A Book History of the Epic of Gilgamesh and Looking at the Book as Artifact

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What was the first book? You can argue that it goes back as far as someone placing their hand on a wall in a cave and leaving their mark behind. It could be argued that it was the hieroglyphics, it could be argued it was stone tablets from 2100 BC. There is an immense number of ""firsts."" The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest book artifacts that has been unearthed. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a cuneiform text which is estimated to have been written in 2100 BC. This paper explores the book history of the Epic of Gilgamesh as well as examining the book as an artifact.

What is the Epic of Gilgamesh? A History

Gilgamesh was first discovered and translated in the 19th century. The story became popular quickly because the 11th tablet detailed the events of the Flood story from the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament.

In Mesopotamian culture the language of learning, Sumerian and Akkadian was a treasured curriculum that had to be mastered by student scribes. According to Andrew George in the Penguin edition of the Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian (Preface and Introduction), all the literature that we have in Sumerian derives from the tablets written by these young Babylonian scribal apprentices, many of which were found in the remains of the houses of their teachers . It can be assumed that the Epic of Gilgamesh was written by these scribes due to the fact that not only were the tablets found in the remains of the scribe's teacher's homes, but also because not many would have been well enough educated in order to write this epic.

The Sumerian literary texts that achieved the most publicity are the five poems of Gilgamesh. However, these are not the same as the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic that were written in Akkadian but are separate tales with similar themes. The Sumerian poems acted as a source material for the Babylonian epic. So even one of the oldest books in history, has even more history behind it and couldn't have developed without older Sumerian texts. Other Akkadian works have been recovered from this time frame. Some of them were well kept and finely written, these include three Babylonian tablets of Gilgamesh which we owe our knowledge of the story to.

The Discovery of the Tablets

Gilgamesh was first discovered and translated in the 19th century. The story became popular quickly because the 11th tablet detailed the events of the Flood story from the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament.

The 11th tablet was excavated in Kouyunjik (now Nineveh, Iraq) by Hormuzd Rassam. The tablet is 15.24 centimeters long, 13.33 in width, and 3.17 centimeters in thickness and is made of clay . The fragment of the tablet has inscription on both sides with 49 and 51 lines as well as 45 and 49 lines.

The tablet describes Ea, a god, told Utu-napishtim about the flood to destroy the earth. He told Utu to make a boat and save Utu and his family. Utu agreed, and when he, the birds, and the beasts were aboard the door shuts and the rest of mankind died. After six days the flood let up. The gods were mad at Utu and he and the animals could not find a final resting place. He made a sacrifice and Ea interceded and gave them an abode at the mouth of the river Euphrates.

The next prominent tablet that was discovered was the 5th tablet. It was acquired from the Sulaymaniyah Museum in 2011 and was discovered to hold text from the Epic of Gilgamesh. The fifth tablet (in two parts) details the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu as they fight the protector of the Cedar Forest, Humbaba. The earliest texts of Gilgamesh were written by the Sumerians in the third millennium B.C.E. in Mesopotamia. By the second millennium the story was inscribed on 11 tablets. Additionally, Assyrian scribes added a tablet that describes Gilgamesh's arrangements for death and his future in the underworld in the 8th century B.C.E. One part of the fifth tablet is known as the Standard Babylonian version of the Gilgamesh Epic. It is written in cuneiform employing the writing system of ""wedge-shaped"" symbols used throughout the Near East in the first four millennia B.C.E. The tablet measures 4.3 by 3.7 inches and 1.2 inches thick. This tablet is believed to have been unearthed at a Babylonian site.

There were arguments whether the tablet was Old Babylonian or Neo-Babylonian. Andrew George, the British academic who wrote the translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh I quoted in my first report, believes that it is a typical Neo-Babylonian script which was not written later than the sixth century B.C.E. Two tablets represent the story of Tablet V. The Neo-Assyrian tablet from Nineveh and the Late Babylonian tablet from Uruk that Andrew George speaks of. Gilgamesh is still to this day constantly evolving as new pieces are still being discovered.

After the US invaded Iraq and looted the Iraqi museums, the Sulaymaniyah Museum started an initiative in which they paid smugglers to obtain artifacts on their journey to other countries. The museum did not ask any questions regarding where it came from, how much it was, or who was selling it. The museum believed this would keep smugglers from selling to other buyers due to legal ramifications.

In 2011, they discovered a collection of clay tablets. The collection was almost 90 clay tablets of different contents and shapes, they were all covered in mud. Some were in fragments while others were in pristine condition. The location is unknown due to the fact that the museum refused to ask questions to protect smugglers. It is believed that they were illegally obtained from the southern part of Babel which was previously Babylon or what was previously Mesopotamia.

Professor Farouk Al-Rawi who teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies was responsible for examining each item and appraising them. The seller did not know what the tablet was, only that it was really large, and he wanted a large sum of money for it. Professor Al-Rawi, knowing he had something greater, told Mr. Hashim to buy it and give the seller what he wanted. They bought it for $800.

Professor Al-Rawi was cleaning the tablet and noticed that the three sections of the tablet were joined together, although it is unknown who put them together. Eventually, Al-Rawi discovered that he was working on one of the tablets from the Epic of Gilgamesh.

It took five days in November 2012 to read and translate the cuneiform text. The tablet is inscribed in Neo-Babylonian cuneiform. It is number T.1447 in the Sulaymaniyah Museum. It is 11cm tall, 9.5 cm in length, and 3cm in thickness. It is dated between 2003-1595 BCE, although Al-Rawi dates it between 626-539 BCE.

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A Book History of the Epic of Gilgamesh and Looking at the Book as Artifact. (2019, Jul 29). Retrieved October 1, 2023 , from

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