Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ashurbanipal's Royal Library of Nineveh

The Neo Assyrian Empire was the prominent power in Mesopotamia during the early part of the 1st millennium BCE. From a fallen people, the strong and brutal rulers of Assyria revived their former glory and achieved a golden age. Although their military capabilities were well-known, the Assyrians were also intellects. Assyrian kings had the tradition of collecting clay tablets for their palace libraries. And the most well-known of this kings was King Ashurbanipal II.

Mesopotamia saw the appearance of one of the world’s first writing system. The cuneiform was a system of writing created by the Sumerian during about 3000 BCE. However, paper was not yet invented. Papyrus also was not yet also in existent. The only medium for writing were tablets made of clay. Later on, by the time of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, clay tablets were robust enough to survive for ages. With the advent of clay tablets and cuneiform, records and discoveries could be enshrined and kept for future generations to know, use, and develop. Clay tablets served as the first books of mankind.

Knowledge was power. Kings of the ancient world, especially in Mesopotamia, realized it. Many of the early Assyrian Kings collected their own small pieces of clay tablets. Tiglath-Pileser I (r. 1115 – 1076 BCE) established a small library in Ashur during his reign. But the collection of clay tablets and creation of the earliest libraries did not materialized until the time of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

The libraries of the Neo-Assyrian Empire was characterized as one of the best of the ancient world could offer. Their collections were wide. They also developed a system of storage. Cataloging was also practiced. The best part of it, not just Kings but also scholars, and even the literate members of the public were allowed to access the libraries.

The brutal usurper King Sargon II had a palace library in Khorsabad. His collection composed of clay tablets, some of which dated as far back as the reign of King Sargon the Great of the Akkadian Empire. His successors, Sennacherib and Esarhaddon, also collected clay tablets and placed it into their own libraries.

But the most acclaimed of all Assyrian libraries was the one created by the last great ruler of the Assyrian Empire – Ashurbanipal II. Ashurbanipal was known as a brutal and effective military commander. He was also a good administrator. But beneath his iron fist laid an intellectual mind. Back when he was young, he was trained at the temple of the Assyrian god of wisdom and writing – Nabu. He was literate and knew how to write cuneiform and understood other languages. Hence, knowledge and intellectual capacity was cherished by the young Ashurbanipal and showed it during his reign.  At his capital, Nineveh, Ling Ashurbanipal ordered all clay tablet collection from the major Assyrian cities of Calah and Ashur to be transferred in his palace and the temple of Nadu. There, the setting up of the royal library began.

The royal library of Ashurbanipal was one, if not, the largest well-organized library in the Assyrian history. Besides the gathered royal tablets from other libraries, Ashurbanipal sent agents across his empire and even beyond to collect many tablets. All in all, his royal library in Nineveh had about 30,000 clay tablets. The gathered clay tablets offered wide variety of topics. Each tablet were then categorized by subject, and each subject were placed a designated room. In every entrance of the rooms, clay markers with the title of works inside the room were placed. It served as a catalog for users of the library. The largest collection in royal library of Nineveh were about omens. Examples of which included astrological omens or enuma anu elil, teratological omens or izbu, terrestrial omens or shumma alu ina mele shakin, and dream omens or ume tabutu. There were also other religious text available in the library, such as prayers, ritual guides, horoscopes, and even exorcist formulas. There also topics about history, governance, law, geography, business and commerce, sciences, and also literature. Much credit to the library of Ashurbanipal, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Creation Story of the Babylonians survived to this day.

The clay tablets of the library were well kept and identified. The clay tablets were placed in a jar. The jar had identification which detailed the place of the jar, its shelf, and the room where it was located.

Most of the time, scribes worked in Ashurbanipal’s library. They catalog the clay tablets. They wrote bibliographic essays. Also, they translated works to the Assyrian language. They also served as conservationist. If a tablet was in a terrible condition, they recopied it in order to preserve its contents. But the scribes did not have the monopoly of the library. The King read mostly as well. Scholars, priest, and literate commoners were allowed to use the royal library of Nineveh.

In 626 BCE, however, the patron of the royal library, Ashurbanipal passed away. After his reign, turmoil followed. By 612 BCE, a coalition force of Medes and Babylonian descended upon Nineveh. The walls of the royal library fell on the clay tablets and buried it for a long time. It was until the 19th century that a British archaeological expedition unearthed the remains of Ashurbanipal’s library and uncovered shards of clay tablets – the remains of the royal library of Nineveh.

The Royal Library of King Ashurbanipal II in Nineveh was one of the greatest contributions of the Assyrians to the world. It allowed the preservation of many ancient works for the present to know. It was also a step in the development of a library system that we used to this day. Beyond contributions, the royal library was a testament to the other side of the Assyrians. They were well-known warriors with unprecedented brutality and cruelty. But they have a side that was intellectual. They had the thirst for knowledge. Their conquests allowed them to collect and to know more about the history and traditions of other people. But in a time of rapid shift in geo-politics and the lack of a strong ruler, the royal library ended as the Neo-Assyrian Empire fell. 

See also:

Davis, D. & W. Wiegand (ed.). Encyclopedia of Library History. New York: Garlan, 1994.

Harris, M. History of Libraries of the Western World. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc, 1995.

Kilgour, F. The Evolution of the Book. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.  

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