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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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Of course the best precaution would have been leaving the plague-ridden area immediately. Instead, reprimanded, Smith stayed on far too long, to no useful purpose. By the time he and his assistant, Peter Matthewson, finally headed west through the desert, having collected only a single trunk's worth of items, a plague quarantine had precluded the simpler way down the Tigris from Baghdad and then home by steamer around the Arabian Peninsula.

As they made their way through Syria in August, Smith took sick with dysentery; as he gradually weakened, he became unable to ride his horse, and they halted at a village called Ikisji, 40 miles from Aleppo. Matthewson then rode ahead to Aleppo, where he sought out the closest thing to an English-speaking doctor he could find, a dentist named John Parsons. Parsons returned with Matthewson to Ikisji and did what little he could for Smith, then helped transport him in a conveyance called a tatravan, a kind of mule-drawn sedan chair, to Aleppo.

In the brief decade after he "entered into official life" in 1867, Smith had written eight important books. All modern scholarship on Babylonian literature stems from his pathbreaking work, and at the time of his illness he did at least know that his accomplishments would live on, both in his own books and in the work of those who would follow in his footsteps.

These considerations figure prominently in the last entries in his small black field notebook, three and a half by six inches. In them, his mind wanders between family, duty, Assyrian history and two bronze statuettes that he had stored among his belongings:

"My collection includes some important specimens includ[ing] the two earliest bronze statuettes known in Asia before the Semitic period. They are in my long boots beside in my trunk there are about thirty-five tablets and fragments about twenty valuable some unique including the tablet of Labir-bari-Kurdu the Laborssoarchus of Berossus, there is a large field of study in my collection, I intended to work it out but desire now that my antiquities and notes may be thrown open to all students. I have done my duty thoroughly." Then the entries trail off in the final few broken phrases, appropriately enough for the great restorer of fragments. Smith died in Aleppo on August 19, three days after his last journal entry, just four years after he had been the first person to read The Epic of Gilgamesh in 2,500 years.

Author David Damrosch is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

From The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh by David Damrosch. Copyright © 2007 by David Damrosch, published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

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