In search of Gilgamesh, the epic hero of ancient Babylonia.
In search of Gilgamesh, the epic hero of ancient Babylonia.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, March 4, 2007; Washington Post

THE BURIED BOOK: The Loss and Rediscovery Of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh
By David Damrosch
Henry Holt. 315 pp. $26

The oldest surviving fragments of the Babylonian epic we now call Gilgamesh date back to the 18th century -- the 18th century before the Christian era, that is, more than 3,700 years ago. Etched in the wedge-shaped letters known as cuneiform on clay tablets, Gilgamesh stands as the earliest classic of world literature. Surprisingly, it is a classic still in the making, for scholars continue to discover and piece together shards -- in Akkadian, Sumerian, Hittite and other ancient languages -- that occasionally add a few more lines to this story of an ancient Middle Eastern king's quest for immortality and his coming to terms with the inevitability of death.

In The Buried Book, David Damrosch, a Columbia professor of comparative literature, organizes his text as an archaeological dig, opening with a prefatory account of Austen Henry Layard's discovery and excavation of the ruins of Nineveh in the 1840s, then gradually working his way back from the Victorian era into ancient times. His first and second chapters describe the career of George Smith, a self-taught Assyriologist, who one momentous afternoon in 1872 was working at the British Museum, going through a pile of Layard's clay tablets. Suddenly, Smith realized that he was reading about "a flood storm, a ship caught on a mountain, and a bird sent out in search of dry land."

The discovery of this "Chaldean account of the Deluge" so electrified the young scholar that he danced around the museum and actually began to "undress himself." (No one is quite sure if that meant anything more than loosening his collar.) Smith had stumbled across an episode (in Akkadian) from Gilgamesh, becoming the first person to read a portion of the epic in more than 2,000 years. But stumbled is hardly the word, for Smith was nothing less than a linguistic genius, the unexpected man in the right place. As Damrosch writes:

"He became the world's leading expert in the ancient Akkadian language and its fiendishly difficult script, wrote the first true history of the long-lost Assyrian Empire, and published pathbreaking translations of the major Babylonian literary texts, in between expeditions to find more tablets in Iraq. Though this would have been the lifework of an eminent scholar at Oxford or the Sorbonne, Smith's active career instead lasted barely ten years, from his mid-twenties to his mid-thirties. Far from holding a distinguished professorship, he had never been to high school, much less college. His formal education had ended at age fourteen."

Smith's career -- cut short by his death in the Middle East from dysentery -- was heroic, but so was that of his older colleague Henry Rawlinson (to whom Smith dedicated his 1875 book The Chaldean Account of Genesis). Rawlinson was a figure in the classic Victorian mold -- a military officer in India and Persia with a flair for languages, possessed of exceptional courage and stamina, both physical (he once rode 750 miles on horseback in 150 consecutive hours) and scholarly: He spent 15 years patiently working out the meaning of Akkadian cuneiform, then later produced one of those daunting monuments of Victorian scholarship, the five-volume Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia.

The third great figure in Damrosch's story of the rediscovery of Gilgamesh is Hormuzd Rassam, a Chaldean Christian who served as Layard's second-in-command, attended Oxford and later headed up archaeological expeditions for the British Museum. According to Andrew George, a leading modern figure in Babylonian studies, Rassam is "an unsung hero of Assyriology." Why unsung? Damrosch -- no doubt rightly, if somewhat tendentiously -- points to racial, i.e. "Orientalist," prejudice as the reason for his neglect. Rassam wasn't really, you know, quite the right sort, even though he grew to be more English than the English, serving in the diplomatic corps and living long enough to see his daughter become a star of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. But Damrosch makes clear that the man's wide-ranging archaeological discoveries were consistently undervalued or callously ascribed to others. At the end of his life, Rassam was even compelled to bring a suit against the Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge, who falsely accused him of selling artifacts.

At this point in his book, Damrosch turns to the excavation of the library of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king of the 7th century B.C. who valued poetry as well as power. Here, we are introduced to the court life of ancient Mesopotamia, in particular the priests, sorcerers and secret agents who formed the inner circle of such rulers as Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal himself. Damrosch neatly conveys the immense antiquity of the Gilgamesh epic by noting that the poem "was already ancient in Ashurbanipal's day, copied and recopied for more than a thousand years before the young crown prince studied it in the Temple of Nabu."

In the last third of The Buried Book, Damrosch zeroes in on the poem itself, noting that " Gilgamesh is often read today as an existential tale of the fear of death and the quest for immortality, but the epic is equally a tale of tyranny and its consequences." It also reflects on "the limits of culture . . . presented in contrast to the world of nature." This is its plot:

The young Gilgamesh is a "wild bull" of a man, restless of heart, full of unfocused energy. He conducts his life with seigniorial abandon, abusing his subjects and even flagrantly exercising his right to sleep with girls on their wedding nights. The women of his capital city of Uruk complain to the gods, who decide to fashion Enkidu, a true wild man, to defeat Gilgamesh in combat. At first the hairy Enkidu lives in a state of nature, literally running with the gazelles, until he is sexually initiated by a temple prostitute, after which the animals of the forest will have nothing to do with him. When he eventually confronts Gilgamesh, en route to deflower another virgin, the pair wrestle and nearly demolish the surrounding buildings, before becoming fast friends (and even perhaps lovers).

In due course, accompanied by his new buddy, the restless Gilgamesh goes adventuring, defeats an ogre who guards a sacred cedar wood, spurns the sexual invitations of the goddess Ishtar and kills the monstrous bull she then sends to avenge her honor. But Gilgamesh and Enkidu have now deeply angered the gods, and one of them must pay with his life. After Enkidu suffers a series of dream visions of the nether world, he finally dies, as Gilgamesh is racked with both grief and the fearful knowledge that the same end waits for him. Can nothing be done? He resolves to journey to the ends of the earth to confront Uta-napishtim, a Noah-like figure who alone of mankind survived the great Deluge and has been given the gift of immortality. In due course, Gilgamesh crosses the Ocean of Death but learns that no one can alter his mortal destiny. Nonetheless, a fragment -- outside the so-called "standard" version of the epic -- informs us that Gilgamesh is ultimately allowed to become the godlike judge of the underworld.

In his last chapter, Damrosch discusses some later uses of the Gilgamesh story, focusing on Philip Roth's The Great American Novel (in which a major character is a baseball pitcher named Gil Gamesh) and Saddam Hussein's novel Zabibah wal-Malik, a kind of love story-cum-allegory of the first Gulf War. In particular, the comparatist Damrosch urges his readers to understand that they are part of an "Islamo-Christian civilization." " Gilgamesh and The Iliad, the Bible and the Qur'an were not products of isolated, eternally opposed civilizations; they are mutually related outgrowths of the rich cultural matrix of western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean world. Isaac and Ishmael are half brothers, and Uta-napishtim and Noah are closer still: they are two versions of one and the same character."

Though useful, entertaining and informative, The Buried Book may bother some readers with its lack of a strong narrative line, its tendency to overemphasize irrelevant details (why include so many pages on Rassam's diplomatic mission in Abyssinia?) and its well-meaning political correctness: Damrosch can sometimes seem as condescending to the narrow-minded Victorians as they so often were to "Orientals." Despite these blemishes, The Buried Book should help introduce new readers to an ancient classic that has really come into its own in the 21st century. Whether enjoyed in the brilliant (but very loose) version of David Ferry or the scholarly transcription of Andrew George, this Babylonian epic remains a very human story about wisdom painfully acquired. Appropriately, its hero is called, in the memorable first line, "He who saw the Deep." And what does Gilgamesh learn? Before the end that awaits each of us -- "a man's life is snapped off like a reed in a canebrake" -- we should perform good deeds, love our families and enjoy simple pleasures. As Uta-napishtim says, in Andrew George's translation:

But you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full,

Enjoy yourself always by day and by night!

Make merry each day,

Dance and play day and night!

Let your clothes be clean,

Let your head be washed, may you bathe in water!

Gaze on the child who holds your hand,

Let your wife enjoy your repeated embrace!

For such is the destiny [of mortal men].

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is