Book Reviews - Spring 2007

An Epic in Flux

Gilgamesh, the world's first great literary work, is still being pieced together

By Sudip Bose | March 1, 2007

The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh by David Damrosch, Henry Holt, $26

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest of the world’s ancient classics, and though it influenced so much of the literature that came after it, the poem can frustrate its reader in a way that the Iliad or the Bible does not. Gilgamesh most likely has its roots in the oral tradition—imagine bearded bards roaming Mesopotamia, singing of the exploits of a heroic king and his quest for immortality. Over time, the epic was written down, recorded on clay tablets in cuneiform. What must have been a wide range of related poems more or less coalesced into a single epic sometime around 1200 B.C., when a redactor named Sîn-liqe-unninni created a standard version in the Akkadian language. For hundreds of years, the poem was copied and recopied by scribes, in places such as Babylonia, Assyria, Anatolia, and the Levant.

Only about 70 manuscripts of the poem are known today, many fragmented and damaged, and even in the standard, most complete version of the poem, the text has many gaps. A passage, for example, can look something like this:

“He is not mine . . . . . . ,
. . . . . . . . . . . .
The boatman . . . . . . . . . ,
the man who . . . . . . . . . ,
who . . . . . . . . . . . .”

But if such textual gaps frustrate, they also beguile. Parts of the poem are still being found, and the dark and dusty storerooms of the world’s great museums hold the promise of unread cuneiform tablets recovered from a century and a half of excavation. The main felicity of a new translation of the Odyssey is that it is more accessible, that it speaks more clearly, to the age in which it is made than the versions that preceded it. A new translation of Gilgamesh offers even more excitement: it helps complete an unfinished masterpiece, an epic very much in flux. With each new translation, the story of the king Gilgamesh—of his tyrannical ways, of his touching friendship with the wild man Enkidu; of his journey from innocence to disillusionment—becomes more robust and visceral.

Just how The Epic of Gilgamesh came to be discovered is the subject of David Damrosch’s elegant new book. As Damrosch, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, writes, Gilgamesh was “widely read in the Near East for a thousand years, until it vanished amid the eclipse of the region’s ancient cultures, buried under successive waves of empire, from the Persians to the Romans and their successors.” The recovery of the ancient texts coincided roughly with the founding of Assyriology, the study of ancient Mesopotamia. In the 1840s and early 1850s, the British archaeologist and traveler Austen Henry Layard began excavating near the Iraqi city of Mosul. Across the Tigris River from Mosul, Layard identified the ruins of Nineveh, the capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire and one of the most significant cities of the ancient Near East.

Layard and his assistant, an Iraqi Christian named Hormuzd Rassam, dug into a massive mound and discovered the palace of King Sennacherib, with its extensive narrative reliefs. In 1853, Rassam struck out on his own, and in subsequent excavations he uncovered the library belonging to Sennacherib’s grandson, King Ashurbanipal. There, amid an unsurpassed collection of ancient manuscripts, Rassam found 12 clay tablets containing The Epic of Gilgamesh. (Eleven of the tablets constitute the main text; the 12th is a Sumerian poem serving as a kind of appendix.) Nobody, of course, least of all Rassam, could identify the tablets at the time, for cuneiform had yet to be deciphered, and the Akkadian language remained a mystery. The artifacts, along with thousands of other fragments and texts, were simply shipped to the British Museum.

In 1872, an Englishman named George Smith encountered the fragments in the British Museum, where he was an assistant curator, and following the groundbreaking work of Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, who had deciphered cuneiform in the early 1860s, he started to translate. Smith had rediscovered Gilgamesh, and his success transformed him instantly into a star, marking, in Damrosch’s words, “the turning point of his life. . . . He became the world’s leading expert in the ancient Akkadian language and its fiendishly difficult script.” Eventually, Smith went to Iraq and continued to excavate Ashurbanipal’s library, where he made important discoveries while ensconcing himself in the trappings of international celebrity. “He dined with ambassadors in Constantinople,” Damrosch writes, “wealthy travelers in Aleppo, and military officers in Baghdad.”

Damrosch’s story of Smith, Rassam, and Layard is clearly written and riveting and is a wonderful introduction to a pioneering period of Near Eastern study—not to mention the ancient world. But to me, the book pursues too many divergent projects. Is it an account of archaeological discovery during the sunset of the Ottoman Empire, when many excavators were little more than glorified tomb raiders and diligent adventurers were seduced by the romance of distant travel and the possibility of undiscovered riches? Is it a reassessment of the career of Hormuzd Rassam, whose accomplishments have been regrettably overlooked throughout history? Is it a story of imperial conquest, of colonial powers laying claim not only to an ancient, blood-soaked land, but to its history as well? Is it a thoughtful explication of The Epic of Gilgamesh? Is it a brief history of the Assyrians’ empire and culture? It is, in fact, all of these things, but it reads like a series of separate books, rather than as a unified whole.

Nevertheless, upon finishing The Buried Book, you can’t help but go back to Gilgamesh itself. To read this poem is to see it as the rightful forebear of all world literature. Long before the biblical writers told of Noah and the Flood, for example, the scribes who copied down The Epic of Gilgamesh were relating the story of the great Deluge that flooded the earth and of Uta-napishti, who builds a boat, survives the destruction, and becomes an immortal. And doesn’t the scene from the Iliad in which Achilles mourns his dear friend Patroklos recall Gilgamesh’s beautiful lament for his intimate companion Enkidu?

“Hear me, O young men, hear [me!]
Hear me, O elders [of teeming Uruk,]
hear me!
I shall weep for Enkidu, my friend,
like a hired mourner-woman I shall
bitterly wail.”

In this moving, instructive, and timeless poem, we see, mirrored in the past, many of the concerns of our modern age: the clash of cultures, the consequences of tyranny, the fear of death, the need to leave behind something concrete and substantial after we have passed. Reading Damrosch’s book encourages us to consider—or reconsider—these themes, as well as the poem’s other riches, and to await the next great archaeological discoveries that will make the epic whole again.

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