Ashurbanipal, The First...Librarian


A priesthood bound prince instead becomes a king, builds a library, reads a sheep, and battles his brother. I’m Mat Patterson and this is “The First Librarian”.

Ashurbanipal loved playing 20 squares, the royal game of Ur, but he did not love losing to his big brother. This particular game was played in Nineveh, the capital of the Neo Assyrian Empire and one of the greatest cities on Earth during the seventh century BCE. As the fourth son of Esarhaddon, King of Assyria, Ashurbanipal was way down the line of succession. He never expected to be king.

Instead, he spent his days training for the priesthood. And that training involved a lot of writing practise, carefully pressing a stylus into clay to copy the clean cuneiform characters of the sample tablet. Cuneiform, incidentally, can only be formed properly right-handed. Discrimination against my fellow left-handers goes all the way back to the very beginnings of writing, it seems.

Ashurbanipal was, by all accounts, a good student, although many of those accounts he wrote himself, like this one.

“I can resolve complex mathematical divisions and multiplications that do not have an easy solution. I have read cunningly written texts in obscure Sumerian and Akkadian that are difficult to interpret.”


Perhaps it was those math skills that endeared him to his father, or maybe, as some scholars think, it was some plotting by his grandmother. But either way, Ashurbanipal never did become a priest.

Instead, his father, Esarhaddon, dramatically broke with long tradition and anointed Ashurbanipal as the future king of Assyria, leaving for his older brother the lesser kingship of Babylon. Esarhaddon apparently intended them to share the power, although it seems the exact way in which this co-Empire-manager situation was supposed to work was unclear to everyone.

Just three years later, 669 BCE, King Esarhaddon died while en route to yet another war with Egypt, and a teenage Ashurbanipal took up his father’s throne, leaving his brother, Shamash-shum-ukin, to pack up and move south to sit on the probably just a little bit smaller throne of Babylon.

Ashurbanipal took quickly to the work of ruling, fighting multiple wars, particularly against the rebellious Egyptians who were still being pretty unchill about remaining under the right thumb of Assyria, and his reputation as a great Assyrian king grew. Artists carved elaborate murals of his exploits, including some scenes of the king heroically fighting lions in the grand tradition of his ancestors.

Although, in a show of either extreme bravery or extreme foolishness, those same artists also recorded for us some very telling scenes of Ashurbanipal’s servants carefully releasing captured lions from cages. But if you look closely at Ashurbanipal in those scenes, you’ll notice something poking out of his waistband. It’s not a knife or a sword. It’s the ends of two styluses.



Writing sticks.

Even in big cat combat, it seems the king kept his writing tools close to hand, and that’s a clue to the true source of his power. Not weapons, but words. Even as a child, Ashurbanipal collected knowledge. He kept all of his own letters and the practise tablets that he learned to write on, and he added those tablets to the collections his father and grandfather had built.

Over the course of his rule, Ashurbanipal built an enormous collection of knowledge comprising tens of thousands of clay tablets, as well as writing on wood and papyrus and wax, although only some of the clay has survived into the present time. Carefully arranged and stored, Ashurbanipal’s collection is the first known library.

It covered every area of knowledge conceivable in his world.

Official documents, private letters, literature, reference collections, instructions, religious rules, rituals, magic, medicine, and much, much more.

Ashurbanipal wanted to learn everything. And as he modestly wrote himself:

“I read the cunning tablets of Sumer and the dark Akkadian language which is difficult to rightly use. 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 within my palace for perusing and reading.”

That flood, by the way, is the same one described in “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, a story that, thanks to Ashurbanipal’s library, we now know closely matches the later biblical flood story of Noah and his ark load of coupled camels and paired pangolins. But that’s a story for another time.

To grow his library, Ashurbanipal sent agents throughout his empire and beyond. They carried letters of demand for original tablets that he could take or copy. And he even used wars as an opportunity to loot knowledge from his enemies, telling his agents:

“No one can withhold a tablet from you.”

In one letter, he instructs an agent to look for tablets like “the instructions for ‘Hand-Lifting’ and ‘Purification of a Village’, and then he asks for “whatever is needed for the palace, whatever there is, and rare tablets that are known to you which do not exist in Assyria.”

And this was Ashurbanipal’s personal library, of course. Local Assyrians couldn’t pop in to browse the shelves or use the good toilets. And given the Assyrian reputation for brutality that might have been for the best. Forgetting to return your copy of “The Poor Man of Nippur” might have resulted in something a lot worse than a three Mina fine.

But there was one key category of knowledge that Ashurbanipal was particularly interested in: Divinations.

The Assyrians were firm believers in omens and signs. The idea that if you could correctly interpret, for example, the pattern of a bird’s flight, you could divine a gods presence or their intent, or your likelihood of success in any given action. Ashurbanipal had trained specifically in hepatoscopy, the study and interpretation of animal livers, and he wrote:

“I am able to discuss the series ‘If the Liver is the Mirror Image of the Sky’ with capable scholars.”

Great title for a Philip K. Dick novel.

Now this may not come up for you, but if you do find yourself in possession of a sacrificial sheep’s liver, then you should be aware, for instance:

“If there are three white pustules to the left of the gallbladder, the king will triumph over his enemy.”

Which is messier than a fortune cookie, sure, but more specific.

Understanding and acting upon omens was critical, and Ashurbanipal had several times seen his own father warned by omens that he was in danger, stepping down temporarily as the king and instead setting up a young man as ruler in a sort of substitution ritual. And then once the young man had served as omen bait long enough, he could be quietly killed off, the omen would be fulfilled, and Esarhaddon could take back his throne.


Ashurbanipal was no fool. As king, he worked furiously to acquire every list of omens and guide to divination within his considerable reach, and with this library full of foreknowledge he hoped to prolong his power. But the biggest danger to Ashurbanipal didn’t require a whole lot of liver learning because it came from his brother quite-possibly-from-another-mother, Shamash-shum-ukin.

Shamash-shum-ukin had been unhappy for some time with this whole game of thrones. He and his little brother were supposed to be equals, but in fact Ashurbanipal had been getting all up in his big brother’s Babylonian business from the beginning. Ashurbanipal meddled with Babylon’s internal politics. He controlled its foreign policy.

So in 652 BCE, after some pretty sneaky behind the scenes pot stirring, Shamash-shum-ukin openly rebelled against his brother in an attempt to create a fully independent Babylon. He pulled together a coalition of nearby powers to fight Ashurbanipal, launching a civil war that would last three years.

In a tablet written during this period Shamash-shum-ukin taunts Ashurbanipal about his childhood board game losses, and he suggests that he will soon lose his throne too. But he was wrong about that. By 648 BCE, Ashurbanipal’s army had overrun Babylon and Shamash-shum-ukin was dead.

According to Ashurbanipal, the gods had “cast his hostile brother into the burning flames and destroyed him”, but it seems likely the gods had a little earthly assistance getting that done. So Ashurbanipal returned to Nineveh victorious to live a life of lions, livers, and libraries, but it wouldn’t last.

Assyria was already a power in decline, and Ashurbanipal died less than 20 years later. Several more kings would follow him, but a series of civil wars greatly sapped their strength, and in 612 BCE, the combined armies of Babylon and the Medes laid siege to Nineveh for three months before finally sacking it, looting the temples, and, crucially, burning down the palace.

And it was those fierce fires that baked the clay tablets of Ashurbanipal’s library, both hardening and burying them. The great irony of Ashurbanipal’s quest for knowledge is that it was ultimately the destruction of his library that ensured it would last through the millennia, and that his name as the Librarian King is still known throughout the world.

And like librarians everywhere Ashurbanipal took his role pretty seriously. I’ll leave you with his warning to anyone who might take a tablet without presenting the proper library card:

“Whosoever shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe his name on it side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land.”

A bit of a heads up for the folks of the British Museum there, perhaps.

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