For a thousand years, “The Epic of Gilgamesh” pervaded the world’s ancient civilized culture, a poetic narrative serving as a literary and political touchstone in the same way Homer, Shakespeare or the Bible has done for more recent Western cultures.
The story of a legendary Sumerian king who oppressed his people, defied the gods and sought the secret of immortality, only to lose his most treasured friend and return home older, wiser and a more compassionate monarch, Gilgamesh may have roots in a real king of the city of Uruk , located on the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia, more than 4,000 years ago.
Yet after the fall of the Assyrian empire in the sixth century B.C., with the loss of the first great library in the world, Gilgamesh and his deeds, not to mention the piece of literature recounting them, passed from human memory, and might never have existed at all.
That is, until the middle of the 19th century, a time when British explorers — more than adventurers, but not quite archaeologists — began combing what is now Iraq for ruins and artifacts mentioned in the Bible.
In The Buried Book, Columbia University English professor David Damrosch ably relates the story of how one of those explorers, Sir Austen Henry Layard, digging in a formless mound near Mosul, uncovered the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, with “the vast palace of Sennacherib” and the library of Ashurbanipal, Sennacherib’s grandson and the last great king of Assyria.
But the real hero of the first portion of Damrosch’s book is a brilliant amateur linguist named George Smith who taught himself to read Akkadian. The thousands of cuneiform tablets Layard sent home to London were housed in the British Museum, where amateurs were allowed to aid in cataloging and translating them. Most of the tablets had to do with the daily business of commerce and government — tax receipts and billings.
It was there in 1872 that Smith, on lunch break from his job as a printer’s engraver, came across what seemed to be a narrative of the biblical flood. It was, in fact, a portion of “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” recognized at once as a sensational discovery.
Damrosch’s secondary hero is the remarkable Iraqi archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam, a friend and protege of Layard’s, who continued to excavate the ruins near Mosul throughout the 19th century, only to have credit for much of his work stolen or belittled by the Englishmen whose acceptance and admiration he so greatly craved.
The second half of The Buried Book, in which Damrosch delves into the life and career of Ashurbanipal, is even more satisfying. Ashurbanipal was first trained for a priestly position, ascending the Assyrian throne only when his elder brother died after being kidnapped by Babylonians.
As a result, Ashurbanipal was unique among monarchs of antiquity for being literate — his ability to read and write for himself apparently gave him great pride and led to his amassing the great library Layard uncovered more than two millennia later.
Damrosch, in workmanlike but effective prose, winds up with fascinating chapters analyzing the epic, seeking its origin as well as the historical basis of its hero, and noting the way in which, rediscovered, it has once again influenced writers and would-be kings as disparate as Philip Roth and, believe it or not, Saddam Hussein, who wrote a novel informed by the epic titled “Zabibah and the King.”
Who knew that Saddam was such a Renaissance man?
At any rate, The Buried Book proves a worthy companion to David Mitchell’s excellent transliteration of the epic itself, Gilgamesh: A New English Version (2004), which renders the text into clear poetic narrative for modern readers.