Sunday, January 30, 2011

Review: The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh

Title: The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh
Author: David Damrosch
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2006
Genre/Pages: Non-Fiction, History/272 pages
Source: Library
Grade: B+

Summary of facts I learned from reading this book:

In 1840, a young English adventurer by the name of Austen Henry Layard visited the ruins of ancient civilizations in Greece and Turkey. He then traveled to the area around Mosul in Northern Iraq searching for evidence of civilizations around Mesopotamia and found only mile long mounds which even further piqued his interest. He decided he would uncover what was hidden beneath these mounds. Layard and his assistant Hormuzd Rassam discovered the lost city of Nineveh under one of these mounds, and here buried was King Sennacherib’s vast palace. In the palace was a library assembled by his grandson, King Ashurbanipal with over 100,000 clay tablets and they shipped them back to the British Museum.

The most important find in this library was the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest story written over 3,000 years ago. Ashurbanipal had collected many copies of this story because to the Assyrian people King Gilgamesh was like a god. He was two-thirds god and one-third human, having the god, Ninsun as his mother. He also became known as the governor of the Underworld, where he would judge a person after death. This is according to an old Sumerian poem, “The Death of Bilgamesh.”

Written on these clay tablets is an intricate form of picture writing called cuneiform. When these tablets were found, nobody could read this – it was the ancient Akkadian language. Sir Henry Rawlinson, who had a intense love for ancient languages, had a breakthrough in deciphering this cuneiform when he learned of an inscription on a monument built for the Persian King Darius written in three different forms of old Persian languages in cuneiform. After 15 years of work, he could translate Gilgamesh; the year was 1850. Then by 1872, George Smith, a gifted curator at the British Museum began to translate it and he found the story of the flood which held much fascination to the people because it was remarkably similar to the story of Noah’s Ark from the Bible.

Many of the tablets found were letters written during the time of King Esarhaddon’s reign. He was Ashurbanipal’s father. They reveal this king’s paranoia about who would usurp his throne. He used many priests, oracles, diviners, and exorcists to flesh out the details of these plots. As a child, Ashurbanipal was trained in the ancient Sumerian and Akkadian languages. His training in literacy was not common for an Assyrian king and could be why he collected such a huge collection of clay tablets. And because his palace and library were destroyed in 612 BC, we are able to enjoy the story of Gilgamesh and learn so much about the history of the Assyrian civilization from these preserved clay tablets.

One similarity between the Iliad and Gilgamesh would be that the heroes in these epics both had gods for their mothers: the mother of Achilles was the god Thetis and the mother of Gilgamesh was the sun god Ninsun. Thetis pleads with Zeus to help Achilles in battle, and Ninsun pleads with Shamash to help Gilgamesh in his battle with Humbaba. In both epics the mothers both fear for their son’s mortality and the heroes’ adventures both lead to the death of their respective best friends, Patroclus and Enkidu.

Saddam Hussein liked to compare himself to Gilgamesh. Hussein had planned to rebuild Ashurbanipal’s library in Nineveh and to make casts of the 25,000 clay tablets in the British museum. After the first Gulf War, Hussein became a writer and gained immortality in this way. His first novel, a political romance named Zabibah and the King, contains elements of Gilgamesh and The Thousand and One Nights. The king in this novel was a tyrannical ruler, much like Gilgamesh, and Zabibah, a common woman, was his muse and lover, much like Enkidu, as she urged him to become a more just ruler. Hussein may have been trying to gain the sympathy of his people in this novel as the king has a much troubled upbringing, just like Saddam Hussein did in his youth.

My thoughts:

I enjoyed reading about the history of the events leading up to the destruction of Ashurbanipal’s library and the subsequent loss of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and then the finding of these ancient cities and artifacts. I also enjoyed the history of the difficulties with the translating of the clay tablets and the history of the political rivals at the British Museum. The author gives all the pertinent details which gave me a greater understanding of the Assyrian people and why they wrote this story and what was important to them at this time in history. The epic recounts the hero Gilgamesh’s fear of death and his quest for immortality; it is also a story of love and tyranny. Learning about the Assyrian people through these findings is very interesting to me. I love to see how people from thousands of years ago are just like the people of today. We all would like to be immortal. And coming to terms with life, love, power and death are common themes for everyone throughout history.

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