- The Library of Ashurbanipal
- first first
- Iraq (Mosul)
The oldest known library was assembled by Ashurbanipal, King of the Assyrians, between 668 and 631 BCE. It was located in his royal palace in Nineveh (in present-day northern Iraq, near Mosul), and included some 30,000 clay tablets, inscribed with cuneiform writing. While earlier royal archives have been discovered (notably at Ebla in present-day Syria) the Library of Ashurbanipal is the first to represent a concerted effort to collect and organize literary texts that have no practical purpose to the running of a centralized state.
King Ashurbanipal was the last great king of the Assyrian Empire, who ruled from his father's death in 668 to his own death in 631. He inherited control of what was arguably the most powerful state in the world at the time, and through diplomacy and military action raised it to even greater heights. He was unusually highly educated and literate for a king, perhaps because, as he was born only third-in-line for the throne, he was originally being groomed for some sort of religious or scholarly life.
There had likely been some kind of archive at Nineveh for generations, but it underwent a major period of expansion during Ashurbanipal's reign, transforming from an administrative archive (like that found at Ebla) to a library as we would understand the term today. Ashurbanipal was a dedicated reader and collector of written works, who liked to be portrayed in official statues with both a sword and a writing stylus. In his library, he wanted to collect all written knowledge of earlier times under one roof, including texts on divination, religion, language, medicine, magic, ritual, history, poetry, folktales and myths.
In addition to commissioning an army of scribes to copy texts and create new ones, he also used his enormous power and influence to acquire texts from his vassals and neighbours. One of the surviving tablets (known as BM45642), for example, reveals that Ashurbanipal was in the habit of sending "shopping lists" to scholars in the cities under his control, demanding that they send him copies of specific texts for his collection.
The library is also notable for the evidence of careful management and organization. Each tablet contains a colophon -- what would now be called the tablet's metadata -- which records what number it is in a series, how it is to be filed and, of course, a "library stamp" establishing that it belongs to Ashurburnipal's collection. There were often multiple copies of each work, and the care that has been taken in the filing suggests that a large number of people had access to this library and made use of the texts.
The greatest treasure of the Library of Ashurbanipal is probably the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest surviving literary works. It tells the story of a mythological hero, Gilgamesh, and his battles with gods and monsters. This epic poem is thought to have been a major influence on the writers of Ancient Greece.