A royal collection

The vast library of clay tablets owned by King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (668 - c. 630 BC) remains a find of unique importance. A combination of dedicated scholar and supremely powerful ruler, he gathered at Nineveh an unrivalled wealth of specialist knowledge accumulated over many centuries. This learning directly powered and sustained Ashurbanipal's kingship. Ashurbanipal's collection was the largest, broadest and most important library ever assembled over 3,500 years of cuneiform culture. Until the Library of Alexandria, it was the most significant library of antiquity. Almost 32,000 tablets and fragments survive. They encompass scholastic (including divinatory, magical, medical, literary and lexical texts) and administrative texts as well as local historical inscriptions. They preserve the wide sweep of traditional Mesopotamian lore as it was known at the end of the seventh century BC. The king tried to establish control over the whole range of extant traditional literature. The burning of this clay library at the sack of Nineveh in 612 BC ensured its survival for us today.

The modern discoverer of the Library, Austen Henry Layard (1853) p. 347, assessed the Library's significance: We cannot overrate their value. They furnish us with materials for the complete decipherment of the cuneiform character, for restoring the language and history of Assyria, and for enquiring into the customs, sciences, and, we may perhaps even add, literature of its people. The documents that have thus been discovered at Nineveh probably exceed all that have been afforded by the monuments of Egypt. But years must elapse before the innumerable fragments can be put together, and the inscriptions transcribed for the use of those in England and elsewhere may engage in the study of the cuneiform character. These tablets have indeed furnished us with a major proportion of the literature, learning and intellectual achievements recorded on clay in the cuneiform script. Its contents remain a gold mine for scholars in other fields and a source of fascination to the general public. Building on 160 years of scholarship, this project is making the priceless fruits of Ashurbanipal's lifetime of collecting fully and freely available.

Overviews of the Library can be found in:

Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Taylor, 'A royal collection', Ashurbanipal Library Project, The Ashurbanipal Library Project, Department of the Middle East, The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, 2019 [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/asbp/whatisthelibrary/aroyalcollection/]

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Released under a Creative Commons BY-SA license, 2013.