The royal library of king Ashurbanipal

The Library of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal 666-627 BC, the sixth king of the Second Assyrian Empire, King of Babylon and Assyria, is described as the oldest library on the face of earth.

part of the library of Asurbanipal at the British museum

The library was discovered by the Iraqi Chaldean Hormuzd Rassam in 1851 in Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, during excavations in the Kouyunjik region. Its contents were later transferred under the supervision of Sir Austen Henry Layard to the British Museum in London.

The library included some 30,000 cuneiform tablets covering a total of 1200 subjects, including medicine, astronomy, mathematics, irrigation and engineering techniques, history, religious texts and literary texts.All indicate the purpose for which it was collected, namely the service of the state and the priests, the perpetuation of the fame of its founder and the development of scientific knowledge.

In his book “The History of Libraries”, the German historian Alfred Hessel says that Ashurbanipal was a very well educated person and was proud to be able read the cuneiform texts dating back to the pre-flood era. He was fluent in Akkadian, Sumerian, Babylonian, Aramaic and Elamite as well as Assyrian. He began to collect the literature of Babylon and Assyria in a systematic way, where he issued royal orders to collect rare manuscripts from all parts of the Assyrian empire and buy them at any price to be included in his library.

A number of scribes and a staff of specialists were working on copying and arranging the collected tablets relative to their subjects. Also, the tablets associated with or complemented each other were written in a particular pattern in a series method, where the order of each of them is shown by repeating the last line of it at the beginning of the next tablet and the first line is the repetition of the last line of the tablet that precedes it. There were also tablets bearing the titles of the series. The Library also had indexes that were easy to use.

King Esarhaddon 680-668 BC, the father of Ashurbanipal, was the real founder of this library. There are documents found in the library dating back to the reign of his father King Sennacherib 704-681 BC, and his grandfather King Sargon II 721-705 BC.

King Ashurbanipal kept the cuneiform tablets collected in private rooms on the second floor of two different buildings in Nineveh, the Northern Palace and the Southwest Palace. Other preserved tablets were found in the temple of Goddess Ishtar, the goddess of war, and the temple of god Nabu, the Assyrian god of wisdom. This whole collection included 30 thousand manuscripts, ranging from clay tablets to inscriptions on quadrilateral stones, many cylindrical seals, inscriptions on waxed wood and writings on papyrus and animal skins.

In 612 BC, the Nineveh libraries were looted and its palaces were burned when they fell into the hands of the Medes-Chaldean alliance, which overthrew the Assyrian Empire. The tablets collected by King Ashurbanipal remained under the rubble of the palaces, where the archaeologists who has been excavating at the beginning of the 20th century found piles of clay and wooden slabs under the collapsed ceilings of up to 30 cm deep.

The topics of these writings varied to:

1. Medical

Containing a description of the symptoms of diseases and organs of the human body and lists of the names of plants and drugs used to treat them.

2. Linguistic

It includes bilingual dictionaries and texts related to the Assyrian, Babylonian and Akkadian languages

3. Religious

It includes prayers, recitations, and bilingual and monolingual religious songs

4. Epics and legends

Such as the full text of the timeless Epic of Gilgamesh, the myth of the Babylonian creation and the legend of the God Enzo.

5. Historical

Treaties, agreements and copies of letters between the kings of Assyria and the rulers of neighboring kingdoms.

6. Astrology

Tablets for reading the horoscope through the dissection of animals and their reasoning.

7. Astronomy

Tablets describe precise observation of the movement of planets and stars.

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