In search of Gilgamesh, the epic hero of ancient Babylonia.

Gilgamesh represented in a Chaldean seal
Gilgamesh represented in a Chaldean seal (Bettmann / Corbis)
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, March 4, 2007


The Loss and Rediscovery

Of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh

By David Damrosch

Henry Holt. 315 pp. $26

The oldest surviving fragments of the Babylonian epic we now call Gilgamesh date back to the 18th century -- the 18th century before the Christian era, that is, more than 3,700 years ago. Etched in the wedge-shaped letters known as cuneiform on clay tablets, Gilgamesh stands as the earliest classic of world literature. Surprisingly, it is a classic still in the making, for scholars continue to discover and piece together shards -- in Akkadian, Sumerian, Hittite and other ancient languages -- that occasionally add a few more lines to this story of an ancient Middle Eastern king's quest for immortality and his coming to terms with the inevitability of death.

In The Buried Book, David Damrosch, a Columbia professor of comparative literature, organizes his text as an archaeological dig, opening with a prefatory account of Austen Henry Layard's discovery and excavation of the ruins of Nineveh in the 1840s, then gradually working his way back from the Victorian era into ancient times. His first and second chapters describe the career of George Smith, a self-taught Assyriologist, who one momentous afternoon in 1872 was working at the British Museum, going through a pile of Layard's clay tablets. Suddenly, Smith realized that he was reading about "a flood storm, a ship caught on a mountain, and a bird sent out in search of dry land."

The discovery of this "Chaldean account of the Deluge" so electrified the young scholar that he danced around the museum and actually began to "undress himself." (No one is quite sure if that meant anything more than loosening his collar.) Smith had stumbled across an episode (in Akkadian) from Gilgamesh, becoming the first person to read a portion of the epic in more than 2,000 years. But stumbled is hardly the word, for Smith was nothing less than a linguistic genius, the unexpected man in the right place. As Damrosch writes:

"He became the world's leading expert in the ancient Akkadian language and its fiendishly difficult script, wrote the first true history of the long-lost Assyrian Empire, and published pathbreaking translations of the major Babylonian literary texts, in between expeditions to find more tablets in Iraq. Though this would have been the lifework of an eminent scholar at Oxford or the Sorbonne, Smith's active career instead lasted barely ten years, from his mid-twenties to his mid-thirties. Far from holding a distinguished professorship, he had never been to high school, much less college. His formal education had ended at age fourteen."

Smith's career -- cut short by his death in the Middle East from dysentery -- was heroic, but so was that of his older colleague Henry Rawlinson (to whom Smith dedicated his 1875 book The Chaldean Account of Genesis). Rawlinson was a figure in the classic Victorian mold -- a military officer in India and Persia with a flair for languages, possessed of exceptional courage and stamina, both physical (he once rode 750 miles on horseback in 150 consecutive hours) and scholarly: He spent 15 years patiently working out the meaning of Akkadian cuneiform, then later produced one of those daunting monuments of Victorian scholarship, the five-volume Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia.

The third great figure in Damrosch's story of the rediscovery of Gilgamesh is Hormuzd Rassam, a Chaldean Christian who served as Layard's second-in-command, attended Oxford and later headed up archaeological expeditions for the British Museum. According to Andrew George, a leading modern figure in Babylonian studies, Rassam is "an unsung hero of Assyriology." Why unsung? Damrosch -- no doubt rightly, if somewhat tendentiously -- points to racial, i.e. "Orientalist," prejudice as the reason for his neglect. Rassam wasn't really, you know, quite the right sort, even though he grew to be more English than the English, serving in the diplomatic corps and living long enough to see his daughter become a star of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. But Damrosch makes clear that the man's wide-ranging archaeological discoveries were consistently undervalued or callously ascribed to others. At the end of his life, Rassam was even compelled to bring a suit against the Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge, who falsely accused him of selling artifacts.

At this point in his book, Damrosch turns to the excavation of the library of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king of the 7th century B.C. who valued poetry as well as power. Here, we are introduced to the court life of ancient Mesopotamia, in particular the priests, sorcerers and secret agents who formed the inner circle of such rulers as Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal himself. Damrosch neatly conveys the immense antiquity of the Gilgamesh epic by noting that the poem "was already ancient in Ashurbanipal's day, copied and recopied for more than a thousand years before the young crown prince studied it in the Temple of Nabu."

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