The oldest surviving royal library in the world is that of Ashurbanipal, (668 – 630 BC). It was discovered by Austen Henry Layard in 1850 and most of the 30,000 clay tablets can now be found in the British Museum.
The collection of cuneiform tablets contains approximately 1,200 distinct texts and just like a modern library, the collection was spread out into many rooms according to subject. With rooms devoted to history and government, and others to religion and magic.
Ashurbanipal was the last of the great kings of Assyria. He was a great patron of the arts, and established his famous library of clay tablets at Nineveh in northern Mesopotamia, in modern-day northern Iraq, near the city of Mosul. It was among the tablets of Nineveh that the original Mesopotamian story of the Great Flood, which predates the story in the Bible.
Ashurbanipal was a passionate collector of texts and tablets, and as an apprentice scribe, he mastered both the Akkadian and the Sumerian languages. He sent scribes into every region of the Neo-Assyrian Empire to collect ancient texts and hired scholars and scribes to copy texts, mainly from Babylonian sources.
His collection of writings was vast and there is actual proof that Ashurbanipal could compose in cuneiform because there are tablets that are signed by the author as “Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria”. In his own words, he says, “I took my pleasure in reading stones inscribed before the flood”. The immense size and scope of his library at Nineveh is testimony to how successful he was in collecting the works he requested from his subjects in all the lands he had conquered.
Ashurbanipal used war loot as a means of stocking his library. Because he was known for being cruel to his enemies, Ashurbanipal was able to use threats to gain materials from Babylonia and surrounding areas. Ashurbanipal’s intense interest in collecting divination texts was one of his driving motivations in collecting works for his library. His original motive may have been to “gain possession of rituals and incantations that were vital to maintain his royal power.”
The majority of the tablet corpus (about 6,000) included colloquial compositions in the form of legislation, foreign correspondences and engagements, aristocratic declarations, and financial matters. The remaining texts contained divinations, omens, incantations and hymns to various gods, while others were concerned with medicine, astronomy, and literature. Of all these texts in the library only ten contain expressive rhythmic literary works such as epics and myths. One of the most well known is the Epic of Gilgamesh, a masterpiece of ancient Babylonian poetry, also found in the library was the Enûma Eliš creation story, the myth of Adapa, the first man, and stories such as the Poor Man of Nippur.
The Babylonian texts of the Ashurbanipal libraries can be separated into two different groups: the literary compositions such as divination, religious, lexical, medical, mathematical and historical texts as well as epics and myths, on the one hand, and the legal documents on the other hand. The group of the legal documents covers letters, contracts and administrative texts.
The tablets were often organized according to shape: four-sided tablets were for financial transactions, while round tablets recorded agricultural information. Tablets were separated according to their contents and placed in different rooms: government, history, law, astronomy, geography, and so on. The contents were identified by colored marks or brief written descriptions, and sometimes by the “incipit,” or the first few words that began the text.
Nineveh was destroyed in 612 BC and It’s believed that during the burning of the palace, a great fire must have ravaged the library, causing the clay cuneiform tablets to become partially baked. This potentially destructive event helped preserve the tablets.
Given the range of subjects covered by the contents of Ashurbanipal’s library, this collection is of immense importance in the modern study of the ancient Near East.
The British Museum’s collections database counts 30,943 “tablets” in the entire Nineveh library collection.