Ashurbanipal’s Library, a drama in three acts

The urgent restoration of an ancient library in Mosul.

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.

Assyrian cuneiform tablet, British Museum

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.

Credit Reuters

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.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

One thought on “Ashurbanipal’s Library, a drama in three acts”

  1. A sad loss (as was the looting of the Baghdad Museum under US occupation).

    Minor pedant point – Assyria was largely forgotten within a couple of centuries, so Ashurbanipal's library is unlikely to have inspired Alexander. In any case, the Great Library at Alexandria was a creation of the Ptolemies, many decades after Alexander's death.

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