Libraries in the Ancient World: Mesopotamia and Persia
Ancient and Medieval Libraries
October 14, 2010
By: Sean O'Connor
We don’t know if the 1st library in the ancient world was founded in Egypt,
a Mesopotamian civilization (such as the Sumerians, Babylonians, or Assyrians)
or somewhere else altogether, but we know there were Egyptian and Mesopotamian libraries
by the 3rd millennium B.C. More than 200,000 clay tablets have been found in ancient Mesopotamian cities.
By about 2500 B.C., the Akkadians, a Semitic people, inhabited the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers,
and around 2250 B.C. their leader Argon I conquered the non-Semitic peoples of the lower valley,
uniting Mesopotamia under the Old Babylonian Empire, which depended culturally on the old Sumerian civilization.
The high point of Babylonian civilization was the rule of Hammurabi (around 1700 B.C.)
who could read documents himself instead of having them read aloud to him
(as we know from letters he sent officials that stated “I have read your report” instead of “I have heard your report”).
During his reign, the Law Code of Hammurabi was written, historical chronicles were written,
and king-lists purporting to go back before the Flood were written.
Since his law code was not the first, this suggests there must have been something like a law library in Babylon.
A thousand years later, Assyrian kings instigated yet higher development of literature and libraries,
but their legacy was lost after 625 B.C. as Mesopotamia was conquered in turn
by the Chaldeans, Persians, Greeks, Parthians, Romans, and Arabs.
The ancient literary legacy of the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians
has been only partially recovered by modern archeologists.
Tablets with pictographic script from about 3000 B.C. were found in the ruins of the Red Temple of Erech
in the lower Euphrates River valley.
Nearly 30,000 cuneiform tablets, dated about 2350 B.C., were recovered at Tello, near Lagash.
Many others were found at Nippur, south of modern Baghdad. In the ruins of Ur, the Great House of Tablets,
which seems to have been a law library dating to the reign of Ur-Nammu around 2100 B.C.,
has been uncovered.
Fortunately, the Assyrians copied the king-lists written around the right of Hammurabi,
and these have been recovered, but religious, military, and diplomatic histories from his time have been lost.
We know the Assyrians had libraries with tablets arranged by subject matter.
Archeologists have investigated the ruins of the palace library founded under Sargon II (who died in 705 B.C.) at Khorsabad.
Hundreds of tablets have been recovered there.
His great-grandson Assurbanipal (668-627 B.C.) moved the capital to Ninevah
and amassed a library of 30,000 tablets.
He sent agents to every part of his empire, which stretched from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, \
as well as to foreign lands, to acquire records of every kind.
He also had ancient Sumerian and Babylonian texts translated.
Assurbanipal, who was particularly interested in religious and magical texts,
asked Nabu, the Assyrian god of writing to bless the library.
On his seal, he invoked Nabu and stated, “I have collected these tablets, I have had them copied,
I have marked them with my name, and I have deposited them in my palace.”
We might say he had a lust for books and for recognition as a patron of literature
(if not the arts as a whole) to the same or a similar degree as a lust for power
and wealth required of a great (not to say good) king.
He employed many scribes to compile, edit, and revise texts.
In his palace library, some subjects were arranged by room.
For instance, one room was devoted to history and government matters,
such as diplomatic correspondence, military orders, agreements between vassal kings,
biographies of royal officials, and king-lists.
One room was devoted to taxes and tribute.
Another room was devoted to geography.
Still another was devoted to commercial records (deeds, contracts, bills of sale, etc.).
One of the most important rooms in the palace library was devoted to the myths, lists of gods, prayers,
and incantations of Assyrian religion.
The tablets in this library were kept in earthenware jars with identifying tags.
The jars were kept on shelves.
Near the door to each room was a tablet with that room’s subject catalog.
Each entry listed the title of a given work, the number of tablets in the work,
the number of lines in the work, its opening words, and a location or classification symbol.
Amongst the books archeologists have recovered from Assurbanipal’s palace library
were the Babylonian creation myth, spread out over 7 tablets, and the Epic of Gilgamesh,
spread out over 12 tablets.
The tablets survived into modern times for archeologists to recover
because when the Chaldeans and Medes destroyed Nineveh in 612 B.C.,
they were content to push in the palace walls with battering rams,
and the walls collapsed atop the tablets, preserving them.
Assurbanipal’s palace library was the largest and best known library archeologists
have uncovered in Mesopotamia, but archeologists have excavated palace and temple libraries
throughout Mesopotamia dating from about 2000 to 500 B.C.
There is also evidence that rich families had private libraries.
Business archives have been found as well.
When the Greco-Macedonian king Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.)
conquered the Achaemenid Persian Empire, he burned the library at Persepolis,
along with the palace of Xerxes.
Some accounts blame this on a drunken accident,
instigated by Thaïs, a Greek prostitute who was the lover of Ptolemy,
Alexander’s general who later made himself Pharaoh of Egypt.
Others say it was Alexander’s deliberate act of revenge for the destruction of the Acropolis
in Athens during the Second Persian War.
Some writers say that Alexander instantly regretted his decision and tried to put the fire out.