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The Library of  Ashurbanipal – the  World’s oldest organised Library

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The Library of Ashurbanipal was established in the 7th century BC in the ancient city of Nineveh, which is located in present-day Iraq. The last great king of the Assyrian Empire, Ashurbanipal, set up the library which was created as a collection of texts and texts of knowledge and was one of the first libraries in the world. It contained many texts, including literature, history, law, medicine, astronomy, and divination. Many texts were written in cuneiform script on clay tablets, and it’s considered one of the most important finds of cuneiform texts. The library was also used as a centre for scholarly research and education. Unfortunately, the library was destroyed by fire during the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 612 BC, but many of the clay tablets survived. Some of the ruins from the library are still standing, but much of it has been worn away by natural causes[2]. The physical ruins are not well preserved, and much of the site has been lost to looting and damage from wars and natural disasters. Due to the current political and security situation in Iraq, the site is not open to the public and access is restricted. The British Museum in London holds some of the artefacts from the library and are on display (it is estimated that the museum has around two-thirds of all the artefacts found).[3]

King Ashurbanipal|
Ashurbanipal, also known as Ashurbanipal II, was the last great king of the Assyrian Empire and reigned from 668 BC to 627 BC. He was known for his military conquests and his cultural achievements. He was also a patron of the arts and sciences and is credited with establishing the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh.

Ashurbanipal’s actions were prompted by his desire to gather and preserve the knowledge and cultural heritage of the Empire. He saw the importance of knowledge and education in the development and stability of his Empire, and so he collected texts from all over the Empire, including literature, history, law, medicine, astronomy, and divination. He also realised the importance of preserving knowledge for future generations. The library was used as a centre for scholarly research and education, and it was also a symbol of the power and prestige of the Assyrian Empire.

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Image: In ancient Assyria, lion-hunting was considered the sport of kings, symbolic of the ruling monarch’s duty to protect and fight for his people. The sculpted reliefs in Room 10a at The British Library illustrate the sporting exploits of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (668-631 BC) and were created for his palace at Nineveh (in modern-day northern Iraq). The hunt scenes, full of tension and realism, rank among the finest achievements of Assyrian Art. They depict the release of the lions, the ensuing chase and the subsequent killing.
Attribution: Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL:,_the_king_is_hunting,_about_645-635_BC,_British_Museum_(12254914313).jpg
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The king intended to bring together the whole of inherited lore and knowledge recorded in cuneiform documents for editing and recopying by his chancery calligraphers to constitute a unique resource for running the state and his own edification. The result exceeded all expectations.[4]

King Ashurbanipal was popular among his people but ruthless when dealing with enemies. His obsession with collecting knowledge led him to construct The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, which was referred to as “the most precious source of historical material in the world[5] by H.G. Wells[6].

The Library
The Ashurbanipal Library Project website[7] notes:

“The Ashurbanipal Library” (commonly referred to as “The Kuyunjik Collection”) is a convenient label given to around 32,000 cuneiform tablets and fragments from the British Museum’s excavations at Nineveh in the 19th and 20th centuries. The reality behind the label is not easy to discern at present. We do not understand what constituted a library, how many there may have been, and which tablets belonged there. The label thus applies to a wide variety of document types excavated in locations across the mound of Kuyunjik. Most are thought to have been collected or produced on the orders of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria 669-c. 630 BC, but others are earlier. In any case, it was Ashurbanipal who earned a reputation in antiquity as a collector of tablets.”

The Ashurbanipal Library Project
The Ashurbanipal Library Project digitally recreates the cuneiform tablet library of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria. Since its discovery in the 19th century, the Library has been the most popular and the most informative of all Assyriological resources and is considered the foundation on which Assyriology was built. The Library is being documented as fully as possible in texts and images: sign-transliterations, translations, hand-drawn copies, a complete set of new, high-quality digital images and a library of older photographs produced since the 1850s.[8] The Ashurbanipal Library Project is being conducted at the University of Mosul in Iraq, where a team of archaeologists are working to restore and recreate the writings and objects contained in the ancient library[9].

The Epic of Gilgamesh and Other Stories
The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest known works of literature in the world, and the oldest copy of the epic that has been discovered is from the Ashurbanipal library in Nineveh, Iraq. This copy, written in cuneiform on clay tablets, dates back to the 7th century BC. This is considered one of the most complete and well-preserved copies of the epic, and it is considered by scholars to be the best source for understanding the original version of the story.

However, this is not the only copy of the epic that has been discovered. Other copies of the Epic of Gilgamesh have been found at other Mesopotamian sites. Fragments of the epic have been found at other sites: such as in Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite empire, and in Susa, an ancient city in what is now Iran. It’s also worth noting that the Epic of Gilgamesh was widely distributed and copied throughout the ancient world, so it’s likely that there were multiple versions of the epic in circulation and that the story evolved over time. Also found in the library was the Enûma Eliš creation story, the myth of Adapa, the first man, and stories such as the Poor Man of Nippur.[10] & [11]

Image [Cropped]: Sir Austen Henry Layard. Photograph by the London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company.” is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

The texts that were collected in the library were written in cuneiform script on clay tablets, and it is considered one of the most important finds of cuneiform texts.

Although the Library of Ashurbanipal was destroyed by fire, and while paper books do not survive fire, the clay tablets were mostly baked harder, making them among the best-preserved documents from thousands of years of Mesopotamian history.

Archaeologists discovered the texts in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and scholars have translated and studied many texts. It was the British archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard who found the library in 1849, and his excavations at Nineveh uncovered thousands of clay tablets.

Many of these tablets were taken to the British Museum in London, where they are still housed and available for study. More than 30,000 clay tablets bearing cuneiform inscriptions were excavated by the British Museum between the 1850s and 1930s.[12]

In addition to the tablets that Layard discovered, many other tablets from the library have been found in other excavation sites in the region, including the place where the library was sited at the time of the fire that destroyed it. These tablets have been studied by scholars and have provided a wealth of information about the Assyrian Empire and the ancient Near East.

The tablets were often organised according to their shape: four-sided tablets were for financial transactions, while round tablets recorded agricultural information. (In this era, some written documents were also on wood and others on wax tablets.) Tablets were separated according to their contents and placed in different rooms: government, history, law, astronomy, geography, and so on. The contents were identified by coloured marks or brief written descriptions and sometimes by the “incipit,” or the first few words that began the text.[13]

Cuneiform Writing
Cuneiform writing[14] was written on clay tablets using a reed stylus. The stylus, which was cut from a reed or a piece of wood, had a triangular point that was used to make impressions on the clay. The clay tablets were formed by pressing moist clay into a rectangular shape and then smoothing the surface with a flat tool.

The writing process involved pressing the stylus into the clay, leaving behind a wedge-shaped impression. Cuneiform characters were made up of combinations of these wedge-shaped impressions, known as “cunei,” which means “wedge” in Latin. The writing was typically done in vertical columns running from top to bottom and from right to left, although horizontal lines were also used.

Cuneiform was used for various texts, including official records, letters, religious texts, and literature. The clay tablets were then dried in the sun or baked in a kiln to harden them, making them more durable for storage and transport. The writing was so small on many clay tablets that a magnifying glass was needed to read the text.[15]

It’s worth noting that the cuneiform script was originally used only for the Sumerians but later on, Akkadian, Elamite, Hittite, Hurrian, and many other languages were also written in cuneiform script.

Image: Ashurbanipal’s Library” by rvacapinta is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The Texts
The texts in the library, written in the cuneiform script described above, were deciphered by scholars in the 19th century, allowing them to be read and understood. This discovery has provided a wealth of information about the history, culture, and daily life of the ancient Assyrian Empire.

The texts have provided a wealth of information about the history, culture, and everyday life of the ancient Assyrian Empire. Some examples are:

  • Astronomy and astrology: Records of astronomical observations and predictions, as well as astrological omens and divinations.
  • Botany and zoology: Texts describing various plants and animals, including their medicinal uses and geographical distribution.
  • Divination: The library contained texts on divination, providing information about the methods and practices used by the ancient Assyrians to predict the future.
  • Economic, administrative and other practical texts: The library contained administrative texts, such as lists of people, goods and animals, and other texts that give information about the economy.
  • Geography and topography: records of the names and locations of cities, rivers, and mountains in Mesopotamia and surrounding regions.
  • Historical texts: These include annals, which are records of the king’s reign and important events, as well as chronicles, which are more general historical accounts. Some texts detail the military campaigns and conquests of the Assyrian empire.
  • History: The library contained texts on history, which provide information about the political, social and cultural history of the ancient Assyrian Empire.
  • Law: The library contained legal texts providing information about the laws and legal practices of the Assyrian Empire.
  • Legal texts: The library includes legal texts, such as codes of law, and administrative documents, such as letters and official reports.
  • Literary texts: The library includes a wide range of literary texts, such as epic poems, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, proverbs, fables and riddles. These texts provide insight into the beliefs and values of the ancient Assyrians.
  • Maps and Plans: These contain maps of city plans and detailed diagrams of the palace and temple.
  • Mathematics: mathematical texts containing information on arithmetic, geometry, and algebra.
  • Medicine: The library contained texts on medicine and health, which provided information about the medical practices and knowledge of the ancient Assyrians about diseases, treatments, and surgeries, as well as lists of medicinal plants and their properties.
  • Metrology: tablets with information on weights and measures, including both practical and theoretical aspects.
  • Religious texts: These include hymns and prayers to various gods and goddesses, as well as incantations and magic spells. Some texts contain omens and divinations used to predict future events.
  • Royal inscriptions: These inscriptions provide information about the reigns of various Assyrian kings, including Ashurbanipal himself. They describe their military conquests, building projects, and other accomplishments.
  • Scientific texts: The library includes astronomical observations, such as observations of the stars and planets, and medical texts that contain information on the diagnosis and treatment of various illnesses.
  • Technology: records of techniques and methods used in various crafts and industries, such as metalworking, carpentry, and textile production.

The Code of Ur-Nammu is one of the oldest known law codes, dating back to around 2100 BC. It was discovered in the ancient city of Ur, which was located in southern Mesopotamia (present-day southern Iraq). The code consists of a set of laws that cover a wide range of topics, including property rights, family law, and criminal justice. It is notable for its relatively lenient penalties, often involving fines rather than severe physical punishment.

The Code of Lipit-Ishtar is another ancient law code from Mesopotamia, dating back to around 1930 BC. It was discovered in the city of Isin, which was located in southern Mesopotamia. Like the Code of Ur-Nammu, it covers a wide range of legal topics, including property rights, family law, and criminal justice. It is notable for its use of the “eye for an eye” principle, which states that the punishment should fit the crime.

Both codes were written in the Sumerian language and are important sources of information on the legal system of ancient Mesopotamia and the development of law in human civilisation.

These are some examples, but there were many other subjects covered in the library. Overall, the Ashurbanipal library offers a unique glimpse into the culture and history of ancient Mesopotamia, providing valuable information on religion, science, literature, and politics during the 7th century BC. These texts have greatly expanded our understanding of the ancient Assyrian Empire and the ancient Near East, and they continue to be studied by scholars today.

The Assyrian Empire

Image: Relief depicting Ashurbanipal’s army attacking an Egyptian settlement, possibly Memphis, during the Assyrian conquest of Egypt.
Attribution: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL:,_Egypt,_645-635_BCE,_from_Nineveh,_Iraq._British_Museum.jpg
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The Assyrian Empire was an ancient empire that existed from the 25th century BC to the 7th century BC. It was located in the ancient Near East, in an area that is now modern-day Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and northwestern Iran[16]. The empire:

  • was known for its powerful military and impressive architectural achievements, such as building large palaces and fortifications.
  • was ruled by a series of powerful kings who expanded the empire through military conquests. The Assyrians were known for their use of advanced military tactics and weapons, and they established a powerful and centralised government.
  • had its capital city at Nineveh, which was located in present-day Iraq. This city was home to many impressive architectural achievements, including the palace of Ashurbanipal, which was one of the most impressive palaces of the ancient world.
  • was also known for its cultural achievements. The Assyrian kings, such as Ashurbanipal, were patrons of the arts and sciences, and they established libraries and other institutions to promote learning and scholarship. The Library of Ashurbanipal, established by king Ashurbanipal, was one of the first libraries in the world, and it contained a wide range of texts, including literature, history, law, medicine, astronomy, and divination.
  • reached its height of power during the 7th century BC but began to decline in the following century due to internal conflicts and invasions by the Babylonians and the Persians. The empire eventually fell in 612 BC, when the city of Nineveh (modern-day Mosul, Iraq) was conquered and destroyed by the Persians, Babylonians, Medes, Scythians and others, dividing the region between them.[17]

The Importance of the Discovery of the Library of Ashurbanipal[18]
The discovery of the library of Ashurbanipal in the 19th century was important because it provided scholars with a wealth of ancient Mesopotamian texts, including many literary works and historical documents that had been previously unknown. Ashurbanipal’s collection was the largest, broadest and most important library ever assembled over 3,500 years of cuneiform culture and, until the Library of Alexandria, it was the most significant library of antiquity. Almost 32,000 tablets and fragments survive[19].

The library contained thousands of clay tablets, the texts upon which have provided valuable insights into the culture, society, and intellectual life of the ancient Assyrians and have helped to fill many gaps in the understanding of Mesopotamian history and civilisation.

Image: Ashurbanipal” by funcrunch is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Bronze sculpture by Fred Parhad, an artist of Assyrian descent. It is located in the Civic Center of San Francisco, California, in the United States. 

Reference Sources



  • The Library of Ashurbanipal: The World’s First Great Library by Colin T. Roberts (British Museum Press, 1970)
  • Ashurbanipal: King of Assyria by Paul Kriwaczek (Thames & Hudson, 2002)
  • The World of Ashurbanipal: Assyria at its Height by John Malcolm Russell (British Museum Press, 2007)
  • The Assyrian Empire: A Political History by Grant Frame (Eisenbrauns, 2017)
  • Assyria: The Imperial Mission by John Haldon (Routledge, 2000)
  • Assyria: The World of Assyria by J.N. Postgate (British Museum Press, 1992)
  • The Assyrian Heartland: Evolution of the Palaces at Nineveh, Kalhu, Dur-Sharrukin, and Ashur by Guillermo Algaze (University of Chicago Press, 2008)
  • Assyrian Sculpture by Julian Reade (British Museum Press, 1995)
  • The Fall of Assyria and Median-Persian Empire by J.A. Brinkman (Eisenbrauns, 1984)
  • The Royal Inscriptions of Ashurbanipal (668-631 BCE) King of Assyria: Part 2 by Richard F.S. Starr (Eisenbrauns, 2010)


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End Notes and Explanations
  1. Source: and machine-based artificial intelligence at:
  2. Source:
  3. The purpose of the British Museum’s Ashurbanipal Library Project is to investigate the content of the significant tablet collection that king Ashurbanipal assembled for his royal library. The initial project is focused on the Babylonian texts in order to establish the compositions involved and their relation to the rest of the Kouyunjik Collection and to the collecting activities of King Ashurbanipal. Source:
  4. Source:
  5. Source:
  6. Source:
  7. The Ashurbanipal Library Project, at:
  8. Source and Acknowledgement:
  9. Source:
  10. Sources: (1) Jeanette C. Fincke (2003-12-05). “Nineveh Tablet Collection”., (2) Polastron, Lucien X.: “Books On Fire: The Tumultuous Story Of The World’s Great Libraries” 2007, p. 3, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London., and (3) Menant, Joachim: “La bibliothèque du palais de Ninive” 1880, p. 33, Paris: E. Leroux, “Quels sont maintenant ces livres qui étaient recueillis et conservés avec tant de soin par les rois d’Assyrie dans ce précieux dépôt ? Nous y trouvons des livres sur l’histoire, la religion, les sciences naturelles, les mathématiques, l’astronomie, la grammaire, les lois et les coutumes; …”. Cited at:
  11. Explanation: The Poor Man of Nippur is an Akkadian story dating from around 1500 BC (Source:  Noonan, John T. (1987). Bribes. The University of California Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-520-06154-5.) It is attested by only three texts, only one of which is more than a small fragment (Source:  Maria deJ. Ellis. A New Fragment of the Tale of the Poor Man of Nippur. Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2 (April 1974), pp. 88-89.) Cited at
  12. Source:
  13. Source:
  14. Explanation: Cuneiform is a logosyllabic script that was used to write several languages of the Ancient Middle East. The script was in active use from the early Bronze Age until the beginning of the Common Era. It is named for the characteristic wedge-shaped impressions (Latin: cuneus), which form its signs. Cuneiform was originally developed to write the Sumerian language of southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Cuneiform is the earliest known writing system. Source:
  15. Source:
  16. Source:
  17. Source:
  18. Source: Also see:
  19. Source:

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