The Epic of Gilgamesh – Historical Background

History of the epic

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest epic still in existence. Coming from the third millennium BCE, it predates Homer’s epics by at least one and a half thousand years. It is from a time long forgotten by historians – only rediscovered in the last century by archaeologists in the Middle East. The fascinating part about the Epic of Gilgamesh is that even though it is 5 millennia old the humanity and passion of the story still resonate with readers today. 

The most complete version of Gilgamesh yet discovered is a series of eleven tablets in the Akkadian language found in the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. Ashurbanipal  (668-627 BCE) was a great king of the Assyrian empire and a collector of literature from all over the Middle East. His library disappeared after the fall of Nineveh in 612 BCE, and was uncovered by archaeologists in 1839. The tablets were transferred to the British Museum where they received little attention until 1873, when a scholar named George Smith realized that they included an account of the flood (recounted in the Bible as the story of Noah’s ark). This announcement set off an immediate sensation because it suggested that the authors of the Bible might have been familiar with Gilgamesh’s story (though possibly both versions come from an earlier source). After this discovery, archaeologists dug up more and more tablets and scholars busied themselves with translations. Unfortunately, some of the tablets are fragmented, and the story has to be pieced together from different versions. This leaves the story very open to interpretation. 

Who was Gilgamesh?

The character of Gilgamesh is thought to be based on a real king of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk (Erech in the Bible). The historical Gilgamesh probably raised up the famous walls of Uruk, described in glorious detail in the epic. The walls had a 6 mile perimeter and more than nine hundred towers. Its ruins are near the town of Warka, in southern Iraq. Archaeologists date parts of the wall to around 2700 BCE, so they believe Gilgamesh may have lived around then. According to the “Sumerian king list,” Gilgamesh was the fifth king of the founding dynasty of Uruk. 

Gilgamesh was clearly a great builder – not only building the great wall, but also restoring the shrine of the goddess Ninlil. He very likely led a successful expedition to retrieve timber from the lands to the North – a story which was related in the epic.  

This is a series of posts about The Epic of Gilgamesh. Here is a list of all posts thus far: 

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