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Epic Hero

How a self-taught British genius rediscovered the Mesopotamian saga of Gilgamesh —after 2,500 years

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Now he dined with ambassadors in Constantinople, wealthy travelers in Aleppo and military officers in Baghdad, and even at his mound outside Mosul he was able to make a home away from home. He had a house constructed to his specifications, marking out its foundations himself, and he had an excellent English cook. "Except that I have not you with me," he wrote Mary, "I am as much at home as in England and like it a good bit better and I can here do as I like and have power and influence."

Still, local officials were less pleased to have Smith doing as he pleased. Convinced that he must have spirited away some ancient treasure on his first trip, they threw up a succession of bureaucratic roadblocks. In the end, they impounded several hundred tablets, and Smith had to return home with much less than he had found. In his 1925 Rise and Progress of Assyriology, Budge was inclined to lay the blame at Smith's own feet. "His guileless soul did not understand the use of Bakshîsh [bribes]," Budge wrote.

Nonetheless, Smith arrived in England in early June 1874 with a large collection of tablets. Soon he had begun to decipher the full Flood story as well as the epic of Gilgamesh in which it appeared. Working at a furious pace, he published his translation at the end of 1874, and the next year he finished no fewer than four more books, including Assyrian Discoveries and a large collection of translations of all the major literary texts he'd found. No longer able to link this more varied group of texts to the Flood story alone, he simply expanded his biblical frame, titling his new book The Chaldean Account of Genesis: Containing the Description of the Creation, the Fall of Man, the Deluge, the Tower of Babel, the Times of the Patriarchs, and Nimrod; Babylonian Fables, and Legends of the Gods; from the Cuneiform Inscriptions. (Chaldean, a generalized term, refers to the mythologies of ancient Fertile Crescent cultures.)

Smith read The Chaldean Account of the Deluge not only for its parallels to the Bible. As he began to reconstruct the body of the epic leading up to the Flood narrative, Smith sought a unifying theme in the saga of the hero Gilgamesh's adventures. Smith located the heart of the epic in Gilgamesh's journey to a distant cedar forest in Tablet 5, where he and his companion Enkidu defeat a demon called Humbaba.

Piecing together this account as best he could, Smith engaged in a brilliant piece of detective work, building plausibly on external evidence to make sense of the fragmentary text. His accomplishment is all the more impressive given that he built some of his interpretations on guesses about words that no one had ever deciphered, in lines that often were only fragments of their full selves. Smith's writings are full of discoveries that have stood the test of time, often involving intuitive leaps beyond literal surfaces.

George Smith was now at the peak of his powers, with ambitious plans to write a series of books on Assyrian and Babylonian history and culture. He had left Iraq, moreover, vowing never to return, and could very well have spent decades working at the museum with his thousands of tablets, with no need ever to venture abroad again. Yet he was nagged by the sense of opportunities not taken, and when the museum proposed a third expedition to Iraq at the end of 1875, Smith agreed to make the trip.

He encountered months of delay, first in Constantinople to get his permit, and then in having it honored in Mosul. His travels east through Syria and then in Iraq itself were greatly delayed by civil unrest and spreading disease. In June 1876, his companion, Karl Eneberg, a Scandinavian archaeologist, died of cholera as the pair approached Baghdad. Writing home to Mary from Aleppo in Syria, he tried to make light of his mounting difficulties: "The plague is sweeping part of the very district I ought to visit; now do not be alarmed, you are not aware that the plague was in the country when I was here last although then it was not spreading so fast but as it is I am very cautious although there is no real danger, I have stopped my journey & remain for the present at Aleppo to see how it goes—people here are alarmed and naturally so for last year they lost in this city 8,000 people out of a population of 100,000 by cholera, that however has disappeared."

In Mosul, Smith encountered still more bureaucracy, and by the time he was allowed to start digging it was July, and the heat was too intense to proceed. Smith contemplated cutting his losses and coming home early. As he wrote to Mary: "I do not enjoy my stay here, although I live well I am certainly thin, and often I feel I would sooner have cold mutton!!! at home than be here, the truth is I do not do very well as a single man, I have been married too long, it was all very well in the first expedition, but the gilt was soon off the gingerbread and if I had not been pledged I would not have come now....Kiss all our pets and tell them Papa will soon come back and look one of these days to see my cab drive up to the door. If I am successful this year I will come home in July and leave the excavations in charge of my assistant who is a very good and likely party."

Smith then wrote to the museum, announcing this plan; while that letter hasn't survived, the museum's reply has. Writing in a tone one might use to scold a lazy servant, the secretary of the museum, McAllister Jones, expressed his surprise that Smith would consider leaving his post prematurely. "This the Trustees consider to be very objectionable," Jones wrote. "It is not stated that Mr. Matthewson's labours would be equally efficient with your own, and if not equally efficient it is clear that such excavating ought not to be left to his superintendence excepting in cases of absolute necessity. The Trustees will be glad to receive your explanation for this." Jones tried to close in a more sympathetic vein:

"I am very sorry to hear from your last letter that the plague is increasing to so great an extent. This will require every precaution on your part."

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