Library of Nineveh

BiblicalTraining is a not-for-profit, fully supported by donations. Would you consider making a donation to support the ongoing development of the library and the site?

I. THE DISCOVERY

II. THE LIBRARY

III. WRITING-MATERIALS

IV. CONTENTS

1. Philology

2. Astronomy and Astrology

3. Religious Texts

4. Law

5. Science

6. Literature

7. History and Chronology

8. Commerce

9. Letters

I. The Discovery.

In the spring of 1850, the workmen of Sir A.H. Layard at Nineveh made an important discovery. In the ruins of the palace of Assur-bani-pal they found a passage which opened into two small chambers leading one into the other. The doorway was guarded on either side by figures of Ea, the god of culture and the inventor of letters, in his robe of fishskin. The walls of the chambers had once been paneled with bas-reliefs, one of which represented a city standing on the shore of a sea that was covered with galleys. Up to the height of a foot or more the floor was piled with clay tablets that had fallen from the shelves on which they had been arranged in order, and the larger number of them was consequently broken. Similar tablets, but in lesser number, were found in the adjoining chambers. After Layard’s departure, other tablets were discovered by Mr. Hormuzd Rassam, and then the excavations ceased for many years. The discovery of the Babylonian version of the account of the Deluge, however, by Mr. George Smith in 1873 led the proprietors of the Daily Telegraph to send him to Nineveh in the hope that the missing portions of the story might be found. He had not been excavating there long before he came across a fragment of another version of the story, and then once more the excavations came to an end. Since then expeditions have been sent by the British Museum which have resulted in the recovery of further remains of the ancient library of Nineveh.

II. The Library.

The tablets formed a library in the true sense of the word. Libraries had existed in the cities of Babylonia from a remote date, and the Assyrian kings, whose civilization was derived from Babylonia, imitated the example of Babylonia in this as in other respects. The only true booklover among them, however, was Assur-bani-pal. He was one of the most munificent royal patrons of learning the world has ever seen, and it was to him that the great library of Nineveh owed its existence. New editions were made of older works, and the public and private libraries of Babylonia were ransacked in search of literary treasures.

III. Writing-Materials.

Fortunately for us the ordinary writing-material of the Babylonians and Assyrians was clay. It was more easily procurable than papyrus or parchment, and was specially adapted for the reception of the cuneiform characters. Hence, while the greater part of the old Egyptian literature, which was upon papyrus, has perished that of Babylonia and Assyria has been preserved. In Babylonia the tablets after being inscribed were often merely dried in the sun; in the damper climate of Assyria they were baked in a kiln. As a large amount of text had frequently to be compressed into a small space, the writing is sometimes so minute as to need the assistance of a magnifying glass before it can be read. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the library-chambers of Nineveh Layard found a magnifying lens of crystal, which had been turned on the lathe.

IV. Contents.

1. Philology:

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. The student was therefore provided with grammars and dictionaries of the two languages, as well as with reading-books and interlinear translates into Assyrian of the chief Sumerian texts. Besides this, long lists of the cuneiform characters were drawn up with their phonetic and ideographic values, together with lists of Assyrian synonyms, in which, for example,, all the equivalents are given of the word "to go." The Assyrian lexicographers at times attempted etymologies which are as wide of the mark as similar etymologies given by English lexicographers of a past generation. Sabattu, "Sabbath," for instance, is derived from the two Sumerian words sa "heart" and bat, "to end," and so is explained to mean "day of rest for the heart." It is obvious that all this implies an advanced literary culture. People do not begin to compile grammars and dictionaries or to speculate on the origin of words until books and libraries abound and education is widespread.

2. Astronomy and Astrology:

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.

3. Religious Texts:

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.

4. Law:

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.

5. Science:

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. Starting from the belief that where two events followed one another, the first was the cause of the second, an elaborate pseudo-science of augury had been built up, and an enormous literature arose on the interpretation of dreams, the observation of the liver of animals, etc. Unfortunately Assur-bani-pal had a special predilection for the subject, and the consequence is that his library was filled with works which the Assyriologist would gladly exchange for documents of a more valuable character. Among the scientific works we may also include those on medicine, as well as numerous mathematical tables.

6. Literature:

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.

7. History and Chronology:

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 Assyrian monuments are alone sufficient to show that the historical sense was by no means unknown to the ancient peoples of the East, and when we remember how closely related the Assyrians were to the Hebrews in both race and language, the fact becomes important to the Biblical student. Besides historical texts the library contained also chronological tables and long lists of kings and dynasties with the number of years they reigned. In Babylonia time was marked by officially naming each year after some event that had occurred in the course of it; the more historically-minded Assyrian named the year after a particular official, called limmu, who was appointed on each New Year’s Day. In Babylonia the chronological system went back to a very remote date. The Babylonians were a commercial people, and for commercial purposes it was necessary to have an exact register of the time.

8. Commerce:

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.

9. Letters:

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."