The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh

by Michael Cook on March 26, 2007

The stylized images of ancient Assyrian kings, with their braided beards and Art Deco muscles, riding out in chariots to hunt lions or men, are now familiar, but until the 19th century nothing was known of them. All evidence had been buried for more than two millenniums under the soil of what is today Iraq. How we came to uncover that world, and how that world reached out toward our own, is part of the story David Damrosch tells in “The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh.”

Damrosch, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, crams more than 4,000 years of history into his narrative without making it feel crammed at all. He accomplishes this in part by telling his story backward, beginning with the 19th century and ending up somewhere around 2700 B.C., when the real Gilgamesh might actually have walked the earth. This is a highly effective strategy, giving the whole book a narrative urgency and a simultaneous sense of archaeological unfolding. Along the way, Damrosch creates vivid portraits of archaeologists, Assyriologists and ancient kings, lending his history an almost novelistic sense of character.

Damrosch, an eloquent champion of world literature, makes a persuasive case for “Gilgamesh” as a unifying story that knits East and West together. The dramatic narrative of the book’s fortunes accomplishes the same thing: Gilgamesh is a once and future king who fell asleep in ancient Mesopotamia and woke up in the British Museum.

Extracts taken from;

Lost and Found
JONATHAN ROSEN, New York Times, March 25, 2007

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