Monday, November 16, 2009

Digging the Middle East 1: The Buried Book

Not that you asked, but I’ve decided to tell you about my (roughly) five favorite books about Middle Eastern archaeology. I’m just a buff in the field, but I recently read a terrific book and decided to blurb/blog (blurg?) about it and four other faves. In no particular order…

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of our oldest literary masterpieces. With its themes of quests for immortality and concerns about the proper way to live as a king (or a person) it is still fascinating.

It is easy to forget that the Epic was lost to memory for millennium. David Damrosch has constructed his The Buried Book, as he notes, like an archaeological dig. It begins with the most recent layer, and moves farther back in time.

The first chapter is about George Smith, an Englishmen with a unique ability to translate ancient texts. A printer by trade, he used to visit the British Museum on his lunch hours, and contrary to the stereotype of Victorian England, the scholars recognized this lower class tradesman for the find he was. He was able to bring the ancient tale of Gilgamesh into modern language and, in 1872, discovered one of its most greatest attractions: a story of the world flood with unmistakeable parallels to the one in Genesis.

Next Damrosch tells the story of Hormuzd Rassam who discovered the texts but was cheated of some of his fame because of English prejudice against foreigners – surely he was no more than the hired digmaster, working for some proper British supervisor!

The book then covers what we know about the writing of the Epic, which is rather surprisingly much – even including the name of the scribe who is credited with putting the final version together. Even more amazingly, while we only have two thirds of the text of this final work, we have some of the Sumerian poems from which the Assyrian version was compiled – which is as if we had some of the early texts Homer had used to compose the Illiad.

Finally Damrosch shows us what can be glimpsed through the veils of time about the historic person Gilgamesh – or more properly Bilgamesh. Take this little tidbit. One ancient scribe compiled a list of all the kings who had ruled in Sumeria. His collection of the monarchs of the city of Uruk can be divided into recent historical figures (with reigns from 6 years to a few decades) and ancient mythical figures (who supposedly ruled for thousands of years each).

These two groups are neatly separated by a king who supposedly ruled for 126 years. I don’t think you need to be a scholar to speculate: “this one isn’t completely a myth. They knew something about him but he was so legendary that they had to credit him with a century of rule to account for everything he supposedly accomplished.” As you may have guessed, that king was Bilgamesh.

The Buried Book is great fun.

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