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The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh Hardcover – March 6, 2007
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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.
*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
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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.
The second half includes equally riveting details about the last Assyrian Kings: Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. This includes perhaps the first use of a blind source experiment.
It is important to note that the author of this book is a Professor of Literature and not of History. When reading the book, it is not difficult to see this because the author takes liberties that a historian usually would not. He does a great job of creating an environment where an appreciation of the Epic (and the work it took to make it available) can be developed. Where he shows his hand, is when he infuses thoughts and opinions into characters and historical figures that are just guesses on his part, and presents them as fact. Unless there are tablets that state these things specifically, we cannot "know" what the thoughts and motivations behind certain people and characters were. We can make educated guesses but many motives are lost to history.
The next problem I saw with the book is that the passages he includes from supporting works aren't the best possible for each scenario. This is most obvious in the final chapters of the book when the author attempts to parallel former dictator Saddam's book with Gilgamesh. When he presents parts of Saddam's work it is not relevant to Gilgamesh at all. Rather, he highlights "the raciest scene in the book" followed by the story of the rape of Zabibah. This seems rather out of place when trying to draw parallels.
In other parts of the book, when recounting parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh the author concentrates on Enkidu's lovemaking with Shamhat the harlot as well as Ishtar's attempt at seducing Gilgamesh. One wonders why the author concentrates on scenes of this particular type for analysis. In addition, other parts of the book seem out of place. For example, there is an anecdote about Rassam's daughter that appears to serve no purpose. Why would the author single out one of his many children to write about when Rassam had several children. Why only Rassam's daughter, and not George Smith's children also?
Despite these few minor complaints, this is a good and well written book. The insight into the history of the Epic is welcome.
Along with it, I got several more great stories, including:
1) the story of Hormuzd Rassam, the Iraqi who made great discoveries for the British Museum but was never accepted by the British elite despite his archaeological and diplomatic achievements.
2) the story of Esarhaddon, a paranoid Assyrian king, and his scholarly and ruthless son Assurbanipal, who assembled a great library and dismembered his enemies during a 40-year reign.
3) the story of the Gilgamesh epic itself.
4) the "search for the historical Gilgamesh".
5) the way the Gilgamesh epic is still used by modern authors from Philip Roth to Saddam Hussein.
I find Smith's story especially compelling, and I find it fascinating that we now have so much detailed information about the ancient Assyrian kings.
It provides an interesting look at archaeology is the days of British imperialism.