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Ancient evenings

The 3,000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, its unlikely rediscovery, and its echoes in literature and politics


The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh
By David Damrosch
Holt, 315 pp., illustrated, $26

"The Epic of Gilgamesh" tells the story of one of Saddam Hussein's ancient precursors. A self-made despot of ancient Mesopotamia, the historical Gilgamesh probably ruled over the city of Uruk in the early part of the third millennium BC , 1,200 to 1,500 years before the Trojan War . It's worth putting this in perspective. Gilgamesh's story is set 5,000 years ago, which places it more or less at the time of the invention of writing itself. This is the remote dawn of civilization to be sure; the Iron Age wouldn't begin for another 1,500 years . And yet human language was already perhaps 40,000 or 50,000 years old; anatomically modern Homo sapiens had roamed the planet for more than 100,000 years. In terms of the life of our species and the history of human culture, we and Gilgamesh are contemporaries. It's no wonder we find resonance and relevance in his tale. This revelation lies at the core of "The Buried Book," David Damrosch's lively and accessible account of "The Epic of Gilgamesh" from its discovery and decipherment in the 19th century to its role in Mesopotamian culture to the origins and meaning of the epic itself.

What's astonishing about "Gilgamesh" is that this foundational text in world literature was lost, its abundant traces in sacred and secular texts unnoticed, for 3,000 years. In accounting for this, Damrosch proceeds like an archeologist, peeling back the layers, beginning with the most recent deposits. He begins with George Smith , the brilliant, self-taught Assyriologist who first translated passages of the long-forgotten epic into English. The son of London laborers, Smith was an engraver who taught himself to read Assyrian cuneiform during lunch hours in the British Museum. He rose to prominence when he discovered "Gilgamesh," and in one stroke made the archeology of Mesopotamia the subject of intense public interest. The passage he happened to decode first spoke of a "flood storm, a ship caught on a mountain, and a bird sent in search of dry land." Smith had found the earliest known analogue of the biblical story of the Flood, written down in Akkadian nearly 800 years before the birth of Jesus. This discovery came at a time of great unease in Christendom, as the rise of empirical science combined with an increasing knowledge of human diversity to present the West with a world different from the one explained by biblical tales. In the mid-19th-century, the race was on to show that the Bible's wonders and miracles were as real as Darwin's finches, as venerable as the bones of the Neanderthal. With Smith's discovery of a precursor to Noah, Assyriology went overnight from scholarly backwater to media sensation.

One of "Gilgamesh" 's first and biggest fans, however, was Ashurbanipal, who ruled the Assyrians in the eighth century BC . Unlike his father and most of the Mesopotamian kings who preceded him, Ashurbanipal was a fluent reader and accomplished scholar. Ashurbanipal created the first true library within the precincts of his palace, selecting and preserving not only accounts of his own glorious victories but something like a comprehensive collection of cuneiform texts literary, magical, and practical -- a collection that was conserved and organized with great care. The Assyrian empire fell to its enemies not long after Ashurbanipal's time; the palace was destroyed by invaders and the library of fired clay tablets buried in its rubble, their contents forgotten. Damrosch observes the irony that attends such moments: "Gilgamesh" was both lost and preserved in the same act of destruction . Had Assyrian culture suffered a long decay, the tablets containing the epic would have been subject to centuries of creeping neglect, during which time they likely would have been battered to dust.

Beyond libraries and archives, human culture has a more robust storage system: story itself. In the time of its flourishing, Gilgamesh's tale spread among travelers and traders throughout the Near East; his wrath, his love for his boon companion, and his cunning have their echoes in the Iliad, while a world-destroying flood lodged itself in the tales of the Israelites. Such story lines presumably flow through unseen channels from the deepest layers of human memory. How many forgotten stories' fragments are lodged within our heads, casting shadows on the tales we learn and tell? What other early poems lie hidden in plain sight, spliced into the very DNA, as it were, of Greek epic, "The Mahabharata," the Mayan "Popol Vuh," and the Bible?

Ultimately, Gilgamesh's biblical ties would prove to be of more literary than historical significance, and it's here that Damrosch, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, comes into his own. In his telling, "The Epic of Gilgamesh" is nothing less than the drama of a newly urban and self-domesticated humankind coming to terms with its loss of wildness. The ancient epic comes to life in Damrosch's reading. The hero begins as a headstrong, hubris-laden young ruler, building city walls and scattering enemies. But the pride of this son of the goddess Ishtar is too much -- he demands droit de seigneur of his suffering subjects, sleeping with each new bride on her wedding night. To correct his ways, Ishtar sends him Enkidu, a wild man who after an initial struggle becomes Gilgamesh's sidekick . The two share adventures as Gilgamesh subdues demons, digs wells, and seeks the secret of eternal life .

Damrosch shows how scholars have tied the events of the tale to passages in the Bible and the poetry of Homer, and explains what they would have meant to the people of the city-building, resource-hungry cultures of early Mesopotamia. But he also convinces us that the poetry of "Gilgamesh" is strong and supple literature; that the story served its original readers not only by providing instruction in kingship and burial customs, but by speaking truth to power and exploring the ephemeral beauty of human life. In its vigor and sensitivity, this prodigal tale seems to set the pattern for so much of the literary art that followed; even Shakespeare's Hal is prefigured in "Gilgamesh," with Enkidu a young and sensitive Falstaff reminding his friend what may be gained by the building of walls and the razing of forests, and what may be lost as well.

While Damrosch evokes the worlds of millennia-old Mesopotamia and the Victorian explorers who rediscovered it, he pays too little attention to the conflict raging today in Iraq, which is doing irreparable damage to the archeological record of ancient Mesopotamia. In his conclusion, he briefly explores the writings of Saddam Hussein, who was fascinated with "Gilgamesh" not only for the epic's promise of an Iraqi greatness rooted in a Mesopotamian civilization preceding Islam, but -- as with his Assyrian forebears -- for the lessons it offers to those who would rule. Damrosch's account of Saddam's literary ambitions is both instructive and amusing , but his was not the only regime to seek to rule the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates, nor was it the latest. Gilgamesh's hubris and humanity offer lessons to rulers closer to home.

The plight of Iraq's antiquities deserves specific attention here. Take the case of the fortress of Erbil , which has been continuously inhabited for 7,000 years. This unbroken history of habitation has protected the city from looters and archeologists alike; its daub walls and mazelike streets of dirt sit atop the mingled layers of seven previous civilizations, from the kingdom of Sumeria to the Coalition Provisional Authority . In the last few months, however, Erbil became a ghost town as its several thousand inhabitants escaped the current strife. Erbil's ancient secrets are now falling prey to looters. Add them to the price of this folly of war; add them to the lessons of "Gilgamesh" that have gone unlearned.