The poem recounts the exploits of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk in Mesopotamia, and Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods to stop Gilgamesh from oppressing the people of Uruk. After a long and fierce wrestling match, Gilgamesh finally prevailed. The two men eventually became friends and set about looking for journeys to share. The 4,000-year-old epic pre-dates Homer’s writing by at least 1,500 years, making it one of the oldest pieces of epic literature. However, we have no idea who wrote this poem! The Epic of Gilgamesh doesn’t exist in a single comprehensive copy, but rather in fragments on various tablets in Akkadian. Gaps occurring in the tablets have been partly filled by miscellaneous fragments found in Mesopotamia and elsewhere. The story itself was undoubtedly a product of oral tradition, told before the tablets came into existence.
Hormuzd Rassam1,1 (1826 – September 16, 1910) was an Assyrian archaeologist in Mesopotamia. He made several important discoveries from 1877 to 1882, including the clay tablets containing The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is an Akkadian translation of an earlier Sumerian poem. He is recognized as the first-known Assyrian, Ottoman and Middle Eastern archaeologist.
Modern-day translations draw on multiple fragments in order to provide a generally clear story of the epic. George Smith2 (Chelsea, London, March 26, 1840 – August 19, 1876), is credited with the first translation of the text into English in the early 1870s. The clay tablets he translated were written in cuneiform, an alphabet used by Middle Eastern languages including Sumerian, Akkadian, Urartian and Hittite. Cuneiform letters are formed by impressing a cut reed into soft clay. Depending on the language it is used for, it can contain hundreds of letters. To make things even more challenging, cuneiform doesn’t use any punctuation! There were so few people who could read ancient cuneiform that the fragment lay undisturbed in the British Museum for nearly 20 years until Smith came along.
The ”flood’’ tablet that Smith first encountered and translated was the 11th part of the 12-part epic, found in a pile of shards the British Museum had collected from the Ottoman Empire 20 years earlier. On November 14, 1872, The Daily Telegraph3 published a sneak preview of Smith’s discovery. This generated a firestorm of controversy, because of the striking similarities Gilgamesh’s voyages presented with an early version of Noah in the Bible. Victorian debates over religion and science were at their peak when Smith translated the fragments, and Gilgamesh was pressed into clay at least 1,000 years before the the first books of the Bible. The impact of the discovery challenged literary and biblical scholarship and helped redefine beliefs about the age of the Earth.
George Smith and archaeologist-diplomat Hormuzd Rassam were central in bringing Gilgamesh to light in the modern era. Currently, the Gilgamesh Epic is about 70% complete and spread across twelve cuneiform tablets. Although the portion that Smith first encountered was mostly legible, other parts are either gone forever or remain buried in the sands of Iraq, awaiting another George Smith.
- “Hormuzd Rassam,” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hormuzd_Rassam
- The Chaldean Account of the Deluge, George Smith, December 3, 1872. Sacred-Texts.com
- “Epic Hero,” a detailed description of the life of George Smith http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/epic-hero-153362976/?all
- “The tragic tale of George Smith and Gilgamesh,” https://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/10321147/The-tragic-tale-of-George-Smith-and-Gilgamesh.html