celebrated his conquest of Elam by displaying the head of the defeated king Teumann in the port of Nineveh. However, this is not a post about Assurbanipal’s military activities and regional hegemony; this is a post about something way more awesome: his library.
Assurbanipal was a highly literate collector of texts and tablets. Though Assyrian rulers before him had begun to build a library, he was responsible for the most active and aggressive collecting; in the year 648 BCE alone he accessioned more than 2000 tablets into his collection. He sent scribes into every corner of the empire to collect texts from temples and vassal states, and he used his violent reputation to acquire texts from unwilling donors.
He collected all kinds of texts, including royal inscriptions, mythological/religious texts, legal documents, medical documents, administrative documents, grants, decrees, incantations, and so forth. Included in the library were such texts as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enuma Elish, the story of Adapa, the Epic of Atrahasis, and the Descent of Ishtar. He also collected textual commentaries.
He was not merely a collector, but he devised a standard format and script for all of the texts within his collection. Though he had the originals of the majority of the texts he collected, he had his scribes re-copy each text using a standardized cuneiform script and layout with each text ending with an identification stating that the text belonged to the “palace of Assurbanipal, king of the universe, king of Assyria.” The scribes doubled as translators when the originals were written in languages, such as Sumerian, which had died out of usage.
Nineveh was destroyed by the Babylonians, the Scythians, and the Medes in 612 BCE. They burned the palace, and instead of destroying everything as they had intended, the heat from the fire baked the clay tablets on which the majority of the texts in Assurbanipal’s library were recorded, ensuring their preservation.
According to Persian and Armenian tradition, it was Assurbanipal’s library which inspired Alexander the Great to create his own library. Though he died before he could put his plans into motion, his friend and successor Ptolemy I began work on it, and that project grew into the great Library of Alexandria. Of course, this is arguable as Alexander was active after the destruction of Nineveh, but it is possible that the memory of the library was still active in the region, or that it Alexander had access to the ruins.
Either way—and sadly unlike the Library of Alexandria—Assurbanipal’s library remained intact within the ruins of Nineveh until it was discovered at the site of Kouyunjik (located in modern Iraq) first in 1849 by Austen Henry Layard, and then in 1852 by Hormuzd Rassam (Layard’s assistant).
Unfortunately, in the nineteenth century, archaeological excavations in the Ancient Near East were conducted by wealthy young “adventurers” who were searching for Biblical sites. They tended to treat archaeological sites like their own private playgrounds, and remove artifacts as they saw fit with no record of layers, excavation order, or immediate provenance. Upon their arrival in Europe, the tablets taken from the Kouyunjik site were so thoroughly mixed up that is has proved nearly impossible to reconstruct the original order.
The majority of these texts are held in the collections of the British Museum. Information regarding ongoing work with this collection by the museum in cooperation with the University of Mosul in Iraq may be found here: The Ashurbanipal Library Project.