There’s no better illustration of the fragility and the power of literature than the history of “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the oldest known literary work, composed in Babylonia more than 3,000 years ago. About 400 years later, after one of the ruthless, bloody sieges typical of that time, the epic was buried in the ruins of a Mesopotamian palace. There it lay, utterly forgotten along with the name of the king who once reigned in that palace, until a British archaeologist and his Iraqi assistant unearthed it not far from the modern city of Mosul in 1840.
David Damrosch’s artful, engrossing new history, “The Buried Book,” relates how “The Epic of Gilgamesh” was lost and found — or rather how it was found and lost, since he tells the story backward, from the present to the past, in an archaeological fashion. It’s a risky narrative gambit, and Damrosch is gifted enough to pull it off, no small feat. Think of it: He asks you to be excited about what the characters in his story are discovering even before you know quite how important it is. But that, after all, is the nature of archaeology and what gives the discipline its distinctive thrill. What you’re excavating is probably just another empty Egyptian tomb, stripped clean by grave robbers hundreds of years ago. Or you could be Howard Carter on the best day of his life in 1922, prying open that tiny breach in the left-hand corner of a doorway, catching a whiff of air unbreathed for thousands of years, shining in a light and telling your companions that you see, “Yes, wonderful things!”
The recovery of the “The Epic of Gilgamesh” was less dramatic, mostly because it was drawn out over decades, but the prize was even more fabulous than the treasures of King Tut’s tomb: the oldest story ever told — or, at least, the oldest one told in writing. It is the tale of a king, and full of sex, violence, love, thievery, defiance, grief and divine retribution. It’s the first buddy picture, the first depiction of the Underworld, the precursor to the legend of Noah and his ark. If it were like hundreds of other great and ancient stories — the death and resurrection of Osirus, the quest of Orpheus, Sigurd’s slaying of the dragon Fafnir — it would have reached us through countless retellings, gradually morphing and splitting and fusing with other stories over the years. Those stories come to us like the DNA of our ancestors, still present within us, but reshaped by generations of mutations and ultimately as familiar as our own faces.
Instead, “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” preserved on 12 clay tablets, fell into a kind of time capsule in the fabled cradle of civilization. When archaeologists dug it up again it was like one of those movies in which a caveman captured in permafrost gets thawed out to meet the modern world. True, some bits of the epic have embedded themselves in other stories — most notably the Old Testament — and then have been handed down from one storyteller to the next through the ages. But much of the epic feels both fresh and alien, a piece of the past all Westerners (and many Asians) share, unsmoothed by the passage of the centuries.
Its hero, Gilgamesh, is the regal son of a man and a goddess, a lineage that makes him one-third human and two-thirds divine. At the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh is a dreadful king, rampaging through his city-state of Uruk, forcing the young men of his kingdom to engage in endless contests and, worst of all, insisting on the droit de seigneur — or the right of a lord to deflower his community’s virgins on their wedding nights. The women of Uruk protest this violation to the gods, who respond in an exceptionally roundabout way by making a man out of clay, Enkidu, and letting him loose in the wilderness, where he lives alone, befriending the animals and ripping apart the traps hunters set for them. The hunters retaliate by asking Gilgamesh to send a temple prostitute to the wilderness to seduce and civilize Enkidu. She succeeds — but not before Enkidu manages to sustain an erection for an impressive seven days and seven nights.
The priestess persuades Enkidu to move to a village, where he meets a wedding party lamenting the forthcoming rape of the bride by Gilgamesh. The outraged Enkidu storms into Uruk, confronts Gilgamesh and an earthshaking wrestling match ensues. The two men battle to a draw, whereupon Gilgamesh realizes that he has finally met his equal and new best friend. In fact, Enkidu is the very man whose coming Gilgamesh’s mother has prophesied: “Like a wife you’ll love him, caress him and embrace him.” (The blatantly homoerotic dimension of this great friendship doesn’t figure in the very earliest Sumerian legends about Gilgamesh; it was added to the now-standard Babylonian version of the epic, written down 1,000 years later.)
Enkidu moderates Gilgamesh’s “restless spirit,” but even he cannot dissuade the king from launching a timber raid on a cedar forest outside his borders. The timber (a valuable commodity in arid Mesopotamia) is guarded by the fearsome ogre, Humbaba. In the midst of this expedition, for reasons not entirely clear, Enkidu suddenly switches strategies and stops restraining his friend. Instead, he eggs Gilgamesh on, encouraging him to slaughter the defeated Humbaba, and bringing the ogre’s terrible curse down upon them both.
After that, things go downhill. The love goddess Ishtar attempts to seduce Gilgamesh, but he rejects her haughtily. In vengeance, the gods send the Bull of Heaven to plague Uruk, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay it and Enkidu taunts Ishtar with the beast’s hindparts. This is the last straw; the gods set aside their previously rather indirect methods and kill Enkidu. After mourning his friend for an entire tablet, Gilgamesh sets off in search of a distant ancestor, Uta-napishtim the Faraway, the sole survivor of a great, primeval flood and the only man to be spared death by the gods. Uta-napishtim refuses to help him, and he must return to Uruk empty-handed and still doomed to die. Back home, he comforts himself with rejoicing in the magnificence of his city. (A final tablet, a kind of appendix, describes how Enkidu once stumbled into the underworld — the “House of Dust” — and, after being rescued by the gods, told Gilgamesh everything he saw there.)
As Damrosch points out, although the epic was lost for millennia, some threads from Gilgamesh’s story survived in other myths. Enkidu, who loses his ability to commune with the beasts after succumbing to the temple prostitute, is like Adam and Eve cast out of the Earthly Paradise and estranged from the state of nature. But for the Mesopotamians, Damrosch goes on to explain, this didn’t constitute a fall from grace; as they saw it, Enkidu graduated from savagery to a civilized existence, a step up. The friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu resembles that of Achilles and Patroklos in “The Iliad,” and that’s no coincidence, according to the classicist M.L. West, who has argued that “poet-singers were likely performing ‘Gilgamesh’ in Syria and Cyprus during the period in which the Homeric epics were first being elaborated.”
In the Victorian era, however, the most sensational aspect of “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” was its description of the “great deluge,” a catastrophe occurring on the threshold between myth and history. When a self-educated assistant curator named George Smith first deciphered these passages in 1872, the cuneiform tablets had already been sitting around the museum’s collection for 30-odd years. Although not as dramatic as Carter’s opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb in Luxor, the moment when Smith first puzzled out the lines is enough to thrill any writer: “I am the first person to read that,” Smith said to a colleague, “after two thousand years of oblivion.”
The announcement that some of those old, broken slabs of clay seemed to confirm the biblical story of the flood and Noah’s Ark made headlines and instantly catapulted the brand-new discipline of Assyriology to public attention. Prime Minister William Gladstone even turned up to hear Smith speak on the subject, “the only occasion,” one of the scholars observed, “on which the British Prime Minister in office has attended a lecture on Babylonian literature.” Finally, when the British Museum refused to cough up the funds to send Smith to the Middle East to dig up more tablets, the Daily Telegraph newspaper raised the money.
Smith, too, seized upon the scenes of the flood as validation of the Old Testament account; many early archaeologists were obsessed with biblical verification. Not everyone agreed, however. The New York Times suggested that the inscription “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.” (In fact, stories of global floods crop up in all sorts of disconnected mythologies.) Certainly, the epic didn’t point to human sinfulness as the cause of the flood, as the Bible does. According to Uta-napishtim, the gods wiped out humanity because the exploding population was making too much noise and disturbing their sleep.
It was the excitement over the religious implications of the fragments, though, that helped fund further expeditions to Nineveh, the site of the buried palace of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king who had completely vanished from the historical record, largely because he wasn’t mentioned in the Bible. Damrosch describes the unearthing and the translating of the epic largely through the stories of Smith and Hormuzd Rassam, a native of Mosul who fell in love with archaeology while assisting on the first excavations of the ruins of Nineveh, which lay right across the Tigris from his hometown. The working-class Smith and the Iraqi Rassam (a Chaldean Christian) make appealing underdog protagonists for Damrosch, who takes pains to point out the bias they both faced in a field dominated by well-born European amateurs.
The villain of the piece (besides the usual run of unsupportive administrators, and racist explorers) is one E.A. Wallis Budge. Despite his obscure origins, Budge became a kind of celebrity Egyptologist and friend of various aristocrats and literary figures, including H. Rider Haggard and E. Nesbit. (Nesbit based a character on Budge in her children’s novel, “The Story of the Amulet.”) This prolific man also wrote several books on the history of Assyriology in which the character and contributions of both Smith and Rassam were belittled, and he even removed Rassam’s name from placards and other museum documentation. Rassam made the disastrous decision to sue Budge for slander after learning that Budge had been blaming him for the disappearance of artifacts from museum digs. Rassam won his case, but it was one of those lawsuits that proves ruinous even in victory.
“The Buried Book” is an exhumation in its own right; Damrosch hopes to rescue the Iraqi archaeologist’s reputation from Budge’s calumny. The book is rich in felicitous parallels or analogies, such as Damrosch’s comparison of Smith to Henry Morton Stanley, whose expedition to Central Africa in search of the explorer-missionary Dr. David Livingstone was similarly championed and funded by London newspapers. Damrosch has a good eye for the details that make his occasionally stuffy material breathe — like mentioning that Lewis Carroll carefully clipped out a newspaper story about Smith’s discovery and pasted it into his scrapbook or that Rassam charmed Arab nomads with a gift of cake, something they’d never tasted before: “they exclaimed to each other, ‘bread flavored with sugar and butter!’”
This knack really comes in handy when Damrosch writes about the reign of Ashurbanipal, the great Assyrian king in whose library the tablets containing “The Epic of Gilgamesh” were found. Assyrian potentates were a boastful lot, but digging beneath all the fanfaronades and self-aggrandizement, Damrosch has found letters that vividly sketch court life in Nineveh. Ashurbanipal’s father, Esarhaddon, apparently suffered from a chronic illness (some scholars have suggested it was lupus). He was also depressed and paranoid, provoking his counselors to write nagging notes (“Is one day not enough for the king to mope and eat nothing? For how long?”) and his oracles, speaking for the goddess Ishtar, to dissuade him from losing heart (“I will make you overcome anxiety and trembling”). There’s even a message from one of Esarhaddon’s sons explaining how a wheel of his chariot came to be broken and imploring, “Now let my lord the king give an order, so that they may do the work on it.”
Perhaps the only really unconvincing chapter in “The Buried Book” is the last one, in which Damrosch attempts to show how the literary legacy of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” lives on in contemporary fiction. His examples — a bad Philip Roth novel (“The Great American Novel”), about a baseball player turned Soviet agent inexplicably named Gil Gamesh, and one of Saddam Hussein‘s romantic potboilers, about an isolated king advised by a beautiful commoner — don’t touch on what actually resonates in the story. It’s a tale of the power of deep friendships and the futility of denying mortality, told with a stoicism profoundly at odds with our own relentlessly optimistic popular culture. I see more of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the “Lethal Weapon” action movie franchise than in Roth’s Cold War parable, but the fatalism and resignation of the poem is a quality alien to our time.
The story of the story, though, is something else again. Luck most definitely played a role. Had a roof beam or a column fallen a different way during the sacking and destruction of Ashurbanipal’s palace in 612 B.C., the tablets might not have been left broken but largely intact. (Epics composed during the Assyrian king’s reign were pulverized and are now known to us only in rumor and fragment.) Had “The Epic of Gilgamesh” been taken to another library, the tablets might have been worn out by use and discarded or lost in other disasters like the burning of the great Library at Alexandria; Damrosch reminds us that only seven of Aeschylus’ 90 tragedies have survived to modern times. Without the work of dedicated Assyriologists we might have the tablets but be unable to read them.
To the ancient Mesopotamians, it probably seemed impossible that one day Gilgamesh would be forgotten — for us, that would be like forgetting Heracles or Superman or Little Red Riding Hood. After a while, people stopped telling his story, and if it weren’t for those buried tablets and the men who dug them up, his name would have vanished forever. In a way, Gilgamesh got his immortality after all.