Ancient Near East - Assurbanipal


Upon his father's death, Assurbanipal (Ashurbanipal) held a great coronation festival for his brother's ascension to the throne of Babylon. He returned the statue of Marduk to Babylon and elevated the city to its former glory.

Assurbanipal then began Assyria's second invasion of Egypt. He again defeated the Egyptian army at Memphis, and again Taharqa fled south. However, this time the Assyrians pursued him. Taharqa managed to return to the Nubian capital at Napata, safe from the Assyrians, who would not travel further than Thebes. The Mayor of Thebes, Mentuemhet, turned over the city without a fight and the Assyrians returned to Memphis where they installed a loyal Egyptian King, Necho I, as ruler.

South in Napata, Taharqa installed his nephew, Tanutamun, as successor. Upon the death of Taharqa, about a year later, Tanutamun took the throne, marched on Egypt, and engaged the Assyrians at Memphis without much effort. Necho I was assassinated for being Assyria's puppet ruler. Assurbanipal returned for a 3rd invasion of Egypt and, like his uncle, Tanutamun fled south to Napata. The Assyrians pursued him but would go no further than the First Cataract at Aswan. Assurbanipal then returned to Thebes, sacked the city, and plundered the temples. This act devastated the Egyptian people. Before leaving Egypt, Assurbanipal made Necho I's son, Psammetichus I ruler of Egypt and equipped him with Assyrian garrisons stationed at strategic points throughout the country.

Between 665 and 657 B.C., Assurbanipal put down a rebellion in Tyre, led his army through Anatolia, and subdued the Kingdom of Urartu, which had again risen to threaten Assyrian interests. While he was engaged in these campaigns, Psammetichus I peacefully and quietly obtained independence from Assyrian rule.

By the year 653 B.C., Shamash-shum-ukin had also grown tired of being Assurbanipal's puppet king. Inscriptions from Babylon indicate that Assurbanipal had been dictating his brother's decrees and managing his affairs. Other inscriptions indicate that Shamash-shum-ukin sent secret envoys to the king of Elam asking for support in rebelling against his brother and the Assyrians. Assurbanipal, it seems, knew nothing of his brother's schemes and was only aware that the armies of Elam were mobilizing for an assault against Babylon. Taking the offensive in protecting his brother, Assurbanipal marched his army to Elam and attacked.

Assurbanipal defeated the Elamites and sacked their cities. According to his inscription, he killed the Elamite king Teumann and his son with his own sword:

“With the encouragement of Assur, I killed them. I cut off their

heads in front of each other.”

He then brought the heads back to Nineveh where he hung them in his garden as decoration. Since Assurbanipal did not know his brother had invited the Elamites to Babylon, Shamash-shum-ukin continued with his rule and Assurbanipal continued to dictate it. In the same year, a coalition of Medes, Persians, and Cimmerians marched on Nineveh and brought their forces within reach of the walls. Assurbanipal called on his Scythian allies again and defeated the coalition, killing the king of the Medes.

In 652 B.C., Shamash-shum-ukin decided to act and openly rebelled. He took Assyrian villages and outposts and claimed them in the name of Babylon. When Assurbanipal responded by marching his army to the region, Shamash-shum-ukin retreated behind the walls of Babylon where he was besieged by the Assyrian forces for the next four years. When the city finally fell, those who had survived so long were cut down by Assyrian soldiers. Assurbanipal writes:

“The rest of those living I destroyed... and their carved up bodies

I fed to dogs, to pigs, to wolves, to eagles, to birds of the heavens,

to fishes of the deep.”

Shamash-shum-ukin set himself on fire in his palace in order to escape capture. When it was all over, Assurbanipal set an Assyrian government official named Kandalu on the throne of Babylon.

At the same time Babylon fell, Elam erupted in civil war. The king of Elam had died and now different factions fought for the throne. Assurbanipal saw an opportunity to finally defeat his old enemy and drove his army again into Elam. As stated by historian Susan Bauer:

“Elamite cities burned. The temples and palaces of Susa were

robbed. For no better reason than vengeance, Assurbanipal

ordered the royal tombs opened and the bones of the kings

bundled off into captivity.”

When he sacked and destroyed the city of Susa in 647 B.C., he captured anyone with even the slightest claim to the throne and brought them back to Nineveh as a slave. In keeping with Assyrian policy, Assurbanipal deported the population throughout the region and left the cities empty and fields barren. Bauer writes:

“Assurbanipal did not rebuild after the wrecking of the country.

He installed no governors, he resettled none of the devastated

cities. He made no attempt to make this new province of Assyria

anything more than a wasteland. Elam lay open and undefended.”

This would later prove to be a mistake as the Persians would slowly take the territory and proceed to rebuild and refortify the cities. In time, they would rise and help topple the Assyrian Empire.

The Library of Assurbanipal

Assurbanipal was proud of his scribal education. 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. During his reign he collected cuneiform texts from all over the empire, especially Babylonia, and built a royal library in Nineveh. He commissioned copies of literary works from libraries all over Mesopotamia in order to obtain “the hidden treasures of the scribe's 'knowledge'”. This idea of this knowledge being noted as hidden treasures would persist in coming ages. Author Stuart Murray notes:

“...libraries would be increasingly revered as sources of knowledge and

wisdom – spiritual, magical, and earthly – and whoever controlled books

and libraries possessed a unique power.”

Among the over 30,000 clay tablets found in the library of Assurbanipal, some of the highlights included works such as the Enuma Elish (The Babylonian Epic of Creation) and the great tale of Gilgamesh, the oldest piece of epic world literature. The original Mesopotamian story of the great flood, which predates the story in the Bible, was also found here and is considered one of the greatest and most important archaeological finds in history.


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