Assurbanipal's Library

The magnificently monumental edifices of Nineveh PGP  were amongst the first Assyrian remains to be discovered by European scholars in the mid-nineteenth century, decades before the development of professional stratigraphic archaeology. Thus the 28,000-odd cuneiform tablets found in the royal citadel of Nineveh, which are now housed in the British Museum, rarely have good archaeological context (although modern museum curators have gleaned much useful data from their Victorian predecessors' documentation and correspondence). Collectively, the Nineveh tablets are rather loosely known as Assurbanipal's Library, after the monarch who ruled Nineveh in 668–c.630 BC and who had his mark of ownership inscribed on many of them. Apart from letters, administrative documents, and legal records, the palace complex contained literary and historical works, religious rituals and prayers, medical collections, and long compilations of terrestrial and celestial omens, with complex commentaries on them.

Series and colophons

This tablet, telling the myth of the goddess Ishtar's visit to her sister, the underworld goddess Ereshkigal, ends with a colophon describing it as the property of Assurbanipal, 'king of the world, king of the land of Ashur'; from Assurbanipal's Library in Nineveh (BM K 162). Photo © The British Museum. View large image on the British Museum's website.

The library tablets show unequivocal evidence for several levels of textual standardization, from spellings up to the categorization of texts into generic corpora associated with named scholarly disciplines. For the Assyrian scholars, the textual stability of the literate tradition was enmeshed with the theological hermeneutics TT  of cuneiform writing. Such works were considered to be the writings of gods or divinely inspired sages TT , with multiple layers of meanings embedded within the multiple possible interpretations of every sign and word. The scholars explicated this multivalency, and also collected textual and oral variants, in learned commentaries of various kinds.

Because very long compositions—collections of omens TT , for instance, or ritual TT  series and their incantations TT —could not fit on a single tablet, they were divided into standard tablet-sized chapters. The tablets themselves often concluded with colophons, which recorded their place in the sequence and the first line of the next tablet, while separate indices of long works and their subdivisions were another means of managing multi-tablet compositions. Colophons explicitly state that tablets were "written, copied, and checked" from older originals, both tablets and writing-boards. Colophons and library records reveal two types of tablet production and acquisition: writing and inheritance by indigenous scholars who were members of prestigious courtly families close to the king; and the forced transfer of both tablets and scholars from Babylonia.

Library acquisitions

The Epic of Gilgamesh records the exploits of the legendary king of Uruk. In the chapter recorded on this tablet, the survivor of the Great Flood recounts reminisces for Gilgamesh; found in Assurbanipal's Library in Nineveh and translated by George Smith in 1872 (BM K 3375). Photo © The British Museum. View large image on the British Museum's website.

Assurbanipal was one of the few Assyrian kings to have been trained in the more intellectual scribal arts—by one Balasi PGP ,a senior royal scholar. He systematically built up the palace library holdings through a variety of means, as attested, for instance, on the colophons of tablets from the great Epic of Gilgamesh PGP  found at Nineveh. The oldest set of Gilgamesh tablets in the library was probably written several hundred years earlier; another was perhaps written for his grandfather Sennacherib PGP  and only later inscribed with Assurbanipal's mark of ownership. A third set had belonged to the famous scholar Nabu-zuqup-kena, father of Esarhaddon's chief scribe Nabu-zeru-lešir PGP  and grandfather of Assurbanipal's senior scholar Issar-šumu-ereš PGP . The colophons of a fourth set claim them to be in Assurbanipal's own hand, as do copies of many other scholarly works. None of these four sets comprises the full sequence of twelve tablets that made up the Epic; it is unclear whether this is a consequence of partial preservation and recovery or reflects actual patterns of ownership. Tradition had it that a Babylonian scholar by the name of Sin-leqi-unninni had crafted the new work from various different sources some time in the late second millennium BC. While a confident editorial hand is clearly discernible in the new Epic, almost no manuscript sources survive from the 500-year period during which the transformation was supposedly wrought that might allow further insight into the process.

Forced acquisition of the products of learning had been an important part of the Assyrian strategy for the subjugation of Babylonia throughout the 8th and 7th centuries BC, but was particularly favoured by Assurbanipal. Three long letters, known only from Babylonian apprentices' copies of several hundred years later, suggest that he ordered the temples of Babylonia to make copies of all scholarly works in their possession to send to Nineveh. One letter, supposedly from Assurbanipal himself, commands the recipient to go to Borsippa PGP  near Babylon PGP  to "search out for me" a long list of named works, "and any texts that might be needed in the palace, as many as there are, and also rare tablets that are known to you but do not exist in Assyria, and send them to me." The other two purport to be responses from Babylonian scholars to a royal command for copies of similar material. They both quote the king's command directly, and are at pains to portray themselves as obediently responsive.

Babylonian booty

The Epic of Creation told how Marduk, city god of Babylon, earned the right to rule the gods by defeating the monstrous sea Tiamat and creating the world from her body. In the Assyrian version, Marduk is replaced by Ashur; found in Assurbanipal's Library in Nineveh (BM K 3473). View large image on the British Museum's website.

Assurbanipal's younger brother Šamaš-šumu-ukin PGP  had been designated prince regent of Babylonia by their father Esarhaddon and became king on the latter's death. In 652 BC he rebelled against Assyria, claiming Babylonian independence. Assurbanipal responded by declaring war, which ended four years later in Assyrian victory. Fragmentary library acquisition records from Nineveh, dated 647 BC, detail the contents of a large number of scholarly tablets and writing-boards from various named towns and individuals in Babylonia, presumably booty or tribute, while a contemporary memo reports on the writing activities of various captive Babylonian scribes: "Ninurta-gimilli, the son of the governor of Nippur, has completed the series [of celestial omens] and been put in irons. He is assigned to Banunu in the Succession Palace PGP  and there is no work for him at present. Kudurru and Kunaya have completed the incantation series Evil Demons TT . They are at the command of Sasi." (SAA 11: 156)

Recent cataloguing in the British Museum has enumerated some 3,700 scholarly tablets from Assurbanipal's Library written in Babylonian script and dialect—about 13 percent of the entire library. Assurbanipal's obsession with Babylonian writings did not, then, completely overwhelm indigenous production, but he did view them as highly valuable cultural capital: their forced removal to Nineveh undermined Babylonian claims to the intellectual heritage of the region and thus pretensions to political hegemony, while reinforcing Assurbanipal's own self-image as guardian of Mesopotamian culture and power.

Further reading

Content last modified: 10 Jan 2017.

Eleanor Robson

Eleanor Robson, 'Assurbanipal's Library', Knowledge and Power, Higher Education Academy, 2017 []

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