January 9, 2014

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Destruction of Art in War: Fire and Water -- The revenge tragedy that caused the destruction of the Library at Nineveh

Clay tablet from the Library of Nineveh,
 excavated by A.H. Layard.
 Courtesy of the British Museum

by A.M.C. Knutsson, ARCA Graduate 2013

“I destroyed it more completely than a devastating flood. So that in future days the site of that city and (its) temples would not be recognized, I totally dissolved it with water and made it like inundated land.” [1]
Sennacherib on the annihilation of Babylon 689 BC.


“On the Nth day of the month Âbu they inflicted a major defeat upon a great people. At that time Sin-šar-iškun, king of Assyria, died. They carried off the vast booty of the city and the temple and turned the city into a ruin heap.”[2]
The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle 612 BC


In 612 BC, an army of Medes and Babylonians attacked Nineveh, the capitol of the Assyrian empire and home of the ancient world’s largest library.[3] The city fell 2.5 months later shortly after the death of the Assyrian king, Sin-šar-iškun.[4] The destruction of Nineveh was part of “the revenge tragedy”, the practice of revenge attacks between Assyria and Babylonia.[5] According to a declaration of war commissioned by ruler Nabopolassar, the Babylonians took revenge for the plundered lands and looting of the Esaglia temple and treasury in Babylon.[6] The habitual looting seems to have been commonplace in the ancient Near East, with the movement of cultural objects between different regions, creating an increasingly complex historical record.

The creation of the Royal Library of Nineveh has often been attributed to Ashurbanipal and whilst a large part of the collections were formed by him, the collecting had started earlier. Esarhaddon, Ashurbanipal’s father and predecessor is known to have collected books on protection against curses and illness.[7] He does not seem to have been as scholarly inclined as his son however, and it was not until the reign of Ashurbanipal that the ambitions for a world library emerged.[8]

Ashurbanipal’s great learning and interest in knowledge collecting has been linked to the idea that he was raised into the priesthood, but this remains a speculation.[9] However, there is no doubt that when he came to the throne in 668 BC he had already been immersed in extensive scholarship. In one of his own inscriptions Ashurbanipal states: “I have read cunningly written text(s) in obscure Sumerian (and) Akkadian that are difficult to unravel. I have examined confused kakku sakku inscriptions on stone (dating) from before the Flood.”[10] “Moreover, I, Ashurbanipal, acquired there the craft of Nabû, all scribal learning. I have studied the lore of every single one of the master scholars.”[11] Once in control of Assyria, Ashurbanipal found himself in a position to amass knowledge from all corners of his empire.

Ashurbanipal almost immediately authorised massive acquisitions of books. He commissioned ‘shopping lists’ to be sent out to all parts of the known world, from Egypt to Anatolia, to acquire all the knowledge in the world.[12] Assyria has been compared to Rome in the sense that it had little culture of its own and was therefore inclined to import that of a neighbour. In the case of Assyria this neighbour was Babylonia, which had rich cultural and scholarly traditions as well as a rebellious spirit. [13] Hence, from the very beginning of his reign Ashurbanipal encouraged Babylonian scholars to copy books from the great temple libraries in Babylon and Borsippa for his collections.[14]

However, in 652 BC Ashurbanipal’s brother, the ruler of Babylonia, Šamaš-šum-ukīn rebelled against his brother and relations broke down.[15] It is possible that it was after this betrayal that Ashurbanipal started to be more forceful in his acquisition of books. In 648 BC when Šamaš-šum-ukīn’s uprising finally failed, a great influx of Babylonian writing boards reached Ashurbanipal’s library. These were probably taken as loot or were produced by forced labour.[16] Stories of Babylonian scholars chained up in Assyrian libraries and forced to write down all they knew might have originated from this era.[17]

Image from Hutchinson’s
‘Story of the Nations’
At Ashurbanipal’s death the library seems to have been moved and parts might still be buried under the sand. Twenty-five years later when the Medes reached Nineveh no mercy was shown to the library and it was burnt along with the rest of the city.

Following the burning of Nineveh, the King’s palace and the library were buried under layers of sand and dust. It would not re-emerge until 1849 when Sir Austen Henry Layard rediscovered it. Following extensive excavations of the site the library buildings along with over 20,000 tablets and fragments were revealed,[18] This number represents only a small part of the original library holdings. Most of the stock of the library, containing wax tablets, papyrus and leather scrolls, was destroyed in the destruction of Nineveh and only the clay tablets survived, which were baked in the fire.[19] It is difficult to calculate the extent of the original library and what might have been lost, but a conservative number indicates that a third has survived. However, it is possible that the clay tablets currently known make up a mere 10% of the original library stock.[20] The calculations have been made based on Ashurbanipal’s shopping lists and remain tentative.[21] Even if relying on the more conservative numbers the Royal Library was not of inconsiderable size. The library may have been twice as big as its more famous sister, the Library of Alexandria. [22]

The destruction of the library at Nineveh was by no means an unavoidable occurrence. It seems likely that had the Medes allies, the Babylonians, reached the library before the Medes, matters could have ended very differently. Karen Radner has argued that had the Babylonians reached the library first, it would probably have been looted as they would have been eager to bring the Babylonian texts back to their country of origin.[23] This seems to be supported by a statement made by Nabopolassar in his declaration of war. He exclaimed that in order to avenge the destruction of Babylon he would reclaim the looted temple treasures taken by the Assyrians.[24] Might this also refer to the books which Ashurbanipal acquired from Babylon following the collapse of his brother’s revolt? It is by no means unlikely that the knowledge cherishing Babylonians would have included the writing tablets in this since many had originally come from Babylon or at least been produced by Babylonian scholars.

The fated Library of Nineveh creates an interesting dilemma. Whilst the destruction of the library might at first seem like the worst possible outcome, this is not necessarily the case. If the library had been looted by the Babylonians, it is likely that very little of the material would had survived until today. If texts had survived they would most likely be highly fragmentary, such as the surviving copies of The Epic of Gilgamesh. However, due to the nature of clay tablets, the fire that destroyed the rest of the city baked and preserved these texts, making them stable enough to survive under the desert sand for almost 2,500 years. This ‘destruction’ has left us with the largest ‘intact’ collection of ancient literature in the Near East and an unparalleled tool to interpret the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian worlds.[25]

Furthermore, it has provided modern scholars with the most complete copy of the first known story on earth The Epic of Gilgamesh.[26] Whilst the annihilation of Assyria and destruction of its memory might have been the intended end when the Medes and Babylonians approached the walls of Nineveh, their actions have in fact left us with an unparalleled insight into their previously forgotten world.

Bibliography:


Frame, Grant  & George, A.R.,  “The Royal Libraries of Nineveh: New Evidence for King Ashurbanipal’s Tablet Collecting”, Iraq, Vol 67, No 1, (Spring, 2005), p.277

Jastow, Morris, “Did the Babylonian Temples have Libraries?”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol 27 (1906), p.147

MacGinnis, J.D.A., ‘Ctesias and the Fall of Nineveh’, Illinois Classical Studies, Vol 13, No1, pp. 37-8

Menant, Joachim, La Bibliothèque du Palais de Nineve, (1880)

Paulus, Michael J. , “Review: The Buried Book”, The American Archivist, Vol 71, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 2008), p. 293

Van De Mieroop, Marc, ‘A Tale of Two Cities: Nineveh and Babylon”, Iraq, Vol 66. (2004), p. 3

Radio:

“The Library at Nineveh”, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, 15 May 2008, Radio

George, Andrew,  “The Library at Nineveh”, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, 15 May 2008, Radio

Radner, Karen, “The Library at Nineveh”, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, 15 May 2008, Radio

Robson, Eleanor, “The Library at Nineveh”, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, 15 May 2008, Radio






[1] Marc Van De Mieroop, ‘A Tale of Two Cities: Nineveh and Babylon”, Iraq, Vol 66. (2004), p.1
[3] Karen Radner, “The Library at Nineveh”, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, 15 May 2008, Radio
[4] J.D.A. MacGinnis, ‘Ctesias and the Fall of Nineveh’, Illinois Classical Studies, Vol 13, No1, (1988), pp. 37-8
[5] Marc Van De Mieroop, ‘A Tale of Two Cities: Nineveh and Babylon”, Iraq, Vol 66. (2004), p.1
[6] Ibid, p.3
[7] Grant Frame  & A.R. George, “The Royal Libraries of Nineveh: New Evidence for King Ashurbanipal’s Tablet Collecting”, Iraq, Vol 67, No 1, (Spring, 2005), p.282
[8] Ibid, p.279
[9] “The Library at Nineveh”, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, 15 May 2008, Radio
[10] Grant Frame  & A.R. George, “The Royal Libraries of Nineveh: New Evidence for King Ashurbanipal’s Tablet Collecting”, Iraq, Vol 67, No 1, (Spring, 2005), pp.279-80
[11] Ibid, p.280
[12] Karen Radner, “The Library at Nineveh”, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, 15 May 2008, Radio
[13] Andrew George, “The Library at Nineveh”, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, 15 May 2008, Radio
[14] Grant Frame  & A.R. George, “The Royal Libraries of Nineveh: New Evidence for King Ashurbanipal’s Tablet Collecting”, Iraq, Vol 67, No 1, (Spring, 2005), p.282
[15] Ibid, p.282
[16] Ibid, p.277
[17] Eleanor Robson, “The Library at Nineveh”, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, 15 May 2008, Radio
[18] Morris Jastow, Jr., “Did the Babylonian Temples have Libraries?”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol 27 (1906), p.147
[19] Karen Radner, “The Library at Nineveh”, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, 15 May 2008, Radio
[20] Ibid
[21] Ibid
[22] Eleanor Robson, “The Library at Nineveh”, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, 15 May 2008, Radio
[23] Karen Radner, “The Library at Nineveh”, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, 15 May 2008, Radio
[24] Marc Van De Mieroop, ‘A Tale of Two Cities: Nineveh and Babylon”, Iraq, Vol 66. (2004), p. 3
[25] http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/research_projects/all_current_projects/ashurbanipal_library_phase_1.aspx
[26] Michael J. Paulus, Jr., “Review: The Buried Book”, The American Archivist, Vol 71, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 2008), p. 293

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