Ashurbanipal of Assyria was a warrior, an empire builder and a scholar. At the height of his power, he was considered the most powerful person on Earth. As the dominant force in 7th century BCE Mesopotamia–which was one of the birthplaces of civilisation–he furthered the Assyrian Empire’s reach beyond what had been achieved in the previous two millennia.

Ashurbanipal was born as the third eldest son of Esarhaddon, King of Assyria and Babylonia. As third in line, Ashurbanipal had no claim of birthright to the throne. He grew up with no chance of ascending to a position of power. However, when his eldest brother died, the future king’s situation changed immediately.

It was on the way to Egypt that his father Esarhaddon died, leading to Ashurbanipal’s ascension to the throne. He came to the throne with the empire at its height, and continued on the expansionist path of his predecessors.

Ashurbanipal, whose name means ‘The god Ashur is creator of an heir’, received an education in kingship before he inherited the throne. The focus of his studies was on scribal art and warfare. While Ashurbanipal is considered to not have been very keen on fighting, he understood that he had to be better at everything than everyone else–especially if he wanted to be accepted by foreign diplomats as well as his own officials.

Ashurbanipal was a learned scholar and was able to read any cuneiform tablet–even the old ones from ‘before the flood’. It was considered a rare skill during that time and the King could read both Sumerian and Akkadian. Ashurbanipal was also a student of mathematics and divination.

During his tutelage, he learned royal decorum: from hunting to administration to war. Ashurbanipal was known to be a tenacious martial commander. He was also a recognised intellectual and a passionate collector of texts and tablets.

Unlike his predecessors, Ashurbanipal never relied on his scribes or officials to read to him. This reduced the risk of him being manipulated by those around him. Ashurbanipal’s 38-year reign would go down in history as the longest of any Assyrian king.

He is generally remembered as the last great king of Assyria.

The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal

The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal is home to a collection of more than 30,000 clay tablets and fragments containing texts of all kinds. It has been called the most precious source of historical material of the ancient world.

Millennia after his passing, Ashurbanipal is chiefly remembered for his cultural efforts. A patron of artwork and literature, Ashurbanipal was deeply interested in the literary culture of Mesopotamia. During and throughout the course of his long reign, Ashurbanipal utilised the resources at his disposal to construct the Library of Ashurbanipal: a collection of texts and documents of various different genres.

Most of the famous sculptures of his era as well as nearly all the cuneiform tablets of the library are currently housed in the British Museum. The more than 30,000 cuneiform texts that have survived from the ancient library are a highly important source on ancient Mesopotamian language, religion, literature and science.

Comprising over 100,000 texts at its height, the Library of Ashurbanipal remained unsurpassed until the construction of the Library of Alexandria several centuries later.

7th-century BC relief depicting Ashurbanipal. Image Credit: By Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin

The Collection

In a study by Grant Frame and A.R. George entitled The Royal Libraries of Nineveh: New Evidence for King Ashurbanipal’s Tablet Collecting, it is noted that the best-preserved genres studied by the King pertained to topics such as: exorcists lore, astrology, teratology, medicine, dream omens and divination. Some of these texts are specifically known to have come from Babylonia, Nippur and Bit-Iba.

The libraries held both archival material as well as library tablets, many of which were authored before the King’s birth. A process of acquiring these documents had already been on its way before the Ashurbanipal’s ascension. The expansion of the collection was most likely the result of a more active policy that was put into place during his reign. There was a large-scale scribe copying program that occurred at Nineveh while he was in power.

Ashurbanipal is believed to have been personally interested in copying and collecting the scholarly tablets from Babylonia and Assyria not only for the royal libraries; but for use by himself and his court. While some of the manuscripts in the library were forcibly acquired, others were acquired through high compensatory benefits. Other manuscripts were borrowed, copied and then returned.

It is due to Ashurbanipal’s foresight many millennia ago that we have access to the ancient wisdom that gave birth to all of civilisation.

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