Adventurers, explorers, kings, gods, and goddesses come to life in this riveting story of the first great epic--lost to the world for 2,000 years, and rediscovered in the nineteenth century
Composed by a poet and priest in Middle Babylonia around 1200 bce, The Epic of Gilgamesh foreshadowed later stories that would become as fundamental as any in human history, The Odyssey and the Bible. But in 600 bce, the clay tablets that bore the story were lost--buried beneath ashes and ruins when the library of the wild king Ashurbanipal was sacked in a raid.
The Buried Book begins with the rediscovery of the epic and its deciphering in 1872 by George Smith, a brilliant self-taught linguist who created a sensation when he discovered Gilgamesh among the thousands of tablets in the British Museum's collection. From there the story goes backward in time, all the way to Gilgamesh himself. Damrosch reveals the story as a literary bridge between East and West: a document lost in Babylonia, discovered by an Iraqi, decoded by an Englishman, and appropriated in novels by both Philip Roth and Saddam Hussein. This is an illuminating, fast-paced tale of history as it was written, stolen, lost, and--after 2,000 years, countless battles, fevered digs, conspiracies, and revelations--finally found.
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.)
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Henry Holt and Co.
December 25, 2007
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