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Ancient Libraries: 600s BCE

Let's explore what has been described as the first library, the Library of Ashurbanipal.

British Museum Wikimedia Commons, PDUntil the 600s BCE, few libraries of note have been formally identified. However this all changes with the Library of Ashurbanipal.

When pressed for identification of the "first library", many people describe the Library of Ashurbanipal.

Along the Tigris River near the modern city of Mosul, lies Nineveh. An important trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, Sennacherib turned the town into a large city around 700BC. Then, during the rein of Ashurbanipal from 668 BCE to 627 BCE a great library was built.

A number of features make this library unique from earlier examples.

Library of Ashurbanipal
Nineveh, Assyria, Mesopotamia (now Iraq)

Ashurbanipal (Assubanipal) is credited with establishing the first systematically organized library in the ancient Near East. Containing more than 30,000 cuneiform tablets, the Library of Ashurbandipal was created for royal contemplation. In other words, it has the king's personal, professional reference collection. However priests and members of the learned class may also have used the palace library.

The image on the right above shows Assubanipal, founder of the first library.

According to his autobiography, Ashurbanipal enjoyed scholarly activities as a youth including oil divination, mathematics, reading, and writing. He also wrote "I Assurbanipal within, took care of the wisdom of Nebo, the whole of the inscribed tablets, of all the clay tablets, the whole of their mysteries and difficulties, I solved".

The Library

Plan Wikimedia Commons PDReferred to as "record rooms" or "house of the rolls", the library consisted of two small rooms (27 and 23 feet long, and 20 feet wide) in the palace of Assur-bani-pal (or Ashurbandipal).

Two colossal bas-reliefs of Dagon, the fish-god were located outside each chamber. It's possible that these panels were intended to guard the contents.

The image on the left shows a plan for the library (Care of Books, 1901).

Learn more at the British Museum.


The Collection

Researchers at the excavations identified a clear organizational scheme. The collection was sorted into general categories such as history, law, science, magic, dogma, and legends. Lists that look like they were intended for use by students were also found. However no evidence of student use was uncovered.

The archival repository contained letters and business contracts from all over the Assyrian empire. In addition to government records such as decrees, plans and historical records related to expeditions, other interesting items were included in the library. The collection includes a large selection of omen texts including Enuma Anu Enlil dealing with astronomy, weather, and atmospheric information.

The library contained an extensive collection of medical information including hundreds of drugs for the treatments of a wide range of illnesses. Interspersed with the medical information were religious references.

The Enuma Elish also know as the Epic of Creation contains seven tablets describing the creation of humans. The Akkadian version of the "Epic of Gilgamesh" telling the story of a great flood along with other well-known stories consists of 12 tablets edited by Sin-liqe-uninni between 1300BC-1000BC. The image below left shows the Deluge Tablet from the series. The library contained texts on ritual, medicine, mathematics, and astrology, in addition to government documents, letters, contracts, and other items such as lists and study guides. The middle image shows the Venus astrological forecasts and the image on the right shows a tablet of synonyms.

Gilgamesh Tablet Wikimedia Commons PDVenus Tablet Wikimedia Commons PDSynonym Tablet Wikimedia Commons PD

Acquisitions through War

Ashurbanipal collected texts from all over Mesopotamia including materials that were acquired in war. Because accession lists were maintained, it's possible to identify sources of acquisitions including large collections such as 2000 tablets acquired near the date when Babylon was controlled. Notes indicated collections such as "In all, 125 tablets" (Casson, 2001).

In 612BC the city was destroyed by fire, however the clay tablets were simply baked making them even more durable. It's unknown how many wax boards, leather scrolls, and papyri were lost.

Theft of Holdings

Although designed by and for the king, it's likely that others such as clergy and secretaries also used the library collection. According to Casson (2001, 12), "Ashurbanipal's library, it would seem, was troubled by what so many of today's libraries are - theft of holdings". Ashurbanipal threatened patrons with the wrath of god.

"Clay tablet of Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria, who trusts in Ashur and Ninlil. Your lordship is without equal, Ashur, King of the Gods! Whoever removes [the tablet], writes his name in place of my name, may Ashur and Ninlil, angered and grim, cast him down, erase his name, his seed, in the land." - (Casson, 2001, 12)

Some collections allowed borrowing and notes were include on some tablets warning readers to return tablets such as "He who fears Anu, Enlil, and Ea will return it to the owner's house the same day."

Maltreatment of Holdings

In addition to theft, tablet destruction was also a concern. Tablets included words of caution such as "He who fears Anu and Antu will take care of it [the tablet] and respect it".


Casson, Lionel (2001). Libraries of the Ancient World. Yale University.
Clark, John Willis (1901). The Care of Books. Cambridge University Press Warehouse. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=uvQ_AAAAYAAJ

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