Almost nothing can more completely foil a plan than a war followed by a protracted occupation. But despite an impressive array of obstacles, the University of Mosul in Iraq is going ahead with an ambitious project: building a new library to revive the ancient library of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal, the ruins of which are located just outside the modern city of Mosul. After the invasion of Iraq by the United States, Mosul, a focal point of violence in the early years of the war, became difficult terrain for a large-scale cultural development project. But now, plans hatched a decade ago to revive a treasure of Iraq’s cultural legacy are coming closer to fruition.
“The project is intended to have archaeological studies at its core and to serve as a center for archaeologists all over the world to be acquainted with the deep-rooted civilization of ancient Iraq,” says Ali Yassin al-Juboori, dean of the College of Archaeology at the University of Mosul and the primary organizer of the endeavor.
The ancient library, the subject of research and the inspiration for the new library, is generally considered the earliest example of a systematized and indexed book collection. It was discovered in the nineteenth century by British archaeologists while they were excavating the ruins of the palace of Ashurbanipal, who was Assyria's last king. Ashurbanipal is likely one and the same as King Sardanapalus, whose legendary decadence made him a favorite subject for Western Romantic-era painters and writers.
During his reign, Ashurbanipal collected thousands of clay tablets containing literary, religious and philosophical texts from across the Middle East, particularly Babylon, including perhaps most famously the “Epic of Gilgamesh." The collection also includes more prosaic texts, such as contracts, decrees and royal administrative documents from Ashurbanipal’s court. The tablets were primarily written in cuneiform script, one of the earliest systems of writing.
Some 30,000 clay tablets, most written in the seventh century BC, predating the ancient library of Alexandria by roughly 400 years, were taken to England after the discovery of the library; the collection is currently housed in the British Museum.
Plans for a new library at the University of Mosul began to be drawn out in 2000, under the government of Saddam Hussein.
In 2002, the British Museum drew up an agreement with the Iraqi government to create copies of the most important pieces of the collection to be put on display in the new library, despite UN sanctions on the country that would have made the actual purchase and export of such copies nearly impossible. Before the two parties were able to work out the details of the potential exchange, the United States and its allies invaded Iraq, putting the plans on hold.
But today, Juboori is optimistic about the future of the library. “We hope to finish the project by 2014 or 2015,” he told Al-Masry Al-Youm over the phone from Mosul.
Despite the turmoil of recent years, Juboori never abandoned his plans. “We never stopped working; we just did not have a budget [after the invasion]. And because of the situation in Mosul, no one was willing to work here.”
The library’s funding comes from the University of Mosul, a public university, and for several years after the war began, the Iraqi government, and by extension the university, had no funds at all, according to Juboori. Now the money has begun to return, though it is still limited.
“In the university budget we have a small amount of money. We are slowly building on it,” says Juboori.
To fill the library’s shelves when it is finished, the British Museum, as well as a coalition of other literary organizations in the Arab world, are working to provide donated content.
“We want to collect everything: Xerox copies, and any books written about ancient Iraq, especially in the Assyrian period,” says Juboori. The collection, though, will not be limited to the study of ancient Iraq.
The British Museum has agreed to renew cooperation with the University of Mosul, and plans to donate 200 copies of tablets from their collection, which will be put on display in a gallery in the finished building.
The project has returned to the news in Egypt recently, due to a large scale campaign across the Arab world to collect books for the institution. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a project inspired by a similar dream of reviving ancient intellectual glory, is helping lay the foundations for the new library.
Khaled Azab, head of the media department at the Bibliotheca, describes the library’s involvement in the project. “We are buying books and helping in administrative issues to help set up the library," he says.
The Bibliotheca is also involved in a wide-ranging donation campaign, drawing on institutions and intellectuals across the Arab world. They have currently collected 2000 books, working toward their goal of 100,000. In this campaign, the Bibliotheca is cooperating with several professors from universities in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria; the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Morocco; and United Arab Emirates University. It continues to seek more partners, Azab adds.
In 2007, as the situation in Mosul became calmer, the university was able to initiate construction on the building that should eventually become the finished library. Today, the main structure is complete. Its idiosyncratic design draws inspiration from the ancient civilization that built the first library. “The outer shape of the library represents an abstract reference to the winged bull, one important monument of the Assyrian civilization,” says Juboori.
The new library, in addition to being a culture and research center for the university and the city, is intended to revitalize the study of Iraq’s ancient cultural history in the country, and to provide a home in Iraq for all future archaeological discoveries there.
As Juboori describes his view of the original excavation site from his office window, there is a sense of resentment that its precious contents were taken so far away.
“One of the main undertakings of the College of Archaeology is to supervise excavation works in Nineveh, which embraced and preserved the Ashurbanipal Library for 2500 years until it was snatched by the first foreign excavators,” says Juboori.
“The future discoveries of our excavations, whether tablets or other findings, will be deposited in the library for study and exhibition.”
Building a library is no small task, and it will take many years to put together a world-class scholarly research center. But the project to recreate Ashurbanipal’s library is moving forward, if slowly. Juboori is leading a renewed archaeological excavation of Ashurbanipal's palace slated to begin in September, and he is looking forward to the time when the findings his team unearths will have a home in Mosul.