Joshua J. Mark
published on 02 September 2009
Ashurbanipal (685-627 BCE, also known as Assurbanipal) was the last of the great kings of Assyria. His name means "the god Ashur is creator of an heir" and he was the son of King Esarhaddon of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. In the Hebrew Tanakh (the Christian Old Testament) he is called As(e)nappar or Osnapper (Ezra 4:10), while the Greeks knew him as Sardanapolos and the Romans as Sardanapulus.
Ashurbanipal succeeded his father Esarhaddon in 669 BCE. He achieved the greatest territorial expansion of the Assyrian Empire which included Babylonia, Persia, Syria, and Egypt (although Egypt was lost as a result of a revolt under the reign of the Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus I). Ashurbanipal was a popular king who ruled his citizens fairly but was marked for his cruelty toward those whom he defeated (the best known example being a relief depicting the defeated king with a dog chain through his jaw, being forced to live in a kennel after capture). When he sacked and destroyed the city of Susa in 647 BCE, he left behind a tablet which recorded his triumph over the Elamites:
Susa, the great holy city, abode of their gods, seat of their mysteries, I conquered. I entered its palaces, I opened their treasuries where silver and gold, goods and wealth were amassed... I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt.
Ashurbanipal was not only a feared warrior in battle and a just administrator but also a great patron of the arts. He established a famous library of over 30,000 clay tablets at his capital Nineveh. Among the works found in the Library of Ashurbanipal were the Enuma Elish (the Babylonian Epic of Creation) and the great epic tale of Gilgamesh, the oldest adventure story extant. Ashurbanipal claimed to be able to read cuneiform script in both Akkadian and Sumerian, and the discovery of his library was one of the greatest archaeological finds in history. According to the historian Paul Kriwaczek, "Ashurbanipal went further than mere ability to read and claimed complete mastery of all the scribal arts" (250). In his own words, Ashurbanipal claimed:
I, Ashurbanipal, within the palace, understood the wisdom of Nabu [the god of learning]. All the art of writing of every kind. I made myself the master of them all. I read the cunning tablets of Sumer and the dark Akkadian language which is difficult to rightly us; I took my pleasure in reading stones inscribed before the flood. The best of the scribal art, such works as none of the kings who went before me had ever learnt, remedies from the top of the head to the toenails, non-canonical selections, clever teachings, whatever pertains to the medical mastery of [the gods] Ninurta and Gala, I wrote on tablets, checked and collated, and deposited withing my palace for perusing and reading.
Kriwaczek further notes that this no idle boast of the king as there is actual proof that Ashurbanipal could compose in cuneiform and cites tablets which are signed by the author as "Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria". In collecting his famous library he wrote to cities and centres of learning all across Mesopotamia instructing them to send him copies of every written work ever set down in the entire region. "He was concerned not just to amass as large a collection as possible, but to ensure that he had copies of every important work in the Mesopotamian canon. In the letter [to the governor of Borsippa] he goes on to list prayers, incantations, and other texts, identified, as was usual in ancient times, by their first words" (Kriwaczek, 251). The immense size and scope of his library at Nineveh is testimony to how successful he was in amassing the works he requested from his subjects.
After his death, a power struggle ensued between his brother, his leading general, and the king of Babylonia which resulted in the fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire to the Babylonians and Medes, and subsequently the Assyrian Empire and Ashurbanipal’s magnificent library were lost to history for almost 2,000 years.
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