Some of the more important events in my life took place at the library: my introduction to the world of books. As a child of 5-6 years old I followed my father every saturday afternoon to the library. There was something a little inspiring and overwhelming the first time I walked into a library and I allways have kept that special feeling. I still feel the inspiration and excitement that I have enough books here to keep me entertained for life. But where did libraries start, you might ask?
Well just read on!
Forty years ago our knowledge of the great Assyrian empire and of its magnificent capital was almost wholly a blank. Vague memories had indeed survived of its power and greatness, but very little was definitely known about it. Other cities which had perished, as Palmyra, Persepolis, and Thebes, had left ruins to mark their sites and tell of their former greatness; but of this city, imperial Nineveh, not a single vestige seemed to remain, and the very place on which it had stood was only matter of conjecture. In fulfilment of prophecy, God made “an utter end of the place.” It became a “desolation.”
In the days of the Greek historian Herodotus, 400 BC, it had become a thing of the past; and when Xenophon the historian passed the place in the “Retreat of the Ten Thousand,” the very memory of its name had been lost. It was buried out of sight, and no one knew its grave. It is never again to rise from its ruins.
At length, after being lost for more than two thousand years, the city was disentombed. A little more than forty years ago the French consul at Mosul began to search the vast mounds that lay along the opposite bank of the river. The Arabs whom he employed in these excavations, to their great surprise, came upon the ruins of a building at the mound of Khorsabad, which, on further exploration, turned out to be the royal palace of Sargon, one of the Assyrian kings. They found their way into its extensive courts and chambers, and brought forth form its hidded depths many wonderful sculptures and other relics of those ancient times.
The work of exploration has been carried on almost continuously by M. Botta, Sir Henry Layard, George Smith, and others, in the mounds of Nebi-Yunus, Nimrud, Koyunjik, and Khorsabad, and a vast treasury of specimens of old Assyrian art has been exhumed. Palace after palace has been discovered, with their decorations and their sculptured slabs, revealing the life and manners of this ancient people, their arts of war and peace, the forms of their religion, the style of their architecture, and the magnificence of their monarchs. The streets of the city have been explored, the inscriptions on the bricks and tablets and sculptured figures have been read, and now the secrets of their history have been brought to light.
One of the most remarkable of recent discoveries is that of the library of King Ashurbanipal, or, as the Greek historians call him, Sardanapalos, the grandson of Sennacherib. (See Asnapper.) This library consists of about ten thousand flat bricks or tablets, all written over with Assyrian characters. They contain a record of the history, the laws, and the religion of Assyria, of the greatest value. These strange clay leaves found in the royal library form the most valuable of all the treasuries of the literature of the old world. The library contains also old Accadian documents, which are the oldest extant documents in the world, dating as far back as probably about the time of Sargon of Akkad.
The development of a library of this kind was unique and very valuable to later generations. Due to the diversity of types of works kept in Ashurbanipal’s library at Niniveh, an incredible amount of Assyrian culture can be determined. Not only do the records reveal details about the religious and political workings but also included folktales and mythological tales such as The Poor Man of Nippur and The tale of Gilgamesh. Ashurbanipal also had his scribes preserve lexicographical works on both the Sumerian and Akkadian languages. Omens were very important to the workings of the kingdom and an extensive collection of omen tablets reflects that. Over 300 tablets with 80 to 200 entries each acted as a vast reference collection that helped the king determine necessary and beneficial actions according to the omens that appeared. The texts were cataloged and annotated in a complex manner that allowed scribes to have quick access to information.
The subject-matter of the tablets included all the known branches of knowledge. Foremost among them are the philological works. The inventors of the cuneiform system of writing had spoken an agglutinative language, called Sumerian, similar to that of the Turks or Finns today; and a considerable part of the early literature had been written in this language, which to the later Semitic Babylonians and Assyrians was what Latin was to the European nations in the Middle Ages.
Astronomy occupied a prominent place in Assyrian literature, but it was largely mingled with astrology. The Babylonians were the founders of scientific astronomy; they were the first to calculate the dates of lunar and solar eclipses, and to give names to the signs of the Zodiac. Among the contents of the library of Nineveh are reports from the Royal Observatory, relating to the observation of eclipses and the like.
A knowledge of astronomy was needed for the regulation of the calendar, and the calendar was the special care of the priests, as the festivals of the gods and the payment of tithes were dependent upon it. Most of the religious texts went back to the Sumerian period and were accordingly provided with Assyrian translations. Some of them were hymns to the gods, others were the rituals used in different temples. There was, moreover, a collection of psalms, as well as numerous mythological texts.
The legal literature was considerable. The earliest law books were in Sumerian, but the great code compiled by Hammurabi, the contemporary of Abraham, was in Semitic Babylonian (see HAMMURABI). Like English law, Assyro-Babylonian law was case-made, and records of the cases decided from time to time by the judges are numerous.
Among scientific works we may class the long lists of animals, birds, fishes, plants and stones, together with geographical treatises, and the pseudo-science of omens.
Literature was largely represented, mainly in the form of poems on mythological, religious or historical subjects. Among these the most famous is the epic of the hero Gilgames in twelve books, the Babylonian account of the Deluge being introduced as an episode in the eleventh book. Another epic was the story of the great battle between the god Merodach and Tiamat, the dragon of chaos and evil, which includes the story of the creation.
Historical records are very numerous, the Assyrians being distinguished among the nations of antiquity by their historical sense. In Assyria the royal palace took the place of the Bah or Egyptian temple; and where the Babylonian or the Egyptian would have left behind him a religious record, the Assyrian adorned his walls with accounts of campaigns and the victories of their royal builders. The dates which are attached to each portion of the narrative, and the care with which the names of petty princes and states are transcribed, give a high idea of the historical precision at which the Assyrians aimed.
The library contained trading documents of various sorts, more especially contracts, deeds of sale of property and the like. Now and then we meet with the plan of a building. There were also fiscal documents relating to the taxes paid by the cities and provinces of the empire to the imperial treasury.
One department of the library consisted of letters, some of them private, others addressed to the king or to the high officials. Nearly a thousand of these have already been published by Professor Harper.
The clay books, it need hardly be added, were all carefully numbered and catalogued, the Assyrian system of docketing and arranging the tablets being at once ingenious and simple. The librarians, consequently, had no difficulty in finding any tablet or series of tablets that might be asked for. We may gather from the inscription attached to the larger works copied from Babylonian originals as well as to other collections of tablets that the library was open to all “readers.”
Although Ashurbanipal strove to conserve and catalog many works, he also acted as the ultimate censor over what works were to be included in this collection. The number of works in the Niniveh Library range from 20,000 to 22,000 and Ashurbanipal had a hand in choosing each work, selecting and censoring works as he saw fit. In addition to his roles as selector, censor, and cataloger, Ashurbanipal acted as policy maker and enforcer of strict punishments on those who damage or deface his tablets. One warning in the library reads: May all these gods curse anyone who breaks, defaces, or removes this tablet with a curse which cannot be relieved, terrible and merciless as long as he lives, may they let his name, his seed be carried off from the land, and may they put his flesh in a dog’s mouth. This would surely deter even the most determined book thief or vandal.
Thus, centuries before the library at Alexandria, a library with many of the characteristics of a modern institution was in existence. Scholars of library history would be well served by further study of Ashurbanipal and his palace library.
Picture(s) is/are a file(s) from the Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Commons is a freely licensed media file repository.