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

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.  

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

The Great Library of Alexandria, O. Von Corven, 19th century ( Public Domain )

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

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 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.

Tablet containing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh

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

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.

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