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King of Assyria
668 – 627 BCE

Detail of Assubanipal (reign: 668-627 BC) on a chariot during a lion hunt. Neo-Assyrian relief depicting a lion hunt (British Museum)There were several Assyrian kings named Assur-bani-pal, also spelled Asurbanipal, Assurbanipal (most commonly), Ashurbanipal and Ashshurbanipal, but the best known was Assurbanipal IV.

Ashurbanipal, or Assurbanipal, (reigned 668 – 627 BCE), the son of Esarhaddon and Naqi’a-Zakutu, was the last great king of ancient Assyria. He is famous as one of the few kings who could himself read and write. Assyrian sculpture reached its apogee under his rule (Northern palace and south-western palace at Nineveh, battle of Ulai). The Greeks knew him as Sardanapal.

During his rule the Assyrian splendour was not only due to its military power but also to the culture and art. Ashurbanipal created alibrary at Nineveh in which he gathered all cuneiform literature available by that time.

He assembled “the first systematically collected library” at Nineveh. A library, in Oppenheim’s view, apparently, was distinct from an archive: earlier repositories of documents had accumulated passively, in the course of administrative routine. Tablets from the library of Nineveh preserve the most complete source for the Sumerian/Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. Other sets of tablets offer what is essentially a Sumerian/Akkadian dictionary. There are arcane astronomical/astrological texts. By far the largest group of tablets (almost all of which are in the British Museum, London) however, are ‘omen’ texts that taught the scribes how to recognize the significance of portents.

Assurbanipal only became crown prince in 672, when Esarhaddon’s oldest son Sin-iddina-apla died. Assurbanipal was very unpopular with the court and the priesthood. Contracts were made with leading Assyrians, members of the Royal family and foreign rulers to assure their loyalty to the crown prince. But it was only the energy of his mother Naqi’a-Zakutu that assured his ascent to the throne when Esarhaddon suddenly died during his Egyption campaign.

Ashurbanipal’s reign, like that of most Assyrian kings was marked by incessant warfare. He began by making war on his brother Shamash-shum-ukin, who had been installed as king in Babylon; Ashurbanipal conquered Babylon and destroyed it. Assurbanipal ruled with an iron hand, crushing Egyptian insurrections as well as the one his own brother led against him in Babylon. He also conquered Elam, Phoenicia, Armenia and a great part of the Arab territories, and overcame the city of Susa.

Oppenheim’s dates for Ashurbanipal (as given here) are drawn from references in the inscription of the mother of Nabonidus. Oppenheim notes the curious break in all documentation during the final decade of his rule.

The date of his death is not known with certainty, the last tablet to mention his name is a private contract from Nippur dated to 631, the 38th year of his rule. Other texts say that he ruled 42 years, that is, till 627/626).

A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: portrait of a dead civilization.

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    • 690s BCE ?: Born. There are no accounts about when he was born, so this must be estimated from his apparent age when he took power.
    • 672: Is appointed crown-prince of Assyria by his father Esarhaddon. His half-brother Shamash-shum-ukin is appointed crown-prince of Babylonia, but is supposed to act under Ashurbanipal.
    • 669: With the death of Esarhaddon, he becomes king over Assyria.
    • 668: He is forced to defeat the Egyptian King Taharqa, who had gained control over the Nile Delta. Ashurbanipal’s troops soon take back control.
    • 664- 63: The Assyrians have to invade Egypt again, to suppress the successor of Taharaa, Tanutanami. This resulted in Assyrian control over Memphis and pillage of Thebes.
    • 654: The Assyrians are driven out of Egypt, but trade continues between the two countries.
    • 652: Shamash-shum-ukin revolts against Ashurbunipal, and Shamash-shum-ukin gets help from the Babylonians, Arameans, Elamites and Arabs.
    • 648: As Ashurbanipal gets control over Babylonia, Shamash-shum-ukin commits suicide.
    • 645: The rebels are finally beaten, but Assyria is strongly weakened.
    • 640: The Assyrians sack the Elamite city of Susa.
    • 639: Elam is finally beaten, and Ashurbanipal makes 4 kings of beaten countries draw his chariot in the victory procession.
    • 627: Dies. There are however no accounts of this, and its cause.

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