The great poet Rainer Maria Rilke may have been the first reader discerning enough to recognize its true literary stature. “Gilgamesh is stupendous!” he wrote at the end of 1916. “I … consider it to be among the greatest things that can happen to a person.” “I have immersed myself in [it], and in these truly gigantic fragments I have experienced measures and forms that belong with the supreme works that the conjuring Word has ever produced.” In Rilke’s consciousness, Gilgamesh, like a magnificent Aladdin’s palace that has instantly materialized out of nowhere, makes its first appearance as a masterpiece of world literature.
The story of its discovery and decipherment is itself as fabulous as a tale from The Thousand and One Nights. A young English traveller named Austen Henry Layard, who was passing through the Middle East on his way to Ceylon, heard that there were antiquities buried in the mounds of what is now the city of Mosul, halted his journey, and began excavations in 1844. These mounds turned out to contain the ruined palaces of Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria, including what was left of the library of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE). “In amazement” Layard and his assistant Hormuzd Rassam “found room after room lined with carved stone bas-reliefs of demons and deities, scenes of battle, royal hunts and ceremonies; doorways flanked by enormous winged bulls and lions; and, inside some of the chambers, tens of thousands of clay tablets inscribed with the curious, and then undeciphered, cuneiform (‘wedge-shaped’) script.” Over twenty-five thousand of these tablets were shipped back to the British Museum.
When cuneiform was officially deciphered in 1857, scholars discovered that the tablets were written in Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language cognate with Hebrew and Arabic. Fifteen years went by before anyone noticed the tablets on which Gilgamesh was inscribed. Then, in 1872, a young British Museum curator named George Smith realized that one of the fragments told the story of a Babylonian Noah, who survived a great flood sent by the gods. “On looking down the third column,” Smith wrote, “my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of the sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning. I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean account of the Deluge.” To a Victorian this was a spectacular discovery, because it seemed to be independent corroboration of the historicity of the biblical Flood (Victorians believed that the Genesis story was much older than it is). When Smith saw these lines, according to a later account, he said, “‘I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion!’ Setting the tablet on the table,” the account continues, “he jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.” We aren’t told if he took off just his coat or if he continued to strip down further. I like to imagine him in his euphoria going all the way and running stark naked, like Enkidu, among the astonished black-clad Victorian scholars.
from Foreword by Stephen Mitchell