Ashurbanipal (Akkadian: Aššur-bāni-apli; Syriac: "ܐܫܘܪ ܒܢܐ ܐܦܠܐ"; 'Ashur is the creator of an heir'; 668 BC – c. 627 BC), also spelled Assurbanipal or Ashshurbanipal, was an Assyrian king, the son of Esarhaddon and the last strong king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (934–609 BC). He is famed for amassing a significant collection of cuneiform documents for his royal palace at Nineveh. This collection, known as the Library of Ashurbanipal, is now housed at the British Museum, which also holds the famous Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal set of Assyrian palace reliefs.
In the Hebrew Bible he is called Asenappar (Ezra 4:10). Roman historian Justinus identified him as Sardanapalus, although the fictional Sardanapalus is depicted as the last king of Assyria, and an ineffectual, effete and debauched character, whereas three further kings succeeded Ashurbanipal, who was in fact an educated, efficient, highly capable and ambitious warrior king.
Ashurbanipal was born toward the end of a 1500-year period of Assyrian ascendancy.
His father, Esarhaddon, the youngest son of Sennacherib, had become heir when the crown prince, Ashur-nadin-shumi, was deposed by rebels from his position as vassal for Babylon. Esarhaddon was the son not of Sennacherib's queen, Tashmetum-sharrat, but of the "palace woman" Zakutu, "the pure" (cf. Modern Standard Arabic زكاة [zakāt], "that which purifies"), known by her native name, Naqi'a. There are some suggestions Zakutu may have been an Israelite or Aramean concubine, while others point to her family origins being in the northern Assyrian city of Harran. The only queen known for Esarhaddon was Ashur-hamat, who died in 672 BC.
Ashurbanipal grew up in the small palace called Bit Reduti (house of succession), built by his grandfather Sennacherib when he was crown prince in the northern quadrant of Nineveh. In 694 BC, Sennacherib had completed the "Palace Without Rival" at the southwest corner of the acropolis, obliterating most of the older structures. The "House of Succession" had become the palace of Esarhaddon, the crown prince. In this house, Ashurbanipal's grandfather was assassinated by uncles identified only from the biblical account as Adrammelech, Abimlech and Sharezer. From this conspiracy, Esarhaddon emerged as king in 681 BC. He proceeded to rebuild as his residence the Bit Masharti (weapons house, or arsenal). The "House of Succession" was left to his mother and the younger children, including Ashurbanipal.
The names of five brothers and one sister are known. Sin-iddin-apli, the intended crown prince, died prior to 672 BC. Not having been expected to become heir to the throne, Ashurbanipal was trained in scholarly pursuits as well as the usual horsemanship, hunting, chariotry, soldiery, craftsmanship, and royal decorum. In a unique autobiographical statement, Ashurbanipal specified his youthful scholarly pursuits as having included oil divination, mathematics, and reading and writing; he was able to read and write in Sumerian, Akkadian and Aramaic. According to legend, Ashurbanipal was the only Assyrian king who learned how to read and write.
Ashurbanipal succeeded his father Esarhaddon 681-669 BC as king of Assyria and ruler of the Assyrian Empire in 668 BC. Esarhaddon had prepared for the accession of his son by imposing a vassal treaty upon his Persian, Median and Parthian subjects, ensuring that they accepted Ashurbanipal's dominance in advance. He had also rebuilt Babylon and set up another of his sons Shamash-shum-ukin to rule there, subject to his brother Ashurbanipal in Nineveh.
Despite being a popular king among his subjects, he was also known for his cruelty to his enemies. Some pictures depict him putting a dog chain through the jaw of a defeated Arab king and then making him live in a dog kennel. Many paintings of the period exhibit his brutality, however Assyrian harshness was reserved solely for those who took up arms against the Assyrian king, and neither Ashurbanipal nor his predecessors conducted genocides, massacres or ethnic cleansings against civilian populations.
Ashurbanipal inherited from Esarhaddon not only the throne of the empire but also the ongoing war in Egypt with Kush/Nubia. His father had ended Egyptian interference in the Near East, destroyed the Kushite Empire, driven the Kushites/Nubians from Egypt, and conquered Egypt and Libya. However the Nubians still had ambitions to regain control of Egypt and resurrect their empire.
Ashurbanipal sent an army against them in 667 BC that defeated the Nubian king Taharqa, near Memphis, while Ashurbanipal stayed at his capital in Nineveh. At the same time some Egyptian vassals rebelled and were also defeated. All of the vanquished leaders save one were sent to Nineveh. Only Necho I, the native Egyptian Prince of Sais, convinced the Assyrians of his loyalty and was sent back to become the Assyrian puppet Pharaoh of Egypt. After the death of Taharqa in 664 BC his nephew and successor Tantamani invaded Upper Egypt and took control of Thebes. In Memphis he defeated the native Egyptian princes and Necho may have died in the battle. Another army was sent by Ashurbanipal and again it succeeded in defeating the Kushites/Nubians. Tantamani was routed and driven back to his homeland in Nubia and was never again to threaten Assyria or Egypt. The Assyrians plundered Thebes and took much booty home with them. How Assyrian rule in Egypt ended is not certain, but at some point Necho's son Psammetichus I gained independence while wisely keeping his relations with Assyria friendly.
An Assyrian royal inscription tells how the Lydian king Gyges received dreams from the Assyrian god Ashur. The dreams told him that when he submitted to Ashurbanipal he would conquer his foes. After Gyges sent his ambassadors to accept Assyrian vassalage he defeated his Cimmerian enemies. But later when he supported the rebellion of the Egyptian rebels his country was overrun by the Cilicians.
Assyria was by then master of the largest empire the world had yet seen, stretching from The Caucasus in the north to North Africa and the Arabian peninsula in the south, and from Cyprus and the east Mediterranean in the west, to central Iran in the east. Ashurbanipal enjoyed the subjugation of a myriad of nations and peoples, including; Babylon, Chaldea, Media, Persia, Egypt, Libya, Elam, Gutium, Parthia, Cissia, Phrygia, Mannea, Corduene, Aramea, Urartu, Lydia, Cilicia, Commagene, Caria, Cappadocia, Phoenicia, Canaan, the Suteans, Sinai, Israel, Judah, Samarra, Moab, Edom, Ammon, Nabatea, Arabia, the Neo-Hittites, Dilmun, Meluhha, Nubia, Scythia, Cimmeria, Armenia and Cyprus, with few problems during Ashurbanipal's reign. For the time being, the dual monarchy in Mesopotamia went well, with Shamash-shum-ukin accepting his position as the vassal of his brother peacably.
For his assignment of his brother, Ashurbanipal sent a statue of the divinity Marduk with him as sign of good will. Shamash-shuma-ukin's power was limited. He performed Babylonian rituals but the official building projects were still executed by his younger brother. During his first years Elam was still in peace as it was under his father. Ashurbanipal sent food supplies to the Elamites during a famine. Around 664 BC the situation changed and Urtaku, the Elamite king, attacked Assyria's colony of Babylonia by surprise. Assyria delayed in sending aid to Babylon. This could have been caused for two reasons: either the soothing messages of Elamite ambassadors or Ashurbanipal might simply not have been present at that time. However the Assyrians eventually attacked and the Elamites retreated before the Assyrian troops, and in the same year Urtaku died. He was succeeded by Teumman (Tempti-Khumma-In-Shushinak) who was not his legitimate heir, so many Elamite princes had to flee to Ashurbanipal's court, including Urtaku's oldest son Humban-nikash. In 658/657 BC the two empires clashed again, when the province of Gambulu in 664 rebelled against the Assyrians and Ashurbanipal decided to punish them. On the other hand, Teumman saw his authority threatened by the Elamite princes at the Assyrian court and demanded their extradition. The Assyrian forces invaded Elam and fought a battle at the Ulaya river.
Elam was defeated in the battle in which, according to Assyrian reliefs, Teumman committed suicide. Ashurbanipal installed Humban-nikash as king of Madaktu and another prince, Tammaritu, as king of the city Hidalu. Elam was considered a vassal of Assyria and tribute was imposed on it. With the Elamite problem solved the Assyrians could finally punish Gambulu and seized its capital. Then the victorious army marched home taking with them the head of Teumman. In Nineveh, when the Elamite ambassadors saw the head, one tore out his beard and the other committed suicide. As further humiliation the head of the Elamite king was put on display at the port of Nineveh. The death and head of Teumman was depicted multiple times in the reliefs of Ashurbanipal's palace.
Friction grew between the two brother kings and in 652 BC Babylon rebelled. This time Babylon was not alone – it had allied itself with a host of peoples resentful of Assyrian rule, including Sutean, Chaldean and Aramean tribes dwelling in its southern regions, the kings of "Gutium", Amurru, and Meluhha, the Persians, the Arabs and Nabateans dwelling in the Arabian Peninsula, and even Elam. According to a later Aramaic tale on Papyrus 63, Shamash-shum-ukin formally declared war on Ashurbanipal in a letter where he claims that his brother is only the governor of Nineveh and his subject. Again the Assyrians delayed an answer, this time due to unfavourable omens. It's not certain how the rebellion affected the Assyrian heartlands but there was some unrest in the cities. When Babylon finally was attacked, the Assyrians were victorious. Civil war prevented by further military aid, and in 648 BC Borsippa and Babylon were besieged. Without aid the situation was hopeless. After two years Shamash-shum-ukin met his end in his burning palace just before the city surrendered. This time Babylon was not destroyed, as under Sennacherib, but a massacre of the rebels took place, according to the king's inscriptions, with the Assyrians exacting savage revenge upon the Babylonians, Arameans, Chaldeans and Persians, together with an invasion of Arabia and the brutal subjugation of the Arab tribes to the south of Mesopotamia. Ashurbanipal allowed Babylon to keep its semi autonomous position, but it became more formalized than before. The next king Kandalanu (an Assyrian governor) left no official inscription, probably as his function was only ritual.
End of the Assyrian Empire
During the final two decades of Ashurbanipal's rule, Assyria was peaceful and its dominance went unchallenged, but the country apparently faced an underlying decline due to over-expansion, the lack of funds from its devastated colonies, and insufficient troops to govern its vast empire. Documentation from the last years of Ashurbanipal's reign is scarce. The last attestations of Ashurbanipal's reign are of his year 38 (631 BC), but according to the Greek historian Castor, he reigned for 42 years until 627 BC.
After Ashurbanipal's death in 627 BC he was succeeded by Ashur-etil-ilani (626 – 623 BC). However, Assyria soon descended into a series of internal civil wars that would ultimately lead to its downfall. Ashur-etil-ilani was deposed as ruler of the empire in 623 BC by a general named Sin-shumu-lishir who was also declared king of Babylon. His brother Sin-shar-ishkun deposed the usurper in 622 BC, but he too was beset by a series of crippling civil wars against his rule in Assyria itself. During his rule, the Assyrian Empire began to unravel, with subject peoples ceasing to pay tribute. Babylonia took advantage of the anarchy in Assyria and rebelled under Nabopolassar who claimed the throne in 620 BC, and the next four years saw Sin-shar-iskun encamped in Babylonia trying to unseat Nabopolassar whilst trying to quell wholesale rebellion amongst his own people in the Assyrian heartland.
The anarchic state in Mesopotamia weakened Assyria to such a degree that a number of its vassal peoples - the Babylonians, Chaldeans, Medes, Persians, Scythians and Cimmerians, attacked it in unison in 616 BC, and after a brutal struggle, sacked Nineveh and slew Sin-shar-ishkun in 612 BC. Assyrian resistance continued from 612 BC, under Ashur-uballit II, an Assyrian general who was crowned amid the house to house fighting in Nineveh and managed to fight his way out of the city and form a new Assyrian capital at Harran. However, defeat by the alliance at Carchemish in 605 BC ended any realistic hopes of a resurrection of an Assyrian empire, although traces of Assyrian imperial organisation, administration and possible resistance endured in and around Dur-Katlimmu until 599 BC.
Art and culture
Ashurbanipal was proud of his scribal education. He asserts this in the statement: “I Assurbanipal within [the palace], took care of the wisdom of Nebo, the whole of the inscribed tablets, of all the clay tablets, the whole of their mysteries and difficulties, I solved.”. He was one of the few kings who could read the cuneiform script in Akkadian and Sumerian, and claimed that he even read texts from before the great flood. He was also able to solve mathematical problems. During his reign, he collected cuneiform texts from all over Mesopotamia, especially Babylonia, in the library of Nineveh.
Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria from the 9th–7th centuries BC, but had been destroyed in 612 BC. Ashurbanipal’s palace in the Nineveh was re-excavated in December 1853. The library was discovered in the Lion-Hunt Room (Murray, 2009). The Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh is perhaps the most compelling discovery in the Ancient Near East (despite how, unfortunately, the British discoverers kept no record of their findings from different sites "and soon after reaching Europe, the tablets appeared to have been irreparably mixed with each other and with tablets originating from other sites", see: Library of Ashurbanipal 1, Discovery). There have been over 30,000 clay tablets and fragments uncovered in Ashurbanipal’s library, providing archaeologists with an amazing wealth of Mesopotamian literary, religious and administrative work.
Those clay tablets were written in cuneiform, which derives from the Latin word “cunea” which means “wedge” in English, because it is created by making wedges on clay tablets. The Assurbanipal Library in Nineveh was a royal library, and the first library to classify their collection according to genres. Four-sided tablets were utilized for financial transactions and two-sided clay tablets were reserved for agricultural records (Murray, 2009). Among the findings was the Enuma Elish, also known as the Epic of Creation, which depicts a traditional Babylonian view of creation where the god Marduk slays Tiamat, the personification of salt water, and creates the world from her body. In this particular version, man is created from the blood of a revolting god, Qingu, in order to toil on behalf of the gods. Also found in Nineveh, The Epic of Gilgamesh is a compelling account of the hero and his friend Enkidu seeking out to destroy the demon Humbaba. The Gods punished the pair for their arrogance, however, by having Enkidu die from an illness. After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh seeks Utnapishtim, the survivor of the Deluge, in order to find out the secret of immortality. Also the Annals of Ashurbanipal were found here. The annals of Ashurbanipal were detailed, almost novelistic accounts of his military and civic achievements.
The library also included hymns and prayers, medical, mathematical, ritual, divinatory and astrological texts, alongside all sorts of administrative documents, letters and contracts. The discovery of these tablets in 1853 by Hormuzd Rassam (himself an Assyrian) provided the modern world its first detailed glimpse of the languages and literature of ancient Mesopotamia (Murray, 2009). Ashurbanipal had a fascination with the past, and during his forty-two year reign he sponsored the collection and copying of older texts for his library at Nineveh.
Aside from the many other myths found in Nineveh, a large selection of “omen texts” has been excavated and deciphered. Marc Van de Mieroop points out the Enuma Anu Enlil was a popular text among them: “It contained omens dealing with the moon, its visibility, eclipses, and conjunction with planets and fixed stars, the sun, its corona, spots, and eclipses, the weather, namely lightning, thunder, and clouds, and the planets and their visibility, appearance, and stations.”
Other genres found during excavations included standard lists used by scribes and scholars, word lists, bilingual vocabularies, lists of signs and synonyms, lists of medical diagnoses, astronomic/astrological texts. The scribal texts proved to be very helpful in deciphering cuneiform.
All of these texts shed some light on the religious beliefs surrounding Mesopotamian and Assyrian belief, but the library also can be interpreted as a manifestation of the value Ashurbanipal must have had for the preservation of Mesopotamian literature and culture.
The British Museum in London has the Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal, an exhilarating set of Assyrian palace reliefs from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal, also excavated at Nineveh, depicting the king hunting and killing lions. In Assyria, the lion hunt was seen as a royal sport; the depictions were seen as a symbol of the king’s ability to guard the nation. The “Garden Party” relief shows the king and his queen having a banquet celebrating the Assyrian triumph over Tuemman in the campaign against Elam. The fine carvings serve as testimony to Ashurbanipal’s high regard for art, but also communicate an important message meant to be passed down for posterity.
The sculptor Fred Parhad (1934–) created a larger-than-life statue of Ashurbanipal, which was placed on a street near the San Francisco City Hall main square in 1988. The sculpture shows Asurbanipal wearing a short tunic and holds a lion cub in his proper right arm. The figure stands on a concrete base, with bronze plaque and rosettes. The statue stands across from City Hall next to the Asian Art Museum and faces the San Francisco Library.
Robert E. Howard wrote a short story entitled "The Fire of Asshurbanipal" (sic), first published in the December 1936 issue of Weird Tales magazine, about an "accursed jewel belonging to a king of long ago, whom the Grecians called Sardanapalus and the Semitic peoples Asshurbanipal".