The story of the great king Gilgamesh is the oldest narrative text in the world. The story has roots in the real Gilgamesh, a king of the city Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia in approximately 2750 BCE. In this fertile crescent between the rivers Tigres and Euphrates, civilization as we know it began.
It is in this place where cities began, where written language got its start, that the Iraq war has been fought.
Although we here in the West often imagine our cultures as different from those of the Arabic world, the two societies stem from the same root: life in Mesopotamia. And the Epic of Gilgamesh is the first narrative we have from the area. It comes to us on shards of clay, incomplete and developed over the course of a thousand years. The earliest shards date to 2100 BCE and were written in Sumerian. Later records are in the Akkadian language, some from around 1700 BCE and some (presumably copies made for the world's earliest library) from about 650 BCE.
People fell in love with this story, with the process of reading and writing, with sharing and saving copies of narratives of humanity and of imagination. It is amazing to me that when I flip the pages in my paperback copy of Gilgamesh, I am reading a version of what people read nearly five thousand years ago. It seems like a momentous place to begin my reading journey.
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If you are interested in a more detailed history of the epic, I recommend David Damrosch's The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh. Beginning with an extremely detailed account of the archaeological rediscovery of some of the tablets of Gilgamesh during the 1870s, the book then goes back in time to discuss Ashurbanipal's great library in Ninevah during 600s BCE, the epic of Gilamesh itself, and finally the history of the real-life king Gilgamesh.
Although Damrosch develops his historical characters with the pacing of a novelist, I must admit that I got a bit bogged down in his descriptions of the ins and outs of the 19th-century discovery of Gilgamesh. I found the book much more readable and interesting when the earlier periods are discussed. You might even start your reading with chapter five, and then after finishing to the end, skim through the beginning chapters.
Perhaps my favorite part in Damrosch's book is his epilogue--a discussion of Saddam Hussein. Before the second Gulf war began, the Iraqi leader announced plans to restore the library in Nineveh (which was Ashurbanipal's greatest legacy). He planned to make plaster casts of all the clay tablets now entombed at the British Museum and fill the reconstructed library with the treasures of Iraq's cultural heritage.
Saddam Hussein also wrote a novel--published soon after the first Gulf war--which uses the story of Gilgamesh as an allegory for the war with the U.S. The protagonist suggests that he, like Gilgamesh, has learned lessons of mortality and humility. Damrosch's analysis of this and other contemporary readings of Gilgamesh is subtle and fascinating.
You might also enjoy the New York Times review of Damrosh's book.
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Join me in the next post for a discussion about some of the central themes that arise in Gilgamesh.