Uruk (modern day Warka) is located in southern Iraq between Basra and Baghdad; photo credit the British Museum
The epic of Gilgamesh
is one of
the world's oldest surviving pieces of literature. Only incomplete
of the epic survive, with the longest being twelve clay tablet
pieces (with cuneiform writing) found in the nineteenth century by
Austin Layard (1817-1894) and Hormuzd Rassam
(1826-1910) during excavations of the Royal Library of Nineveh.
George Smith (1840-76 ) produced the first translation of a portion of
the epic when he deciphered the flood story from one of the clay
tablets in 1872. The stories that comprise the epic had long been transmitted orally before being written down
sometime in the seventh century bce by one Sin-Leqi-Unninni. This was before the Persians conquered the Assyrian Empire and destroyed Nineveh.
The ruins of Uruk (also believed to be the city of Erech as mentioned in Genesis) lie near the town of Warka, in southern Iraq. Uruk was one of the most important and powerful of the Mesopotamian city-states before 2000 bce. (ps. The modern name "Iraq" is thought by some to come from the name Uruk). Between 4,000 and 3,000 bce, the city emerged as one of the first major urban cities in the Near East (indeed, in the world), as a shift took place from small, agricultural-based villages to a large urban city with a full-time bureaucracy, priesthood, military, and complex society. After about 2000 bce, the city entered into a long period of decline, interspersed by an era of prosperity during the Neo-Assyrian and Babylonian periods, but by the eighth century ce, after a shift in the course of the Euphrates River away from the city, Uruk was completely abandoned.
So, do we know a lot of details about Gilgamesh? No. We don't know what he really looked like, or how strong he was. We don't know what kind of ideas he had about being the ruler of a great city. We don't know what he sounded like when he spoke. And we don't know what he ate and drank or when he slept or how he interacted with priests, slaves or traders. As historians, we are always looking for answers to these and other questions.
Let me point out some things for you to consider as you read, analyze and enjoy the epic.
Our information about the historical reality of the time of Gilgamesh, 2700 bce + 2000 ce = almost five thousand years ago, is limited. We have no paper or even papyrus documents from then. We have only some cuneiform inscriptions that have survived, and those that have survived are largely at random, by chance. That lack of documentary material makes it difficult to say with any certainty how the society functioned or was organized. This leads me to my next point.
Since we are talking about a very long time ago, this means that the fields of history and archeology overlap. I'm going to simplify a lot and say that history is mostly the study of the past by means of the printed word, while archeology is the study of the past by means of the surviving artifact, which can be either large like buildings and walls or small like tea cups. In a lot of instances, historians and archaeologists conduct their research in their different academic realms, but they still do cooperate and borrow from one another at times to reach a full understanding of a specific past. So, in the case of Gilgamesh, this means that to figure out as much as we can about the king and his city, we have to decipher cuneiform inscriptions and also excavate the ruins of the city of Uruk to see what can be determined--and we end up still not knowing a lot.
Finally, students always have trouble with the question of whether the epic of Gilgamesh is a piece of literature or a historical record. This is partly because it is English teachers, and not history professors, who usually make students read and study the epic. Well, the epic is both a piece of literature and a historical record, and it is used differently in the academic disciplines of literature and history. In a literature class, you will ask different questions about the epic and discuss different points, which tend to be contemporary in nature, about what is in there (death, heroes, friendship). Maybe also in a philosophy class, you will ask different questions that probe the world view of the author and the milieu that produced the epic (the meaning of life). In this history class, we certainly take a look at those questions, but we also try and find any kind of insight into the society that produced the epic thousands of years ago. Since we know that Gilgamesh was real, why then is there a story of his struggles with a half-beast from the countryside? If that didn't really happen, then as a historian, looking for possible fact and understanding, what does that mean? We can also look at how the society is described in the epic, and what kind of place, for example, women had in that society. How is the relationship to the gods explained? Who were the gods? The epic provides a setting for Gilgamesh and his deeds, and we are going to examine that setting--we are going to examine very carefully because we know the limits of the evidence--to see what we can figure out about Gilgamesh and his society through the prism of the authors of the epic. BTW, we use a number of pieces of world literature throughout our different history survey courses; all in an effort to achieve a better historical understanding of a past society.
Some recommended online lectures and websites:
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