People - Ancient Near East: Ashurbanipal (Assyrian Ashurban-Apli)
Ancient Near East
Ashurbanipal (Assyrian Ashurban-Apli)
Ashurbanipal (Akkadian: Aššur-bāni-apli, (Aramaic: "ܐܵܫܘܿܪ ܒܵܢܝܼ ܐܵܦܠܝܼ") "Ashur is creator of an heir"; 685 B.C. – c. 627 B.C.), also spelled Assurbanipal or Ashshurbanipal, was the son of Esarhaddon and the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (668 B.C. – c. 627 B.C.). He established the first systematically organized library in the ancient Middle East, the Library of Ashurbanipal, which survives in part today at Nineveh.
In the Bible he is called Asenappar (Ezra 4:10). Roman historian Justinus identified him as Sardanapalus.
Ashurbanipal was born toward the end of a fifteen-hundred-year period of Assyrian ascendancy.
His father, Esarhaddon, 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 not the son of Sennacherib's queen, Tashmetum-sharrat, but of the West Semitic "palace woman" Zakutu, known by her native name, Naqi'a. 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 Adrammelek and Sharezer. From this conspiracy, Esarhaddon emerged as king in 680 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, soldierliness, 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. According to legend, Ashurbanipal was the only Assyrian king who learned how to read and write.
In 672, upon the death of his queen, Esarhaddon reorganized the line of succession at the instigation of his mother. He used the submission of Median chieftains to draft the "Vassal Treaty". The chieftains swore that if Esarhaddon died while his sons were still minors, they and their children would guarantee the succession of Ashurbanipal as king of Assyria and Shamash-shum-ukin as king of Babylon even though Ashurbanipal was the younger of the two. Before this, his elder brother Sin-iddina-apla was Esarhaddon's heir but he died in the same year. A monumental stela set up two years later in a northwestern province portrays Esarhaddon in high relief upon its face and each of the sons on a side. These portraits, the earliest dated for Ashurbanipal and his brother, show both with a facial beard which implies maturity.
The princes pursued diverse educations thereafter. Extant letters from Shamash-shum-ukin offer his father reports of the situation in Babylon; Ashurbanipal at home received letters as crown prince. The situation came to an immediate crisis in 669, when Esarhaddon, on campaign to Egypt, died suddenly. Ashurbanipal did not accede to the kingship of Assyria until late in the year. His grandmother Zakutu required all to support his sole claim to the throne and to report acts of treason from now on to him and herself. This shows how influential the old lady was at the beginning of Ashurbanipal's reign. The official ceremonies of coronation came in the second month of the new year, and within the same year (668 BC), Ashurbanipal installed his brother as King of Babylon. The transition took place smoothly, and the dual monarchy of the youthful brothers began. Texts describe their relationship as if they were twins. It was clear, however, that Ashurbanipal, as king of Assyria, like his fathers before him, was also called "king of the universe."
Despite being a popular king among his subjects, he was also known by for his exceedingly cruel actions towards his enemies. Some pictures depict him putting a dog chain through the jaw of a defeated king and then making him live in a dog kennel. Many paintings of the period seem to exhibit pride in his malice and brutality.
Ashurbanipal inherited from Esarhaddon not only the throne but also the ongoing war with Egypt and Kush. Esarhaddon sent an army against them in 667 that defeated king Taharqa near Memphis, while Ashurbanipal stayed at his capital in Nineveh. At the same time the Egyptian vassals rebelled and were also defeated. All of the vanquished leaders save one were sent to Nineveh, only Necho I the Prince of Sais, convinced the Assyrians of his loyalty and was sent back to become king of Egypt. After the death of Taharqa in 664 BC his nephew and successor Tantamani invaded Upper Egypt and made Thebes his capital. In Memphis he defeated the other Egyptian princes and Necho may have died in the battle. Another army was sent by Ashurbanipal and again it succeeded in defeating the Kushites. Tantamani retreated to his homeland and stayed there. The Assyrians plundered Thebes and took much booty home with them. How the Assyrian interference in Egypt ended is not certain but Necho's son Psammetichus I gained independence while keeping his relations with Assyria friendly. An interesting Assyrian royal inscription tells us of 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 he sent his ambassadors to do so he was indeed able to defeat his Cimmerian enemies. But when he supported the rebellion of one of the Egyptian rebels his country was overrun by the Cilicians.
For the time being the dual monarchy went well. For his assignment of his brother, Ashurbanipal sent a statue of the divinity Marduk with him as sign of good will. Shamsh-shuma-ukin's powers were 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 even claimed that he sent food supplies during a famine. Around 664 BC the situation changed and Urtaku, the Elamite king, attacked 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. 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 from him to Ashurbanipal's court, including Urtaku's oldest son Humban-nikash. In 658/657 BC the two empires clashed again. The reason for this was the treasonous province of Gambulu in 664 acting against the Assyrians. Ashurbanipal finally decided to punish them for that. On the other hand, Teumman saw his authority threatened by the Elamite princes at the Assyrian court and demanded their extradition. When the Assyrian forces invaded Elam a battle followed 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 new vassal of Assyria and tribute was imposed on it. With the Elamite problem solved the Assyrians could finally punish Gumbulu 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 they lost control; one tore out his beard and the other committed suicide but this wasn't enough. 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 must have grown between the two brother kings and in 652 BC Babylon rebelled. This time Babylon was not alone – it had allied itself with Assyrian Chaldean tribes, its southern regions, the kings of "Gutium", Amurru, and Malluha, 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 some unrest in the cities indicates that there were problems. When Babylon finally was attacked, the Assyrians proved to be more powerful. Civil war prevented 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 terrible massacre of the rebels took place, according to the king's inscriptions. Ashurbanipal allowed Babylon to keep its independence but it became even more formalized than before. The next king Kandalanu left no official inscription, probably as his function was only ritual.
The end of the Assyrian Empire
During the final decade of his rule, Assyria was quite peaceful, but the country apparently faced a serious decline. Documentation from the last years of Ashurbanipal's reign is very scarce but the latest attestations of Ashurbanipal's reign are of his year 38 (631 BC), but according to later sources he reigned for 42 years (627 BC).
Whatever may have been the case, after his death there was a power struggle. The contenders included Ashur-etil-ilani, his brother Sinsharishkun, general Sin-shumu-lishir, and the eventual new king of Babylonia, Nabopolassar; who fought against whom is not certain.
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 understood 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, and especially Babylonia, in the library in Nineveh.
The Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh is perhaps the most compelling discovery in the Ancient Near East. There have been over 30,000 clay tablets uncovered in Ashurbanipal’s library, providing archaeologists with an amazing wealth of Mesopotamian literary, religious and administrative work. 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, Quingu, 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 punish the pair for their arrogance, however, by having Enkidu die from illness. After Enkidu’s death Gilgamesh seeks Utnapishtim, the survivor of the Deluge, in order to find out the secret of immortality.
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.
An incredible collection of reliefs and carvings portraying ideological scenes of Ashurbanipal are also part of the legacy left behind by the king. The British Museum in London boasts an exhilarating exhibit of carvings 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.
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