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

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Author Topic: The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh  (Read 339 times)
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« on: March 30, 2007, 02:32:51 am »

Lost and Found

Published: March 25, 2007
The stylized images of ancient Assyrian kings, with their braided beards and Art Deco muscles, riding out in chariots to hunt lions or men, are now familiar, but until the 19th century nothing was known of them. All evidence had been buried for more than two millenniums under the soil of what is today Iraq. How we came to uncover that world, and how that world reached out toward our own, is part of the story David Damrosch tells in “The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh.”

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Colin Johnson

The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh.
By David Damrosch.

Illustrated. 315 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $26.
But the kingdom of ancient Assyria held other secrets, even older, and Damrosch is telling that story too. One of the last Assyrian kings, Ashurbanipal, had the literary skills and interests of a scribe. To warfare and lion hunting he added reading, building a great library in his capital city of Nineveh and filling it with thousands of inscribed clay tablets, including several copies of “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” a story already ancient in Ashurbanipal’s time. When Nineveh fell in 612 B.C., the library, loaded with the cultural heritage of ancient Mesopotamia, fell too, its contents lost until the middle of the 19th century, when British archaeologists dug up its remains and British scholars cracked the cuneiform code of the tablets. “Gilgamesh,” the oldest work of great literature we have, sprang back to life, surrounded by the shards of a prebiblical culture that challenged assumptions about the primacy of biblical authority, a concept already crumbling fast in Victorian England.

Damrosch, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, crams more than 4,000 years of history into his narrative without making it feel crammed at all. He accomplishes this in part by telling his story backward, beginning with the 19th century and ending up somewhere around 2700 B.C., when the real Gilgamesh might actually have walked the earth. This is a highly effective strategy, giving the whole book a narrative urgency and a simultaneous sense of archaeological unfolding. Along the way, Damrosch creates vivid portraits of archaeologists, Assyriologists and ancient kings, lending his history an almost novelistic sense of character.

First we meet George Smith, a 19th-century scholar of humble origins who started out as an engraver of bank notes. Fascinated by biblical history, he was drawn to the vast collection of clay tablets in the British Museum, where he proved himself adept at assembling the fragments into a semi-coherent whole, earning himself a spot as assistant curator of the collection. Scholars were only just figuring out how to read cuneiform, the wedge-shaped symbols impressed into clay that look as if tiny birds had wandered over a patch of wet cement. Smith was soon reading it better than anyone else, and in 1872, in a now famous moment of scholarly discovery, he decoded the story of a flood very much like the biblical account of Noah and became so excited he began undressing.

The tablet Smith had translated formed a piece of the “Gilgamesh” narrative, the story of a great king who, after the death of his beloved friend Enkidu, goes searching for immortality. Gilgamesh consults a distant relative, a man who not only survived the terrible flood but was rewarded with eternal life. This relative gives Gilgamesh the bad news: he must die like everyone else.

Damrosch, an eloquent champion of world literature, makes a persuasive case for “Gilgamesh” as a unifying story that knits East and West together. The dramatic narrative of the book’s fortunes accomplishes the same thing: Gilgamesh is a once and future king who fell asleep in ancient Mesopotamia and woke up in the British Museum.

For this reason, the most captivating 19th-century figure in Damrosch’s narrative is Hormuzd Rassam, who seems to embody in his very person the confluence of East and West that fascinates Damrosch.

Rassam, who assisted Austen Henry Layard in his discovery of Ashurbanipal’s library and eventually became a great archaeologist in his own right, was born in Mosul to an old Chaldean Christian family. He converted to the Anglican Church at age 14, was educated at Oxford and, promoted by Layard, became adept at uncovering the buried history of his homeland. His fluency in Arabic and his familiarity with the world of his birth helped him excavate a staggering number of artifacts, which were dutifully sent to the British Museum. Despite experiencing British discrimination, he settled in England. Though Damrosch calls him “both a loyal son of Mosul and a proud participant in the British imperial enterprise,” it is not entirely clear by whose definition he remained “a loyal son of Mosul.”

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« Reply #1 on: March 30, 2007, 02:35:16 am »

Damrosch’s eagerness for universal themes leads him to stumble awkwardly in his coda, where he compares Saddam Hussein’s first novel, which draws loose inspiration from “Gilgamesh,” to Philip Roth’s “Great American Novel,” which features a baseball player named Gil Gamesh. Damrosch writes that Hussein and Roth are “both children of Abraham, and both heirs of their common literary father, the globe-trotting Papa Hemingway.” Keen to make this point about “disparate” but “interconnected” authors, he ignores the import of his own chilling disclosure that Hussein most likely murdered the Iraqi writer he forced to work on the book; the notion of Hussein as “author” is a fiction that suits Damrosch’s larger purpose — which, however laudable in its longing for universality, elides differences that matter very much.

Illustrated. 315 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $26.
Having made his Hemingway-Hussein-Roth union, Damrosch writes that “ ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ powerfully illustrates the underlying unity of the extended family that the historian Richard Bulliet calls ‘Islamo-Christian civilization.’ ” The term comes from Bulliet’s book “The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization,” published in 2004. In that book, Bulliet explains that he has lopped off “Judeo” in his coinage because it evokes only a shared ancient scriptural heritage — not, presumably, a modern political one. Beyond the oddness of enlisting Philip Roth in “Islamo-Christian civilization” is the larger oddness of invoking a book with a polemically exclusionary title. However recently coined and inaccurate the term “Judeo-Christian” may be, replacing it with “Islamo-Christian” — and employing that coinage when arguing for the universal nature of a Middle Eastern epic — is, to say the least, problematic.

Unlike “Gilgamesh,” the Hebrew Bible is at once a part of world literature and the expression of a people still alive in the world, with a modern Middle Eastern present as well as an ancient Mesopotamian past. But ancient Mesopotamian culture has, since its 19th-century discovery, stirred contemporary passions. Damrosch mentions the 19th-century Assyriologist Friedrich Delitzsch only in passing, but his story is instructive. Delitzsch, who became quite famous, came to feel that since “Gilgamesh,” and indeed all of Babylonian culture, were older than the Hebrew Bible — and superior to it — there was no need for the Hebrew Bible at all. An anti-Semite and a German nationalist, he proposed replacing the Old Testament with German folklore.

Though it is easy to dismiss the entirely discredited Delitzsch, the old battles for supremacy and supersession are felt today in subtler, secularized form. Damrosch, who could not be farther from Delitzsch in spirit or intent, blunders into another reductive master narrative. He has done a superb job bringing what was buried to life. Surely it is possible to do this without buying into a narrative that buries that which still lives.

Jonathan Rosen is the editorial director of Nextbook. His most recent novel is “Joy Comes in the Morning.”
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il mio va Piano, sono Asino ?

« Reply #2 on: March 30, 2007, 12:59:28 pm »

 Cry With-out intentional disrespect to the many painstaking research and reseachers, but I equate GiLGAMESH with Moses and ETANA with Aahron.  Or Gilgamesh with the egyptian Pharaoh Ka-Mose & Ethana with Ahmose.  The Story may be an Assyrian rendering of an egyptian original.

In that case the( dr Velikovsky's)TIME-Line for Gilgamesh/Kamose is 1084-1050 bc Cry "BlueHue"
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( Blue's)THEORY, locating"original" Atlantis( in Aden-Yemen.)
1: ATLANTIS =Fake=Latin name, original Greek: ATHE(=a Region in Aden)
2: Atlantic-OCEAN=Greek: RIVER-of-Atlas+also" Known "World-OCEAN(=Red-Sea)
3: Greek-obsolete-Numeral 'X' caused Plato's Atlantisdate:9000=900
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