What was the Library of Ashurbanipal?

The Library of Ashurbanipal is an ancient library that holds great significance in the study of the ancient Near East.

The Library of Ashurbanipal, located in ancient Nineveh, was the world’s premier learning center during the 7th century BC. Housing thousands of cuneiform tablets, it provides invaluable insights into Mesopotamian history, culture, and literature.

Here’s a brief history and some major facts about it:

Origins, Location & Purpose

The library belonged to Ashurbanipal, the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, who ruled from 668 to circa 627 BC.

The library was said to be located in Ashurbanipal’s palace in the city of Nineveh, near the modern city of Mosul in present-day Iraq.

The Mesopotamian king Ashurbanipal, who boasted of his scholarly abilities, created the library to be a repository of knowledge. He sent scribes throughout his empire to collect and copy texts, which included religious, literary, magical, medical, divinatory, and scientific content.

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


The city of Nineveh faced destruction in 612 BC when it was sacked by a coalition of Babylonians, Medes, and Scythians. The library was buried under the ruins, which ironically helped preserve its content for millennia.

Importance of the library

The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal stands as a monumental testament to human intellectual achievement and historical record-keeping. Its significance is manifold:

  • Scale and Grandeur: Counted among the most expansive collections of clay tablets ever amassed, its sheer volume speaks to the meticulousness and value the Assyrians placed on documentation and knowledge.
  • Diverse Content: The library wasn’t just vast; it was varied. From intricate incantations to expansive geographic records, poetic masterpieces to medicinal practices, and profound mythological tales, it paints a comprehensive picture of the intellectual pursuits of the time.
  • A Cultural Lens: Beyond just the Assyrians, the library offers glimpses into the broader tapestry of the ancient Near East. It showcases the confluence of ideas, the exchange of knowledge, and the shared legacies of various civilizations.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh: Housed within this library is the “Epic of Gilgamesh” – recognized as one of the earliest literary masterpieces in human history. Its narratives, themes, and characters provide invaluable insights into early human thought, beliefs, and the universality of certain human experiences.

The Epic of Gilgamesh. Image: Ancient Assyrian statue currently in the Louvre, possibly representing the figure Gilgamesh

Major Facts about the Library of Ashurbanipal

The Library of Ashurbanipal is a monumental testament to the scholarly ambitions of the Assyrian king and offers a profound window into the world of ancient Mesopotamia. Its rediscovery and ongoing study continue to enrich our understanding of this pivotal civilization.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Ancient scholars and historians did not mince words when it came to describing just how magnificent the library was. It’s said that it contained thousands of clay tablets written in cuneiform script, the writing system of ancient Mesopotamia. These tablets covered a wide range of subjects.
  • Among the library’s most famous texts is the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” one of the world’s oldest known works of literature. The version found here has provided invaluable insights into this ancient epic.
  • The ruins of Nineveh, including the remains of Ashurbanipal’s library, were rediscovered in the mid-19th century. The excavation was led by British archeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard and his assistant Hormuzd Rassam.

Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) was a British archaeologist, adventurer, and diplomat, best known for his excavations in Mesopotamia, especially those at the ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh.

  • After their discovery, many of the tablets from the library were transported to the British Museum in London, where they remain today. The deciphering of these tablets in the subsequent years led to significant advancements in the understanding of Assyrian and Sumerian cultures.
  • The library was organized with a rudimentary cataloging system. Tablets had labels indicating their content, and some even had instructions to help librarians return misplaced tablets to their correct locations.
  • While many of the texts in the library are in Akkadian (the lingua franca of the time), there are also tablets in other ancient Near Eastern languages. This point reflects the diverse range of cultures and peoples under Assyrian rule.
  • The tablets found at the site of the library provide insight not only into Mesopotamian mythology and epics but also into the daily life, economy, law, geography, and medicine of the time. There are also dictionaries and linguistic texts, revealing Ashurbanipal’s interest in scholarship and his ambition for his library to be comprehensive.

The Ashurbanipal Library Project

Established in the late 2000s, the Ashurbanipal Library Project is a noteworthy collaboration between the British Museum and the University of Mosul in Iraq.

This initiative seeks to rejuvenate and reconstruct the essence of Ashurbanipal’s library, aiming to provide comprehensive documentation through textual and visual means.

The project aspires not only to capture the vastness of this ancient treasure but also to kindle curiosity and enthusiasm among scholars and enthusiasts alike.

By making the contents of the library more accessible and providing tools for its study, the project aims to enhance our collective understanding of the ancient Near East, shedding light on its cultures, histories, and intellectual legacies.

As of 2020, the project has prioritized two main tasks. Firstly, it is dedicated to piecing together medical texts from the cataloged tablets, shedding light on ancient medical practices and knowledge. Secondly, the initiative is harnessing the scribes’ annotations found at the base of each tablet. These notations are being used to deduce the overall scale and depth of the entire tablet collection, offering insights into the library’s organizational structure and the breadth of its content.

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