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The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh Paperback – December 26, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In the tradition of Edmund Wilson, Columbia literature professor Damrosch unearths the first great masterpiece of world literature: the ancient epic of the legendary Sumerian king Gilgamesh. Several copies of a largely complete version of the 4,000-year-old poem, which follows Gilgamesh on a heroic quest for immortality as he seeks out a survivor of a major deluge, were part of the great library assembled at the palace of Nineveh by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who ruled from 669 B.C. and sought ancient texts to guide him in ruling after his brother's disastrous rebellion. After Nineveh was sacked in 612 B.C., the Gilgamesh epic was forgotten for more than 2,000 years until archeologists Austen Henry Layard and Hormuzd Rassam uncovered the library and shipped 100,000 clay tablets and fragments to the British Museum in the 1840s and '50s. There, in 1872, assistant curator George Smith decoded the cuneiform writing and Akkadian language and discovered that the epic offered a controversial earlier version of the biblical flood account. Damrosch's fascinating literary sleuthing will appeal to scholars and lay readers alike as they ponder the intricacies of cuneiform, the abuses heaped on the Iraqi Rassam and the working-class Smith by the Victorian class system, and recent Gilgamesh-inspired novels by Philip Roth (The Great American Novel) and Saddam Hussein. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* As astounding as the content of the Epic of Gilgamesh in which the questing hero travels to the underworld and back, is the manner of its discovery and recovery. The clay tablets on which its text was impressed lay beneath the rubble of the Assyrian city of Nineveh, destroyed in 612 BCE, until they were excavated in the 1850s. The tablets still were mute until a British scholar cracked the cuneiform script and translated the Epic to sensational acclaim in the 1870s. These are just two of Damrosch's approaches to this ur-work of world literature. Others are the reign of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, assembler of the library in which Gilgamesh was preserved; archaeological hints about the real-life Gilgamesh, a Sumerian king from about 2750 BCE; and a vivid retelling of the epic itself. Literature professor Damrosch's summary narrative of the epic excels both in dramatization and thematic explanation, and he's no slouch either when it comes to relaying the adventures of translator George Smith and archaeologist-diplomat Hormuzd Rassam, the central figures in bringing Gilgamesh to modern light. Combining acuity about cultural contexts with wide-ranging knowledge, Damrosch's account is a superb and engrossing popular presentation. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 315 pages
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks (December 26, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805087257
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805087253
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #307,048 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Damrosch was born in Maine and raised there and in New York. He studied at Yale, where he pursued interests in a wide range of ancient and modern languages and literatures. He then taught for three decades at Columbia before moving in 2009 to Harvard, where he chairs the Department of Comparative Literature. A past president of the American Comparative Literature Association, he has written widely on comparative and world literature, and his work has been translated into an eclectic variety of languages, including Chinese, Estonian, Hungarian, Turkish, and Vietnamese.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

38 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on March 9, 2007
Format: Hardcover
In the mid-19th Century, the fragile condition of the Ottoman Empire left its borders more open to intrusion by Christian visitors. Originally intending to simply visit the "Holy Land", the influx included people who wanted to know more about the various peoples living in Biblical times. Their quests led them to the earliest sites of human civilisation, ancient Mesopetamia. The Land of Two Rivers hinted at early complex societies and a bit of scratching around at enigmatic mounds revealed immense potential for new knowledge. David Damrosch, a scholar of literature, focusses on one element of that vast store, the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Damrosch organises his material around the diggers, their findings and the stories revealed. There are several notable figures, with the author striving to give credit where that has been lacking - or purposely dismissed. Austen Layard was the prime mover in the revelation of Nineveh. After him, a self-taught enthusiast, George Smith, became among the earliest translators of ancient Akkadian, the language engraved on the multitude of clay shards uncovered. A third, more tragic figure is that of Hormuzd Rassam. With family and cultural ties to the area, Rassam kept teams of excavators working, sometimes in the face of obstructions by Ottoman authorities. His finds were significant, but, according to Damrosch his origins made him "suspect". The British attitude toward "Orientals" led to his work being dismissed as unimportant or even false. Yet, between them all, a legend buried for two millennia came into view - the epic of Gilgamesh.

The real purpose of this book is revealed at Damrosch examines and assesses the Gilgamesh story.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Balbach on April 2, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The story begins in 19th century Iraq with the accidental discovery of the until then unknown Epic of Gilgamesh, and unlike most history books, works backwards in time slowly revealing the mystery of its origins and meaning - this chronology works well, not unlike an archaeological dig. The first half of the book is devoted to two unlikely and largely unsung heroes of the Victorian era who first found and deciphered the tablets, George Smith and Horzmud Rassam. Rassam is probably the most important and unique revelation of the book, as Damrosch restores an unfairly maligned scholar to his rightful place in history and perhaps some immortality. The second half of the book jumps backwards from the 19th century to when the Epic was written, discussing the history of the Assyrian kingdom, and the library where the tablets were buried. The tablets were buried around 700 BC when the city was sacked, and thus the Epic lain forgotten from that time until the 19th century. Had the city not been sacked and the tablets not buried, it is likely the Epic would have been lost forever, as most tablets from that period did not survive otherwise.

This is a fun tale, both Smith and Rassam encompass dramatic lives as underdogs who rose from obscurity, overcoming Victorian prejudices of class and race. If nothing else the first half of the book is worth the price of admission, in particular Rassam's side adventure to Ethiopia. Damrosch's literary interpretation of the Epic (Ch. 6) provides valuable insights, such as the importance of cedar trees, making it less "foreign" (both in time and culture) and more universally human. I certainly came away with a new appreciation of the tales message of the quest for immortality.

The Sources and Notes section includes an up to date guide of recent translations of the Epic, recommended reading before deciding which translation(s) to pursue.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By cambridge00 on March 31, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Let me first say that I enjoyed this book. However, while the book purports to be about the history of the Gilgamesh epic, very little of the book is actually devoted to that topic. More than half the book is a biographical sketch of 2 important 19th century British scholars, George Smith and Hormuzd Rassam. Smith was the first to read fragments of the Gilgamesh story, while Rassam excavated some of the fragments. These bios are actually quite interesting and are the highlight of the book. (One wonders, though, if Rassam is given such high praise in part because he was Arab and therefore discriminated against in his own time.)

Much of the rest of the book is essentially a history of various periods in Mesopotamian history. First is a discussion of the reigns of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, under whose reigns the most important extant Gilgamesh fragments were copied. However, these chapters really don't connect to the story of Gilgamesh very well.

The final chapter deals with the presence of the Gilgamesh epic's themes in the modern world. I am not convinced that Saddam Hussein's books have anything to do with the Gilgamesh theme (other than the fact that he writes about the ancient Assyrians). I am likewise unconvinced of the Philip Roth connection (other than the fact that he names a character in one of his novels Gil Gamesh).

Despite the bizarre format of the book, and the fact that Gilgamesh features very little in the book, the book is worth reading. Just don't expect much Gilgamesh!
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