Early in April of 1840, a young British traveler arrived in the dusty provincial capital of Mosul in what is now northern Iraq. Restless, ambitious, and completely unsure of what he should do with his life, Austen Henry Layard had just spent several months wandering around Greece, Turkey, and the Levant, admiring the monumental ruins left by the Greeks and Romans throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Now he was venturing into unsettled regions rarely visited by European travelers, for it was said that uncharted sites around Mosul held imposing remains of Nineveh and other ancient Assyrian cities. The reports Layard had heard were both true and false: the sites were there, yet when Layard went out to them, he was astonished to discover that there was nothing to see. All that remained of the great Mesopotamian civilizations were formless mounds of earth, forty or fifty feet high and up to a mile wide, with not one temple, not one pillar, not one sculpture in sight.
Far from disappointing him, the desolation of the Assyrian sites only fired Layard’s imagination. As he later wrote, a traveler crossing the Euphrates would seek in vain for “the graceful column rising above the thick foliage of the myrtle” or the elegant curves of an amphitheater above a sparkling bay. “He is now at a loss to give any form to the rude heaps upon which he is gazing,” Layard continued. “The more he conjectures, the more vague the results appear. The scene around is worthy of the ruin he is contemplating; desolation meets desolation; a feeling of awe succeeds to wonder; for there is nothing to relieve the mind, to lead to hope, or to tell of what has gone by.” Then and there, Layard resolved that he would be the one to uncover the history buried in the bleak mounds before him.
Layard and a handful of other archaeological explorers soon embarked on one of the most dramatic intellectual adventures of modern times: the opening up of three thousand years of history in the cradle of civilization. Layard led the way with spectacular discoveries at two different sites. At a site south of Mosul, he uncovered beautifully carved reliefs and a set of magnificent, human-headed winged bulls that became centerpieces of the British Museum’s collection; across the Tigris from Mosul he found the long-buried ruins of Nineveh. There he discovered the vast palace built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib, its endless corridors and seventy rooms lined with two full miles’ worth of carved reliefs; not for nothing had Sennacherib named it “Palace Without Rival.”
As spectacular as the carvings were, Layard’s most important find was literary: he and his Iraqi friend and assistant Hormuzd Rassam uncovered the major library assembled by Sennacherib’s grandson, Ashurbanipal. Layard and Rassam shipped a hundred thousand clay tablets and fragments back to the British Museum, and these proved to be keys to uncovering the region’s ancient history and its rich literature. The greatest of the thousands of texts that Layard and Rassam brought to light is The Epic of Gilgamesh, the first great masterpiece of world literature.
This book tells the story of that long-buried book, a history of imperial conflict and of cross-cultural cooperation. During the epic’s varied life, it has cut across many of the divides that arose during the long history of the intertwined civilizations that flourished in Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean. Gilgamesh links East and West, antiquity and modernity, poetry and history, and its echoes can be found in the Bible, in Homer, and in The Thousand and One Nights. At the same time the epic illuminates the profound conflicts that persist within each culture, and within the human heart itself. “Why,” Gilgamesh’s divine mother Ninsun asks the sun god, “did you afflict my son Gilgamesh with so restless a spirit?”
As it unfolds, The Epic of Gilgamesh becomes a searching meditation on the nature of culture. After ill-advised adventures lead to the sudden death of his beloved friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh is overwhelmed with despair and a deep fear of death. He abandons his city and goes in search of immortality, whose secret he believes he can learn from his ancestor Uta-napishtim, miraculous survivor of the Flood that swept over the earth centuries before. After a long and perilous journey Gilgamesh finally meets Uta-napishtim, only to find that he cannot transcend the human condition after all. Gilgamesh’s quest may have failed, but along the way he learns lessons about just and unjust rule, political seductions and sexual politics, and the vexed relations among humanity, the gods, and the world of nature.
Though it is one of the earliest explorations of these perennial themes, this haunting poem isn’t a timeless classic, in the sense in which Ben Jonson spoke of Shakespeare’s works as “not of an age, but for all time.” Instead, Gilgamesh has lived in two very different ages, the ancient and the modern, and only in these. A story of the fragile triumph of culture in the face of death, the epic strangely came to illustrate its own theme through its turbulent history. It was widely read in the Near East for a thousand years, until it vanished amid the eclipse of the region’s ancient cultures, buried under successive waves of empire, from the Persians to the Romans and their successors. The epic was buried in ruin mounds along with Mesopotamia’s entire written production, as people stopped speaking the region’s older languages and lost even the ability to read the cuneiform script in which the works were written. Unexpectedly, the epic reemerged in the nineteenth century into a scene of renewed imperial conflict, involving Arabs, Turks, Persians, Kurds, Chechens, Jews, Englishmen, Russians, and others in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. The choices these rivals made in the nineteenth century set the stage for the conflicts being played out in Iraq today.
Layard and Rassam uncovered Ashurbanipal’s great library, but they had no way to know what it contained, for no one in the world could read the intricate cuneiform characters inscribed on the clay tablets. A group of gifted linguists worked during the next two decades to unlock the secrets of cuneiform writing and to decode the ancient language of Akkadian, in which most of the tablets were written. Finally, in 1872, a young assistant curator named George Smith came upon the Gilgamesh epic as he worked his way through the myriad of tablets and fragments in the British Museum’s collection. The epic aroused intense interest and controversy from the moment Smith began to translate it, as his readers realized that this distant text had much to tell them about a work at the heart of Western culture: the Bible. Smith found that Gilgamesh’s ancestor Uta-napishtim was an early version of Noah, and his tale of the Flood broadly agreed with the biblical account but differed in some significant details.
Within days of this discovery, sermons and newspaper editorials began to engage in sharp debate: What did the Babylonian version prove, the truth of biblical history or its falsity? As the New York Times noted in a front-page article, “For the present the orthodox people are in great delight, and are very much prepossessed by the corroboration which it affords to Biblical history. It is possible, however, as has been pointed out, that the Chaldean inscription, if genuine, may be regarded as a confirmation of the statement that there are various traditions of the deluge apart from the Biblical one, which is perhaps legendary like the rest.” Smith’s scholarly detective work brought the ancient epic squarely into the middle of the heated Victorian controversy over creation and evolution, religion and science, a debate that continues today.
Some further detective work is required today, though, to get the full benefit of the epic’s rich history. Layard, Rassam, and Smith wrote voluminous books about their adventures, but they rarely told the whole story in print: as proper Victorians, they could be irritatingly discreet just when they approached the heart of the conflicts in which they were involved, and like all memoirists they shaped their tale for public ends. To get a three-dimensional picture, it is necessary to supplement their books with other sources. Fortunately, the British Museum and the British Library have preserved many of their private letters and journals, which are fresh, lively, and often surprisingly candid. Most of these papers have been buried for a century in these archives, never published or even discussed. These materials give a vivid picture of what was going on behind the scenes, and at important points they correct received ideas that are flat-out wrong.
Archival research sometimes becomes almost its own branch of urban archaeology. Whereas the British Library’s holdings have been comprehensively catalogued and cross-indexed, the British Museum’s departments have much more informal archives, consisting of yellowing file folders, masses of correspondence going back two hundred years, and stacks of old account books. The museum’s curators have the most precise knowledge of every artistic artifact in their care, but departmental records can be stored in rather haphazard ways. In a small field like Assyriology, everyone knows their discipline’s history in a general way, but it is rarely studied in depth. Documents concerning the early days of archaeology are scattered, and finding key sources can be a chancy affair, following an uncertain trail from one informant to another.
I had this experience in talking with two curators in the British Museum’s Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, Susan Collins and Irving Finkel. They generously took time away from their curatorial work on several occasions to supply me with cuneiform tablets, old letters, and Victorian newspaper clippings, yet I drew a blank when I asked for sources on a crucial episode involving Hormuzd Rassam. He had gone on to a distinguished career after discovering Ashurbanipal’s palace but late in life had become embroiled in disputes with the museum’s rising young Egyptologist, E. A. Wallis Budge. The conflict had culminated in a disastrous lawsuit that Rassam filed against Budge in 1893, and I was sure that the museum must have records of this suit. Dr. Collins was able to find some newspaper reports and a few unrelated letters from Budge, but nothing more. Dr. Finkel, too, was at a loss, but just as I was about to leave, some stray remark prompted him to pause, thoughtfully stroking his bushy white beard. There was, he suggested, another archivist I could talk to, at the museum’s little-visited Central Archive, and perhaps I might find something there.
So I made my way to the Central Archive, which is reached, oddly, through an unmarked door at the back of the British Museum gift shop. Once through that door, I walked through a series of darkened, echoing rooms filled with empty bookshelves (the books having been transferred to the recently constructed British Library), then came to a warren of small offices, among which is the Central Archive. Of the seven days of the week, it is open to the public for five hours on Tuesdays. In the archive I found a trove of information: an entire folio scrapbook labeled “Rassam v. Budge, 1893.” It contained extensive records of the pivotal lawsuit, including the pleadings and the actual transcript of the judge’s detailed summation to the jury. Turning the musty pages of this volume, I experienced the archaeologist’s sense of discovery as a long-lost drama unfolded, day by day, in the summer of 1893.
Archaeologists work their way down through time, from the present-day surface back through layer after layer of the ever more distant past. This book proceeds in the same way into “the dark backward and abysm of time,” in Prospero’s phrase. The following chapters will go from what is known to what is unknown, from what is near in space and time to what is far away. The account begins with the lives of the two people who played decisive roles in the epic’s modern recovery: George Smith, who found the epic in the British Museum only to lose his life in Syria a few years later; and Hormuzd Rassam, discoverer of Ashurbanipal’s palace, whose major contributions to archaeology were long suppressed by his English rivals. Starting in the Victorian period, we will then work down in time to explore the ancient era of the tablets’ burial in the burning ruins of Ashurbanipal’s palaces in Nineveh; to examine the mature epic and the early cycle of songs from which it grew; and, finally, to reach Gilgamesh himself at the threshold of history nearly five thousand years ago, architect of Uruk’s independence and builder of its magnificent wall.
This journey into antiquity has parallels in the ancient text itself, when Gilgamesh leaves his city in search of the secret of eternal life, making the dangerous journey to find his ancestor, “Uta-napishtim the Faraway.” Journeys ideally end with a return home—in this case, back to the present—and the epilogue of this book will look at Gilgamesh’s renewed life in the present. It has come to figure in the literary work and the political musings of figures as disparate as Philip Roth and Saddam Hussein, and even as a point of reference in the first and second Gulf Wars. The most ancient masterpiece of world literature has become bound up with the most current of events today.
Copyright © 2006 by David Damrosch. All rights reserved.