Lost Treasure

In Gilgamesh, scholars unearthed literary gold

A carving of the tale of Gilgamesh
A carving of the tale of Gilgamesh Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg) via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

The first great masterpiece of world literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, recounts the adventures of a legendary king and is based in all likelihood on an actual historical figure, Gilgamesh, the ruler of the Babylonian city of Uruk around 2700 B.C. Credited with erecting the massive wall around Uruk, the first major city, Gilgamesh emerged over the centuries as the hero of a cycle of poems, and eventually of the 3,000-line epic, which reached final form around 1200 B.C. In it, Gilgamesh defeats a forest demon, spurns the advances of Ishtar, goddess of love, and falls into despair when his beloved friend Enkidu is struck down by the enraged Ishtar. Abandoning Uruk, Gilgamesh sets off to discover the secret of immortality; he hopes to learn it from a distant ancestor, Uta-napishtim, to whom the gods granted immortality after he survived a great flood that had inundated the earth centuries before.

After various travails, Gilgamesh finds Uta-napishtim, who recounts the story of the Flood. The questing hero, however, is denied his heart's desire: the gods will never again confer immortality upon any human. The epic concludes with the king's return home, where he resolves to take comfort in his saga, engraved on tablets and buried in the city's walls.

Like all ancient Mesopotamian literature, the epic of Gilgamesh was lost to historical memory with the eclipse of the ancient cultures of Assyria and Babylonia in the centuries before Christ. Only in the mid-19th century did British and French archaeologists begin to explore the mysterious mounds in present-day Iraq that held the remains of the first urban societies. A particularly rich find was the library of Ashurbanipal, last great king of Assyria: in the 1850s, British archaeologist Austin Henry Layard and his Iraqi associate, Hormuzd Rassam, unearthed it in the ruins of Nineveh. They shipped 100,000 tablets and fragments home to the British Museum; gradually scholars began to piece them together and decipher the ancient texts.

In 1872, the young curator George Smith created a sensation when he unearthed Gilgamesh's broken tablets in the museum's collection. Smith immediately perceived that the character of Uta-napishtim, Gilgamesh's ancestor, constituted an early version of the Bible's Noah—a striking parallel at a time when Victorian debates over religion and science were at their height. How much prehistory recounted in the Bible was true? Was life on earth the product of divine creation, or the result of blind chance, as Charles Darwin's radical theories implied? Smith, entering this debate with his corroboration of the biblical account of the Flood, used his dramatic discovery to launch one of the most meteoric careers in the history of archaeology.

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