Frequently Asked Questions about the Library of Ashurbanipal

The Library of Ashurbanipal, located in ancient Nineveh, is the oldest known library, housing thousands of cuneiform tablets from the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal’s reign.

Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about the royal library and its builder:

When was it built?

It’s generally accepted that the library was built during the reign of the great Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal. This would mean that it built between 668 and 627. As a result, library has sometimes been described as the ‘first library’ in the world, or the ‘oldest surviving royal library in the world’.

Who was Ashurbanipal?

Ashurbanipal, also known as Assurbanipal, was an Assyrian king who reigned from 668 to about 627 BC. He is often regarded as the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Unlike many rulers of his time, Ashurbanipal was well-educated and could read and write in both Akkadian and Sumerian, the major languages of cuneiform texts of his era. He frequently boasted about his scholarly skills, which was uncommon for monarchs of the time.

Despite his scholarly inclinations, Ashurbanipal was also a formidable warrior and expanded the Assyrian Empire to its territorial zenith. He is particularly known for his brutal campaigns against Elam and Babylon and his suppression of various revolts.

Also, this Assyrian king was a significant patron of the arts and sciences, commissioning various works and promoting cultural activities during his reign.

Ashurbanipal, whose name translates to “the god Ashur is creator of an heir,” is celebrated as the final notable king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. His reign lasted from around 668 BC to 627 BC. Under his leadership, the empire witnessed its pinnacle in territorial growth, with dominions stretching from Babylon and Persia in the east to Syria and Egypt in the west. Image: Ashurbanipal depicted as a builder of temples, restorer of the shrine of Ea in the Temple of Marduk in Babylon, 668–655 BC. British Museum

In which ancient city was the Library of Ashurbanipal located?

The Library of Ashurbanipal was located in the ancient city of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire and one of the most significant cities of ancient Mesopotamia. It is situated on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, near the modern city of Mosul in present-day northern Iraq.

What were the types of texts and subjects contained in the library?

The Library of Ashurbanipal boasted a vast collection of texts, reflecting the wide-ranging interests of Ashurbanipal himself as well as the diverse intellectual and cultural life of the time. The tablets covered a multitude of subjects.

One of the most famous texts from the library is the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” an ancient Mesopotamian poem that is among the earliest known works of literary fiction.

It must be noted that apart from the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” other literary works, proverbs, and poems were part of the library’s collection.

The library also contained rituals and religious texts. These included incantations, prayers, hymns, and descriptions of religious ceremonies, providing insights into the spiritual and ritualistic practices of the Assyrians and Sumerians.

Excavations of the ruins of the library have revealed that a large part of the library was dedicated to omen texts, which were used to interpret signs from the gods. These could be based on anything from the flight of birds to the appearance of the liver in a sacrificed animal.

Other texts that the library contained include medical texts, legal codes and decrees, historical chronicles, and scientific texts ranging from mathematics to astronomy.

How did the library contribute to our understanding of the “Epic of Gilgamesh”?

The most complete versions of the “Epic of Gilgamesh” were discovered in the Library of Ashurbanipal. Without these tablets, our knowledge of the epic would be fragmented and less coherent.

Our understanding of the story was also enhanced by the fact that the library housed several versions of the “Epic of Gilgamesh”. This provided scholars with the ability to study variations and the evolution of the text over time.

Also, the vast collection of other texts in the library, ranging from religious rituals to historical chronicles, helps to contextualize the “Epic of Gilgamesh” within the broader cultural, religious, and social milieu of ancient Mesopotamia. This is crucial for understanding certain references, metaphors, and themes in the epic.

The presence of lexical lists and dictionaries in the library assisted modern scholars in deciphering cuneiform and translating Akkadian and Sumerian, which in turn facilitated the translation of the “Epic of Gilgamesh.”

What writing system was primarily used for the tablets in the library?

The primary writing system used for the tablets in the Library of Ashurbanipal was cuneiform. Cuneiform is one of the earliest known systems of writing and originated with the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia around 3200 BC. The name “cuneiform” comes from the Latin word “cuneus,” which means “wedge,” reflecting the wedge-shaped marks made by the stylus on clay tablets.

Cuneiform was used to write several languages over the course of its long history, but in the context of the Library of Ashurbanipal, it was primarily used to inscribe texts in Akkadian, the lingua franca of Mesopotamia during the Assyrian period. Akkadian itself has two main dialects: Assyrian and Babylonian. The library’s texts would have been predominantly in the Assyrian dialect, given its location in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh.

However, since Ashurbanipal collected texts from various regions of his empire, there might have been tablets in other languages and dialects, but Akkadian written in cuneiform was the predominant combination.

Who rediscovered the library, and in which century did the rediscovery occur?

The Library of Ashurbanipal was rediscovered by the British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard. The rediscovery took place in the mid-19th century during Layard’s excavations at the site of ancient Nineveh, near the modern city of Mosul in Iraq.

Layard’s initial excavations at Nineveh began in 1845, and the discoveries there, including those from the Library of Ashurbanipal, were significant in the field of Assyriology and provided invaluable insights into ancient Mesopotamian culture and history.

Why did Ashurbanipal establish a royal library?

As Ashurbanipal had a deep appreciation for the knowledge of past generations, he proceeded to establish a library. He hoped that the library would help safeguard the wisdom of the ancients for future generations.

By collecting works from all over the empire and beyond, Ashurbanipal demonstrated the vastness and superiority of Assyrian culture and civilization. It was also a way of centralizing knowledge, showcasing the intellectual dominance of Assyria.

Historians also like to cite how the library was used by Ashurbanipal in standardizing religious, scientific, and literary texts, which helped consolidate both political and religious control throughout the empire.

When were the ruins of the library discovered?

The library was discovered by archaeologists who were excavating at the site of Nineveh, today known as Kuyunjik. The excavations, which began in the 1850s, were led by British archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard.

As this was the imperial capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire during the reign of Ashurbanipal, the library has been attributed to this ruler.

How many clay tablets does the Library of Ashurbanipal have?

The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal is a vast repository of ancient knowledge, consisting of more than 30,000 pieces, which are primarily clay tablets and some broken fragments. These tablets are inscribed using cuneiform, an early wedge-shaped writing system.

The diversity of the library’s content is astounding. It houses not just government documents, which offer insights into the administration and governance of the time, but also an array of literary compositions. Furthermore, the collection includes technical manuals or guides, showcasing the advanced skills and expertise of the ancient Mesopotamians in various fields.

The library housed lexical lists and dictionaries that were vital for scribes to learn and maintain knowledge of the cuneiform writing system, especially given the complexity of Akkadian and Sumerian languages.

How did Ashurbanipal come to have deep love for scholarly endeavors?

As Ashurbanipal had an older brother, he was not expected to succeed his father to the throne. This position outside of direct succession afforded him the rare opportunity to delve into academic and intellectual interests, rather than focusing solely on governance and military training.

Consequently, Ashurbanipal acquired an array of skills, becoming literate in an era when most rulers were not. He mastered several subjects, among them mathematics and the esoteric art of oil divination.

Upon the death of his elder brother, Ashurbanipal was designated successor to his father. And once he eventually ascended to the throne, possibly influenced by his profound appreciation for learning and understanding its value, he commissioned the construction of a royal library.

This endeavor of his was pursued after ensuring the stability and consolidation of his empire. In the nutshell, the Assyrian ruler’s library indicates just how much importance he placed on knowledge as a cornerstone of a thriving civilization.

How Ashurbanipal’s library inspired Alexander the Great

According to certain traditions from Old Persian and Armenian sources, when Alexander the Great visited Nineveh, he came across the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal.

Profoundly inspired by the vast collection of knowledge, the Macedonian king and conqueror envisioned a monumental library of his own, where works from the diverse cultures he had conquered would be gathered, translated into Greek, and preserved for posterity.

Although Alexander’s life was cut short, preventing him from realizing this grand vision, the torch was passed to one of his trusted generals, Ptolemy (later Ptolemy I Soter). And upon inheriting control over Egypt after Alexander’s death, Ptolemy initiated the establishment of what would become one of the ancient world’s most famed centers of learning: the Great Library of Alexandria.

Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal had a genuine personal interest in scholarship. His library wasn’t just a collection of texts but also an academic institution where scribes copied texts, translated, and even composed new ones. He often mentioned his love for learning and how he was taught the scribal arts alongside the more traditional royal pursuits of archery and horsemanship.

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