Ashurbanipal was a conqueror and warlord on the grand scale, and in his long reign (668-627 BCE) extended the Assyrian empire to include even Egypt. Assyrian treatment of the conquered was brutal, and included massacres, flayings and population transfers. Three kings later, a coalition of rebels led by Babylon destroyed the kingdom.
But he was a cultivated and multilingual man and assembled possibly the world’s first great library. The British Museum has 30,000 fragments of cuneiform tablets taken by Layard, and that must be only a fraction. Persian traditions hold that the relics inspired Alexander to build his own, a project taken forward after his death by the Ptolemies at Alexandria.
Under Saddam Hussein, archaeologists hatched a plan to recreate a research library at Mosul University under the title of Ashurbanipal Library. It would be focussed on archaeology. The British Museum agreed to supply copies of all its collection. The plan moved ahead slowly after Saddam fell. A campaign was launched by the Biblioteca Alexandrina in Cairo, another ambitious revival, directed at universities in the Arab world. Call this Library 2.
This is what Mosul University looks like today.
ISIS of course burnt the idolatrous library before the artillery and rockets got to work. The people in Cairo are relaunching the library campaign, though I couldn’t find anything on their website.
The archaeology research centre is a nice idea and I hope it moves ahead again. But what the students need tomorrow is a basic working library in all fields: science, languages, technology, medicine, law …. While the fighting on the East bank of the Tigris was still going on, students and professors were working to clear the rubble and start teaching again. The website is back up (only in Arabic). This determination deserves practical support. ISIS was a threat to all of us, and the people of Mosul paid very heavily for its destruction.
This does not look like a case where individual donations can be useful. It needs at least sponsorship from university departments and schools prepared to assemble a starter library in their discipline, plus expert input from librarians and IT people, and an operational fund from a government or billionaire. And tact as well: the university is in the Arab world, and that will be the language of instruction. Perhaps along with Kurdish? You see the problem.
Ashurbanipal Library 3 can be the one that sticks.