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

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

4.0 1
by David Damrosch

View All Available Formats & Editions

Adventurers, explorers, kings, gods, and goddesses come to life in this riveting story of the first great epic—lost to the world for 2,000 years, and rediscovered in the nineteenth century

Composed by a poet and priest in Middle Babylonia around 1200 bce, The Epic of Gilgamesh foreshadowed later stories that would become as fundamental as any in

…  See more details below


Adventurers, explorers, kings, gods, and goddesses come to life in this riveting story of the first great epic—lost to the world for 2,000 years, and rediscovered in the nineteenth century

Composed by a poet and priest in Middle Babylonia around 1200 bce, The Epic of Gilgamesh foreshadowed later stories that would become as fundamental as any in human history, The Odyssey and the Bible. But in 600 bce, the clay tablets that bore the story were lost—buried beneath ashes and ruins when the library of the wild king Ashurbanipal was sacked in a raid.

The Buried Book begins with the rediscovery of the epic and its deciphering in 1872 by George Smith, a brilliant self-taught linguist who created a sensation when he discovered Gilgamesh among the thousands of tablets in the British Museum's collection. From there the story goes backward in time, all the way to Gilgamesh himself. Damrosch reveals the story as a literary bridge between East and West: a document lost in Babylonia, discovered by an Iraqi, decoded by an Englishman, and appropriated in novels by both Philip Roth and Saddam Hussein. This is an illuminating, fast-paced tale of history as it was written, stolen, lost, and—after 2,000 years, countless battles, fevered digs, conspiracies, and revelations—finally found.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In the tradition of Edmund Wilson, Columbia literature professor Damrosch unearths the first great masterpiece of world literature: the ancient epic of the legendary Sumerian king Gilgamesh. Several copies of a largely complete version of the 4,000-year-old poem, which follows Gilgamesh on a heroic quest for immortality as he seeks out a survivor of a major deluge, were part of the great library assembled at the palace of Nineveh by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who ruled from 669 B.C. and sought ancient texts to guide him in ruling after his brother's disastrous rebellion. After Nineveh was sacked in 612 B.C., the Gilgamesh epic was forgotten for more than 2,000 years until archeologists Austen Henry Layard and Hormuzd Rassam uncovered the library and shipped 100,000 clay tablets and fragments to the British Museum in the 1840s and '50s. There, in 1872, assistant curator George Smith decoded the cuneiform writing and Akkadian language and discovered that the epic offered a controversial earlier version of the biblical flood account. Damrosch's fascinating literary sleuthing will appeal to scholars and lay readers alike as they ponder the intricacies of cuneiform, the abuses heaped on the Iraqi Rassam and the working-class Smith by the Victorian class system, and recent Gilgamesh-inspired novels by Philip Roth (The Great American Novel) and Saddam Hussein. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Damrosch (English & comparative literature, Columbia Univ.; general editor, Longman Anthology of British Literature) offers an engaging look at the history behind the world's oldest known literary epic. The Epic of Gilgamesh was rediscovered in 1872 by former banknote engraver George Smith as he worked his way through a pile of cuneiform tablet fragments at the British Museum. The first half of Damrosch's book, arguably the more interesting, focuses on two individuals connected to the rediscovery: Smith, whose brilliant career was cut short by his early death while on an expedition to Iraq, and Assyrian archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam, who in the 1850s unearthed King Ashurbanipal's Royal Library in the ruins of Nineveh, the modern city of Mosul in Iraq. In the second half, Damrosch chronicles the history of Gilgamesh, from the destruction of Ashurbanipal's library back to the historical figure of Gilgamesh, before concluding with a short epilog on Gilgamesh's influence on contemporary literature-specifically, Philip Roth's The Great American Novel and Saddam Hussein's (yes, that Saddam Hussein) Zabibah wal-Malik. Not quite an essential purchase, this lively and lucid work belongs in most academic and public libraries.-William D. Walsh, Georgia State Univ. Lib., Atlanta Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
How the epic poem Gilgamesh was composed, modified, recorded on clay in cuneiform, stored, smashed, lost and found. For this general history and literary detective story, Damrosch (English and Comparative Literature/Columbia Univ.) steps a little outside the groves of academe, in whose shade he's written and/or edited various scholarly anthologies. He begins with the Eureka! moment in 1872: George Smith, an assistant curator at the British Museum, came across Gilgamesh among the thousands of cuneiform fragments slowly being translated from tablets shipped from the Middle East several decades earlier. When Smith realized the significance of what he had found, Damrosch tells us, he removed some clothing and danced with joy. Subsequent chapters employ a Raiders of the Lost Ark approach to chart the lives and careers of the scholar-adventurers who first explored Assyrian culture by excavating sites in Iraq now associated in the public mind with internecine violence. Among them were Austen Henry Layard and Hormuzd Rassam, who, on a mid-19th-century expedition for the British Museum, uncovered the long-buried ruins of Nineveh (across the Tigris from Mosul) and the royal library containing Gilgamesh. Damrosch offers a long (perhaps overlong) re-telling of Rassam's difficulties with the mad Abyssian King Theodore, a sanguinary tale told with even greater panache by George MacDonald Fraser in his novel Flashman on the March (2005). Things pick up with the author's engaging retelling of the story of Gilgamesh, enfolded within the history of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal's assembly of the world's greatest library and the destruction of Nineveh after a three-month siege by Babylonian invaders. Fragmentsof Gilgamesh and thousands of other tablets then lay covered and waiting for centuries, until the arrival of the men Damrosch profiled in the early chapters. In his final pages, the author looks at how Gilgamesh has affected later writers, including Philip Roth, whose The Great American Novel (1973) features a baseball great named Gil Gamesh. A graceful example of how rigorous scholarship and erudition can inform and animate popular history.
From the Publisher

“An altogether compelling narrative of a crucial episode in cultural history. This is a book that vividly demonstrates why humanism matters and how it is enhanced by exercising an unconventionally broad reach.” —Robert Alter, author of The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, and Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley

The Buried Book is a thrilling intellectual adventure: a brilliant study of Gilgamesh, it is also a rich and complex narrative of colonialist adventurers, obsessed scholars, anxious theologians, and contemporary writers all caught up in the ancient epic's amazingly wide net.” —Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

“David Damrosch's The Buried Book is a remarkably original, narrative analysis of the loss, rediscovery, and literary-spiritual values of the ancient epic, Gilgamesh. There is somber wisdom and wit in Damrosch's comprehensive story, which finds room for Philip Roth's The Great American Novel and the murderous fictions of Saddam Hussein. It is salutary to be reminded by Damrosch that ultimately we and Islam share a common literary culture that commenced with Gilgamesh.” —Harold Bloom, author of Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?

author of Will In The World: How Shakespeare B Stephen Greenblatt
The Buried Book is a thrilling intellectual adventure: a brilliant study of Gilgamesh, it is also a rich and complex narrative of colonialist adventurers, obsessed scholars, anxious theologians, and contemporary writers all caught up in the ancient epic's amazingly wide net.

Read More

Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Sold by:
File size:
4 MB

Read an Excerpt


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.

Read More

Meet the Author

David Damrosch is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He is the general editor of The Longman Anthology of World Literature and the founding general editor of The Longman Anthology of British Literature. He lives in New York City.

David Damrosch is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He is the general editor of The Longman Anthology of World Literature and the founding general editor of The Longman Anthology of British Literature. He lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago