The library of Ashurbanipal: its discovery changed our view of history

January 13, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, writing.

Ashurbanipal was as cruel and ruthless as any of his Assyrian predecessors. All of the kings who had come before had sought to strike fear into their enemies by their spectacularly horrid treatment of those who opposed them — treatment that included blinding their children and jerking them around as their tongues were impaled by hooks. Such acts were designed to induce immediate and unconditional surrender when the Assyrian army aimed itself in your direction.

Ashurbanipal, however, had a difficult quality that makes us today — more than 2,500 years after his death — remember his name while we have forgotten all who went before him.

He was curious.

He wanted to know what other people knew. He wanted to possess their secrets. If they had some magical powers to use against him, he wanted to know that. The way to do that, he decided, was to collect as many of the written records from his enemies, both real and potential, as he could and to store them in a large building or in his palace in his capital city of Ninevah.

These “documents” did not exist on paper. Rather, they were written on clay tablets that had been softened mud when they were created and had been dried to a hardened and almost permanent condition. Ashurbanipal wasn’t just interested in current documents. He wanted a tribe’s antiquities. Consequently, his “library” consisted of clay tablets that went back to the Sumerians, more than a 1,000 years before Ashurbanipal himself.

Ashurbanipal had thousands of these tablets, and they consisted of everything from crop records to magic potents to legal documents to poems and stories. 

But the Assyrian empire eventually fell to stronger enemies, and Ninevah was sacked, burned, covered by the sands of time, and forgotten.

Indeed, it would have been completely wiped from the memory slates of mankind except for a reference to it in the Old Testament prophetic book of Nahum, where the fall of Ninevah is described. It was that description that stuck in the head of a 19th century Englishman, Austen Henry Layard, who decided that he could, and would, find the spot where Ninevah existed.

In 1849 Layard found Ninevah (although confirmation that it actually was Ninevah did not come for another decade), but it was what the city contained that profoundly changed the modern view of ancient civilizations. Layard began extracting clay tablets from what became known as the Palace of King Sennacherib. Two years later, working in a different part of the city, Layard’s assistant, Hormuzd Rassam, found another quarry of clay tablets in Ashurbanipal’s palace.

All of these tablets were packed up and shipped back to the British Museum in London. Unfortunately, there are no records as to exactly where they were found, and the tablets have been irretrievably mixed up. Still, the tablets themselves are astonishing in their number (more than 30,000) and in the breadth of information they contain.

Finding the tablets was one thing. Figuring out what they were and what they meant was another. That’s next week.

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