The library of Nineveh was compiled by the last of the Assyrian’s greatest kings, Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC). It is recorded as preserved around 600 BC on the Biblical Timeline with World History. Ashurbanipal was one of Assyria’s most scholarly kings and boasted that he could read Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform scripts. After removing his brother Shamash-shum-ukin from the Babylonian throne, Ashurbanipal himself took over and ruled the territory. He now had access to the temple archives and after building a citadel in Nineveh, he undertook the task of building his collection of scholarly texts gathered from all over the Assyrian empire.
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After his death, his son Ashur-etel-ilani succeeded him as king and the vast Neo-Assyrian Empire started its decline. Nineveh was destroyed in 612 BC and much of its treasures was looted or destroyed by the Chaldean, Medes, Scythian, and Cimmerian armies. They burned Ashurbanipal’s palace, but this act that was meant to destroy Ashurbanipal’s legacy luckily preserved the clay tablets of his great library.
Contents of the Great Library
The Great Library of Ashurbanipal contained a large collection of administrative, scholarly, historical, medical, lexical, literary, and legal texts. Clay tablets of correspondence between officials and kings were also recovered at the site, as well as fascinating records of the Near East hemerology, incantations, rituals, and omens.
Some of the most important clay tablets that were excavated and translated include:
* Epic of Gilgamesh – an epic poem and one of the oldest surviving works of Mesopotamian literature.
* Azekah Inscription – an inscription about Sennacherib’s campaign against Hezekiah, king of Judah.
* Treaty of Esarhaddon with Ba’al of Tyre – appointment of Ba’al as ruler of Dor, Byblos, and Akko.
* Sargon II Prism A – an inscription of Sargon II’s campaigns
* Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa – an astronomical record of Babylonian king Ammisaduqa.
* Enuma Elish – ancient Babylonian epic of creation
* Poor Man of Nippur – an Akkadian story
Ashurbanipal’s Library Unearthed
Interest in Assyrian culture was revived thousands of years later in Europe. In 1820, Englishman Claudius Rich of the East India Company in Baghdad made initial surveys in Nineveh, and the small collection of tablets he recovered were later sold to the British Museum by his widow.
Paul Emile Botta, a French doctor, and naturalist, was appointed consul at Mosul. He found little in the area of Koyunjik (Nineveh) so he went to Khorsabad (Dur-Sharukkin) where he found Sargon’s palace. The reliefs and cuneiform inscriptions he recovered in Dur-Sharukkin were sent to France in 1847 and are now housed in the Louvre Museum.
Austen Henry Layard, an English art historian who lived and traveled in the Middle East, was sent by the British ambassador in Constantinople to further explore Assyria. This project was financed by the British ambassador, and he made excavations in Koyunjik and Nimrud between 1845 and 1851. In 1850, his worker Toma Shishman found the library tablets in Rooms 40 and 41 while Layard was away.
Hormuzd Rassam, a native Assyrian, who worked with Austen Henry Layard during his first and second expeditions, continued the work of the Englishman in 1852 to 1854. He discovered a large group of clay tablets from the library in the north palace in Koyunjik. The clay tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Sumerian flood story were among those Hormuzd Rassam recovered.
Later archeologists such as Reginald Campbell Thompson made important discoveries in Nineveh during the 1920s and 1930s. Further excavations were made by Iraqi crews from the University of Mosul and British teams between the 1950s and 1980s.
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