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The library of Ashurbanipal: c.645 BC

The Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, organizes a library in keeping with the dignity and splendour of his new palace at Nineveh. This is not to be just the administrative records of the empire, as kept in any ruler's archive. In a tradition which will be followed by several later rulers (Ptolemy in Alexandria, for example, or Akbar at Fatehpur Sikri), Ashurbanipal sets his scribes to copying important works of literature.

In the case of Assyria, this means inscribing them in cuneiform on moist clay tablets.

When the Nineveh library is discovered, in the 19th century, it amounts to more than 20,000 tablets and fragments (now mostly in the British Museum). Their subjects range from religion and science to dictionaries and works of literature. They include the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the story of how an early man by the name of Adapa made us all mortal; when the gods offered him a taste of the bread and water of eternal life, he said no.

Modern knowledge of Assyria, until recently a forgotten culture, is very largely based upon these tablets. Ashurbanipal's initiative bears unexpected fruit nearly three millennia after he forms his collection.

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