One of the most important and prestigious libraries that has existed in the history of mankind is that of Alexandria. Although little is known about what happened there, we do know the influence it had on ancient times. And it is very possible that we have an idea about its origin.
Who was the founder of the ancient library?
King Ashurbanipal was in charge of creating this great enclosure with extraordinary writings, for this reason the library is named after him.
The Nineveh library was the first library in history whose works were systematically collected. Ashurbanipal had every intention of creating the greatest library in the world, and for this he ordered and sent multiple emissaries to travel the known world in search of and confiscate all the tablets of knowledge to take them to Nineveh.
the place was founded primarily for the royal familyhowever, important scholars and priests also had access.
Besides this route, the library also fed on all kinds of documents obtained as spoils of war, seizures in private homes and archives, and donations.
Then each tablet was categorized by theme and placed in a designated room. Clay markers with the title of the works inside the room were placed at each entrance to the rooms, this served as a catalog for library users.
The large library created by King Ashurbanipal was located within the palace grounds.
The collection work of the Assyrian scribes was such that Assyrian copies of some of the great milestones of Near Eastern literature have been found among the ruins of the library: the Code of Hammurabi, the Enūma Elishthe myth of Creation or the Poem of Gilgamesh, among others.
One of the most important kings in Assyrian history
During the 1850s, archaeologists found a hoard containing clay tablets. These were written in the words of a mighty king named Ashurbanipal. The monarch was the one who was responsible for raising and ruling one of the greatest empires that ever existed.
As a young man, he was trained in the temple of the Assyrian god of wisdom and writing – Nabu. He was literate and could write in cuneiform and understood other languages. Therefore, knowledge and intellectual capacity were prized by young Ashurbanipal and they demonstrated this during his reign.
Details of the life of King Ashurbanipal
Relief from the triumph of King Ashurbanipal, of ancient Nineveh. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Many acts performed during his reign are mentioned in historical documents, Ashurbanipal was not just a king, he was also a conqueror. It was he who managed to extend his command from Egypt to Iran and Asia Minor, including the lands of Lebanon and Palestine.
He conquered Egypt and Babylon, but he was also a scourge of the lands of Elamfierce adversary of the Jews and the Aramaeans. He was a prodigious and feared monarch, for their tactics of war, their cruelty, their agility and their ingenuity. In fact, it is said that he had a very powerful war machine.
the king’s name Ashurbanipal appears in the Bible as “Asenapper”, which in Assyrian means “Ashur is the creator of the heir son”. But it was much more than that, the monarch, in addition to being a warrior and conqueror of lands, was a scholar. He was commissioned to found the first library in the ancient East.
Likewise, he was interested in recover traces of languages and cultures which had been forgotten in their time. From then on, he is considered as “the precursor of the sovereigns of the Renaissance”, but also as the first enlightened king of Antiquity.
The discovery of the library of Nineveh
An archaeologist named Austen Henry Layard, had been searching Nineveh, the area now called Kuyunjik, for some time. His goal was contribute their discoveries to the collection of exotic treasures which are in the British Museum.
Austen Henry Layard and an illustration of his team digging at Nineveh.
The year 1842 was the important discovery of the library of Nineveh, specifically located in what was Sennacherib’s palace. But years later, other objects were found that belonged to the library and are of great importance for today’s history.
This is the largest and most comprehensive collection of texts assembled at this time. Its discovery shed light on our understanding of ancient Mesopotamia.
What tablets were found?
In the enclosure they found a few more 30,000 clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions. Among them were administrative documents, legal engagements, important historical accounts, financial matters and aristocratic pronouncements.
But there was also another type of writing, one of the most striking being the medical treatises which had previously been considered “magical”. In addition, some have been found literary works such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and of course, prophecies, divinations and hymns to the gods could not be missing.
Some of the Assyrian tablets from King Ashurbanipal’s library. Credit: British Museum, London.
Here are the texts included in the old library:
- Doctors: Special diseases or body parts, plants and stones to cure diseases.
- lexicons : Syllabaries and lists of archaic words, grammatical texts.
- epics: Gilgamesh, Anzu myth, creation epic, literary myths about Ashurbanipal.
- Religious: Liturgies, prayers, songs and hymns of adoration, monolingual and bilingual, knowledge of exorcists and lamentations.
- Historical: Treatises, state propaganda on Ashurbanipal and Esarhaddon, letters to kings or officials in the service of the king.
- Fortune telling: Astrology, reports of extispicy: the Neo-Assyrians told the future by investigating the entrails of sheep.
- Astronomy: Movements of planets, stars and their constellations, mainly for astrological purposes.
The importance of texts
The British Museum is where most of Ashurbanipal’s works are located. Historians and professors have mentioned that these are truly meaningful scriptureswithout them we would not know the story of the “Poor Man of Nippur”.
Some of the tablets from Ashurbanipal’s library on display at the British Museum.
The inspiration of Alexander the Great
According to ancient Persian and Armenian writings, Alexander the Great himself visited the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal when he was in Nineveh and he was fascinated when he saw this extraordinary place.
So decided to create a similar library, inspired by the library of King Ashurbanipal. Magnus wished to research the works of all the peoples he had conquered, translate them into Greek, and store them in his own large library.
But unfortunately he died while the work was not finished, so Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals and who succeeded him in Egypt, undertook the creation of the Great Library of Alexandria.
You might also be interested in: How the texts of the Library of Alexandria were obtained.
What happened to the library?
Fall of Nineveh, painting by John Martin (1829), Credit: Wikimedia Commons / むーたんじょ.
So far, there are many theories about what really happened in Ashurbanipal’s library. However, it is believed to have burned down when the city of Nineveh was destroyed in a fire in 612 BC.
Even so, most tablets remained in good condition, Since if paper books are destroyed by fire, clay tablets, in most cases, are fired at high temperatures, this could preserve them, becoming one of the best preserved documents thousands of years of Mesopotamian history.
References: ABC History / Culture.
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