In 1849, English explorer Austen Henry Layard discovered a series of clay tablets in the ruins of Nineveh. Once upon a time, Nineveh was a flourishing city and the capital of the mighty Assyrian empire.
Layard was excited about his finding. Three years later, his junior archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam unearthed even more clay tablets in the same region. A series of excavations continued and soon it revealed one of the ancient world's largest libraries. The Library of King Ashurbanipal.
The library may have served as an inspiration for the renowned Library of Alexandria, which was one of the ancient world's centers of knowledge and the birthplace of several discoveries.
Ashurbanipal was a fearsome conqueror. Under his reign from 669 to 631 B.C., the Assyrian Empire (also known as Neo-Assyrian Empire) reached its peak. He was infamous for the brutal torture of his defeated enemies.
At the same time, Ashurbanipal was a learned man. His growing appetite for knowledge exceeded his desire to conquer new lands. He wanted to have all the books of his land, by any means necessary.
So, what fueled a terrifying conqueror's insatiable curiosity?
Before we talk about Ashurbanipal's library, let's look at how the idea of a library developed.
Why did humans need libraries? Libraries were originally used to archive tax receipts and trade agreements. This makes sense because the growth in trade between people from different cultures led to the birth of writing.
Related: Brief History of Assyrians
Archaeologists found the oldest collection of documents in the Syrian city of Ebla. The collection, known as Ebla tablets, had at least 1800 full clay tablets and 4700 smaller damaged bits. They are 4500 years old and dated between 2500 and 2250 B.C.
The writings included business records, rituals, and training manuals for young scribes. Writing was a prestigious job in the ancient world, and the rulers of the time spent a lot of money on training scribes.
Hattusa, the Hittite capital, was home to the first major organized library. Located in Turkey, the library had over 25,000 Hittite texts. Today this collection is known as the Bogazkoy archive.
Among the manuscripts were royal orders, laws, religious edicts, and mythological stories. Most of the texts were written in Hittite, an extinct Anatolian language. There were also a few tablets inscribed in the Hurrian and Akkadian languages.
In the late Bronze Age, the Library of Hattusa would have been the world's largest. But soon a grand library surpassed it.
The Library of Ashurbanipal: Origins
The ancient Mesopotamians, like their counterparts in Ebla and the Hittite Empire, started libraries to keep records of business transactions. They added royal orders and holy writings to their collection.
Today, we can view a divine text from a spiritual or mythical perspective. But in ancient times, divinity and holy men played an important role in society. Diviners convinced both the rulers and the people that they could foretell the future.
Everyone saw them as knowledgeable individuals who read the stars and understood patterns of human behavior. You can say they were ancient astrologers.
Divinity was more than a mystical exercise. The ancients taught it as a subject, like chemistry or programming languages today. To ensure the safety of a city and its king, diviners trained the next generation in future prediction skills.
By the end of the third millennium B.C., divine scriptures in Sumerian and Akkadian languages were widely available in Mesopotamia. These writings had the value of a modern guidebook in any discipline.
Rulers used holy scriptures to justify their authority and gain the trust of the people. The king was a representative of a god, usually the god of the city. People believed that he was in power because of the god's favor.
The Assyrian Empire ruled over diverse peoples. Assyrians had conquered all of Mesopotamia, parts of neighboring Elam in Iran, the Levant region, and Egypt. When faced with rebellions, the Assyrians sought divine intervention. One way to do so was by keeping diviners and religious scriptures close to them.
The Assyrian king Sargon II( 722- 705 B.C.) may have built the empire's first library by collecting religious texts in his short-lived capital of Durr-Sharrukin. His grandson Esarhaddon took Sargon's quest for knowledge to a whole new level.
Scribes and religious leaders from all around the empire had to report to the scholars chosen by the king in Nineveh, the new Assyrian capital. It wasn't enough for Esarhaddon to collect texts. The reports had to be read to him daily by a trusted individual in his private gardens. We know this from a letter written by an Assyrian official to his son Ashurbanipal.
Ashurbanipal expanded on his father's solid intellectual base. But unlike Esarhaddon, Ashurbanipal had a significant advantage.
He could read.
Ashurbanipal expands his empire and his knowledge
During ancient times, only a few people knew how to read and write. That did not include the royalty.
The Assyrians sacked Babylon in 689 B.C., during King Sennacherib's reign. This created an atmosphere of distrust between the Babylonians and the Assyrians. Thus the Babylonians deliberately misinterpreted the holy texts for their Assyrian overlords.
Though Sennacherib's son Esarhaddon re-built the temple of Babylon and spent a fortune renovating the city, its priests and scholars still held a grudge against the Assyrians.
Esarhaddon knew he was being duped, but because he was illiterate, he could not identify the source of the false information. To avoid being deceived in the future, he taught his son Ashurbanipal to read.
Esarhaddon was careful in how he dealt with his subjects. Though he knew Babylonians had the largest collection of books, he requested copies rather than the original ones.
In 668 B.C. when Ashurbanipal became the king, he had no hesitation in taking valuable texts, by any means necessary. He was a brilliant military commander who had the reputation of unleashing unspeakable horrors on his enemies.
In a letter from Ashurbanipal to a man named Shadunu, the king commands that he wants to get all rare tablets and every document from the cities of Southern Mesopotamia for his library in Nineveh. Withholding any manuscript would have dire consequences.
Because Ashurbanipal was well-read, he could interpret religious writings on his own. Thus, the astrologers and scribes couldn't take him for a ride. His library had over 30,000 tablets, making it the largest library in the ancient world before the Library of Alexandria.
We can group the texts in his library into two types. The first type of document was legal and administrative paperwork. The second category comprises literary works, holy texts, medicinal, mathematical, and mythical works. In the second group, The Epic of Gilgamesh is the most well-known book.
The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk. It revolves around his friendship with Enkidu, a part animal, part human creation whom the gods send to control Gilgamesh. The story inspired a lot of popular stories and has influenced literary works all across the world, such as the Bible and the Iliad. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first book to talk about the Great Flood later mentioned in the Bible.
Most of the texts in the Library of Ashurbanipal were written in Akkadian and Babylonian. Only a few writings were written in Assyrian. The library of Ashurbanipal had a system to group books by category, as a modern library would. Law, theology, astronomy, geography, and history all had their separate sections.
Medes and Scythians sacked and destroyed Nineveh in 612. The library suffered colossal damage and was burned to the ground. But the fire baked the clay tablets.
Archaeologists believe this preserved them.
The Library of Ashurbanipal was one of the great ruler's most notable accomplishments. Although it was destroyed, some texts have been recovered and restored thanks to an international effort by archaeologists.
Since 2002, the British Museum is collaborating with the University of Mosul for a restoration project known as the Library of Ashurbanipal Project.
Their goal is to document and bring to life as much information about the Ashurbanipal's library as possible. Work has progressed in various stages, and thanks to their efforts today, we can get a glimpse of this incredible library of the ancient world.
Prior to the Library of Ashurbanipal, the Library of Hattusa had the largest collection of texts. One of the interesting documents in the library was the world's first peace treaty. If you would like to know more about the first recorded peace treaty in human history, read on.