Ashur-bani-pal: Palace Library


Discovery of the Palace Library of Ashur-bani-pal

In the spring of 1852 Layard was obliged to close his excavations for want of funds, and he returned to England with Rassam, leaving all the northern half of the great mound of Kuyûnjik unexcavated. He resigned his position as Director of Excavations to the Trustees of the British Museum, and Colonel (later Sir) H. C. Rawlinson, Consul-General of Baghdâd, undertook to direct any further excavations that might be possible to carry out later on. During the summer the Trustees received a further grant from Parliament for excavations in Assyria, and they dispatched Rassam to finish the exploration of Kuyûnjik, knowing that the lease of the mound of Kuyûnjik for excavation purposes which he had obtained from its owner had several years to run. When Rassam arrived at Môsul in 1853, and was collecting his men for work, he discovered that Rawlinson, who knew nothing about the lease of the mound which Rassam held, had given the French Consul, M. Place, permission to excavate the northern half of the mound, i.e., that part of it which he was most anxious to excavate for the British Museum. He protested, but in vain, and, finding that M. Place intended to hold Rawlinson to his word, devoted himself to clearing out part of the South West Palace which Layard had attacked in 1852. Meanwhile M. Place was busily occupied with the French excavations at Khorsabad, a mound which contained the ruins of the great palace of Sargon II, and had no time to open up excavations at Kuyûnjik.

In this way a year passed, and as M. Place made no sign that he was going to excavate at Kuyûnjik and Rassam’s time for returning to England was drawing near, the owner of the mound, who was anxious to get the excavations finished so that he might again graze his flocks on the mound, urged Rassam to get to work in spite of Rawlinson’s agreement with M. Place. He and Rassam made arrangements to excavate the northern part of the mound clandestinely and by night, and on 20th December, 1853, the work began. On the first night nothing of importance was found; on the second night the men uncovered a portion of a large bas-relief; and on the third night a huge mass of earth collapsed revealing a very fine bas-relief, sculptured with a scene representing Ashur-bani-pal standing in his chariot. The news of the discovery was quickly carried to all parts of the neighbour-hood, and as it was impossible to keep the diggings secret any longer, the work was continued openly and by day. The last-mentioned bas-relief was one of the series that lined the chamber, which was 50 feet long and 15 feet wide, and illustrated a royal lion hunt. This series, that is to say, all of it that the fire which destroyed the palace had spared, is now in the British Museum (see the Gallery of the Assyrian Saloon).

Whilst the workmen were clearing out the Chamber of the Lion Hunt they came across several heaps of inscribed baked clay tablets of “all shapes and sizes,” which resembled in general appearance the tablets that Layard had found in the South West Palace the year before. There were no remains with them, or near them, that suggested they had been arranged systematically and stored in the Chamber of the Lion Hunt, and it seems as if they had been brought there from another place and thrown down hastily, for nearly all of them were broken into small pieces. As some of them bore traces of having been exposed to great heat they must have been in that chamber during the burning of the palace. When the tablets were brought to England and were examined by Rawlinson, it was found from the information supplied by the colophons that they formed a part of the great Private Library of Ashur-bani-pal, which that king kept in his palace. The tablets found by Layard in 1852 and by Rassam in 1853 form the unique and magnificent collection of cuneiform tablets in the British Museum, which is now commonly known as the “Kuyûnjik Collection.” The approximate number of the inscribed baked clay tablets and fragments that have come from Kuyûnjik and are now in the British Museum is 25,073. It is impossible to over-estimate their importance and value from religious, historical and literary points of view; besides this, they have supplied the material for the decipherment of cuneiform inscriptions in the Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian languages, and form the foundation of the science of Assyriology which has been built up with such conspicuous success during the last 70 years.

Ashur-bani-pal, Book-Collector and Patron of Learning

Ashur-bani-pal (the Asnapper of Ezra iv, 10) succeeded his father Esarhaddon B.C. 668, and at a comparatively early period of his reign he seems to have devoted himself to the study of the history of his country, and to the making of a great Private Library. The tablets that have come down to us prove not only that he was as great a benefactor of the Library of the Temple of Nebo as any of his predecessors, but that he was himself an educated man, a lover of learning, and a patron of the literary folk of his day. In the introduction to his Annals as found inscribed on his great ten-sided cylinder in the British Museum he tells us how he took up his abode in the chambers of the palace from which Sennacherib and Esarhaddon had ruled the Assyrian Empire, and in describing his own education he says:

“I, Ashur-bani-pal, within it (i.e., the palace) understood the wisdom of Nebo, all the art of writing of every craftsman, of every kind, I made myself master of them all (i.e., of the various kinds of writing).”

These words suggest that Ashur-bani-pal could not only read cuneiform texts, but could write like a skilled scribe, and that he also understood all the details connected with the craft of making and baking tablets. Having determined to form a Library in his palace he set to work in a systematic manner to collect literary works. He sent scribes to ancient seats of learning, e.g., Ashur, Babylon, Cuthah, Nippur, Akkad, Erech, to make copies of the ancient works that were preserved there, and when the copies came to Nineveh he either made transcripts of them himself, or caused his scribes to do so for the Palace Library. In any case he collated the texts himself and revised them before placing them in his Library. The appearance of the tablets from his Library suggests that he established a factory in which the clay was cleaned and kneaded and made into homogeneous, well-shaped tablets, and a kiln in which they were baked, after they had been inscribed. The uniformity of the script upon them is very remarkable, and texts with mistakes in them are rarely found. How the tablets were arranged in the Library is not known, but certainly groups were catalogued, and some tablets were labelled. Groups of tablets were arranged in numbered series, with “catch lines,” the first tablet of the series giving the first line of the second tablet, the second tablet giving the first line of the third tablet, and so on.

Ashur-bani-pal was greatly interested in the literature of the Sumerians, i.e., the non-Semitic people who occupied Lower Babylonia about B.C. 3500 and later. He and his scribes made bilingual lists of signs and words and objects of all classes and kinds, all of which are of priceless value to the modern student of the Sumerian and Assyrian languages. Annexed is an extract from a List of Signs with Sumerian and Assyrian values. The signs of which the meanings are given are in the middle column; the Sumerian values are given in the column to the left, and their meanings in Assyrian in the column to the right. To many of his copies of Sumerian hymns, incantations, magical formulas, etc., Ashur-bani-pal caused interlinear translations to be added in Assyrian, and of such bilingual documents the following extract from a text relating to the Seven Evil Spirits will serve as a specimen. The 1st, 3rd, 5th, etc., lines are written in Sumerian, and the 2nd, 4th, 6th, etc., lines in Assyrian.

The tablets that belonged to Ashur-bani-pal’s private Library and those of the Temple of Nebo can be distinguished by the colophons, when these exist. Two forms of colophon for each class of the two great collections of tablets are known, one short and one long. The short colophon on the tablets of the King’s Library reads:–“Palace of Ashur-bani-pal, king of hosts, king of the country of Assyria” and that on the tablets of the Library of Nebo reads:–“[Country of ?] Ashur-bani-pal, king of hosts, king of the country of Assyria.” See on the Tablet of Astrological Omens, p. 22. The longer colophons are of considerable interest and renderings of two typical examples are here appended:-Colophon of the

Tablets of the Palace Library. (K. 4870.)

  1. Palace of Ashur-bani-pal, king of hosts, king of the country of Assyria,
  2. who trusteth in the god Ashur and the goddess Bêlit,
  3. on whom the god Nebo (Nabû) and the goddess Tasmetu
  4. have bestowed all-hearing ears
  5. and his possession of eyes that are clearsighted,
  6. and the finest results of the art of writing
  7. which, among the kings who have gone before,
  8. no one ever acquired that craft.
  9. The wisdom of Nebo [as expressed in] writing, of every kind,
  10. on tablets I wrote, collated and revised,
  11. [and] for examination and reading
  12. in my palace I placed–[I]
  13. the prince who knoweth the light of the king of the gods, Ashur.
  14. Whosoever shall carry [them] off, or his name side by side with mine
  15. shall write may Ashur and Bêlit wrathfully
  16. sweep away, and his name and his seed destroy in the land.
  1. Colophon of the Tablets of the Library of Nebo. (RM. 132.)
  2. To Nebo, beneficent son, director of the hosts of heaven and of earth,
  3. holder of the tablet of knowledge, he who hath grasped the writing reed of destinies,
  4. Lengthener of days, vivified of the dead, establisher of light for the men who are perplexed,
  5. [from] the great lord, the noble Ashur-bani-pal, the lord, the approved of the gods Ashur, Bêl and Nebo,
  6. the shepherd, the maintainer of the holy places of the great gods, establisher of their revenues,
  7. son of Esarhaddon, king of hosts, king of Assyria,
  8. grandson of Sennacherib, king of hosts, king of Assyria,
  9. for the life of his souls, length of his days, [and] well-being of his posterity,
  10. to make permanent the foundation of his royal throne, to hear his supplications,
  11. to receive his petitions, to deliver into his hands the rebellious.
  12. The wisdom of Ea, the precious priesthood, the leadership,
  13. what is composed for the contentment of the heart of the great gods,
  14. I wrote upon tablets, I collated, I revised
  15. literally according to all the tablets of the lands of Ashur and Akkad,
  16. and I placed in the Library of E-Zida, the temple of Nebo my lord, which is in Nineveh.
  17. O Nebo, lord of the hosts of heaven and of earth, look upon that Library joyfully for years (i.e., for ever).
  18. Of Ashur-bani-pal, the chief, the worshipper of thy divinity, daily the reward of the offering-
  19. his life decree, so that he may exalt thy great godhead.

The tablets from both Libraries when unbroken vary in size from 15 inches by 8 5/8 inches to 1 inch by 7/8 inch, and they are usually about 1 inch thick. In shape they are rectangular, the obverse being flat and tile reverse slightly convex. Contract tablets, letter tablets and “case” tablets are very much smaller, and resemble small pillows in shape. The principal subjects dealt with in the tablets are history, annalistic or summaries, letters, despatches, reports, oracles, prayers, contracts, deeds of sale of land, produce, cattle, slaves, agreements, dowries, bonds for interest (with impressions of seals, and fingernails, or nail marks), chronography, chronology, Canons of Eponyms, astrology (forecasts, omens, divinations, charms, spells, incantations), mythology, legends, grammar, law, geography, etc.

Author: E. A. Wallis Budge



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