Assyria and the Great Library of Ashurbanipal

BBC News ran a wonderful article earlier this week entitled The men who uncovered Assyria“. The wanton destruction and barbaric inhumanity that Islamic State (IS) has demonstrated in Iraq, Syria and beyond has brought attention to not only the many innocent lives that have been lost, but indeed monuments, historic sites and invaluable treasures of human civilization equally at jeopardy from war. The BBC article outlined a wonderful timeline of the early discovery of the treasures of the the Assyrian civilization, which at its height stretched from modern-day Iraq to Turkey to Egypt. Many of those discoveries would re-align our understanding of the development of later religions (and particularly Judaism and Christianity); and open our eyes to the development of powerful and highly developed societies in the vicinity of the cradle of civilization. While many of those great treasures have been saved by museums around the globe, we are now witnessing some of the most unsolicited destruction of our historical sites in recent memory.

The Assyrian civilization can be separated roughly into three distinct periods: the old Assyrian empire; the Middle Empire, and the late Neo-Assyrian empire (which featured its most powerful and memorable king: Ashurbanipal). I wont speak to heavily to the early Assyrian empire, only to note that the Assyrian founding legend dates back to the 3rd millennium B.C. (that means 3,000 years before Christ). The late phases of the empire, the Neo-Assyrian empire, is most familiar to the student of history as it represents a time of great expansion and, indeed, the fabled Royal Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh.

Ashurbanipal ruled over his empire for 42 years (668-626 B.C.). Ashurbanipal’s Royal Library comprised of an incredible collection of cuneiform tablets that was the world’s largest collection. Many of the library’s methods for reference, collection, arrangement and cataloging were used 2,000 years before it even became standard practice in Europe. Ashurbanipal significantly expanded Sargon IIs, his great-grandfather’s, library holdings at Nineveh to include archival records but also contemporary materials of the time. The Royal Library at Nineveh was known to be one of the greatest library’s in history, and has been referenced as the first functioning library. The library collection consisted of 30,000 clay tablets, of which over 20,000 were marked, collected, cataloged, arranged and even translated.

The final years of Ashurbanipal’s rule the Assyrian empire had expanded so rapidly that it could no longer maintain its holdings and supply its army. When Ashurbanipal died in 627 B.C. his empire began to disintegrate, and his successors were unable to keep the empire together. By 612 B.C. the great city of Nineveh was sacked and burned to the ground by a coalition of forces of Babylonians, Persians, Medes, and Scythians, among numerous others. It is ironic that in the sacking of Nineveh, the burning of the city actually protected some invaluable treasures under soot and burnt clay covered by sand. That said the destruction of the Assyrian empire was so exact and complete that less than 100 years after its destruction, there were no records left describing the location of the great cities and palaces that dotted the empire. Only in the mid 19th century did British, French and other archaeologists begin to unearth the incredible riches of the Assyrian empire, and indeed remnants of the great library in Nineveh that rocked the archaeological world with the discovery of the “Flood Tablet”, the parable of Gilgamesh, and the great lamassu’s statues among others. 

While the legacy of the Assyrian empire are alive and well in the museums of London and the western world, a huge part of its treasures remain under direct threat from the ideological and morally bankrupt IS attacks in Iraq and Syria. IS has plundered pieces of antiquity on the black market to fuel their blood-filled idiocy, and we are often left to watch helplessly as vital links to civilizations that gave birth to modern-day societies are so abhorrently destroyed. We must remember how mesmerizing and wonderful it must have been for archaeologists like Austen Henry Layard and Hormuzd Rassam to have feasted their eyes on the some of the greatest treasures of antiquity, and to have played a major role in protecting them. How they must be turning in their graves this day. There is an old Assyrian adage that states: “Fear the goat from the front, the horse from the rear and man from all sides.”

Similarly in 2015 a coalition is attempting to bring and end to the murderous rampage of IS and hopefully salvage what remains of the ancient sites of Iraq and Syria. We can only hope that the future holds a more secure and protective environment for the living record of the rise of human civilizations. We owe it to ourselves to remember greatness, and try to repeat it.     

For more information on the Assyrian empire and the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, please consult the following links:

BBC Radio 4 program on the Library at Nineveh

Exhibits at the British Museum on Assyria

University of Chicago Oriental Institute images of the Lost Treasures from Iraq

The British Museum research project on the Library of Ashurbanipal

University of California Berkeley Digital Nineveh Archives

Image courtesy of the British Museum


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