The Epic of Gilgamesh: Lost and Found

by Chris Mack

December 8, 2018

The Epic of Gilgamesh is sometimes described as the world’s first great work of literature.  But the story of how that poem came to be lost and then rediscovered after 2500 years is itself an epic, if somewhat less grandiose.


Gilgamesh is thought by scholars to have been an historical figure, king of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk during the 27th century BCE.  Uruk was a major city, with 50,000 – 80,000 residents at its height around 2900 BCE.  The earliest texts from Uruk date to 3300 BCE.  The city was located about 100 miles south of present-day Bagdad, near the Euphrates River.  Uruk is thought to be the city of Erech mentioned in Genesis and is sometimes referred to as “the first city in human history.”

Excavations in Uruk (source:  Wikipedia).

Discovered by British archeologist William Loftus in 1849 and first excavated in 1850-1854, the city was one of the largest in the Sumerian and Babylonian eras, with an area of over 2 square miles.  One of its distinguishing archeological features is the large surrounding wall whose construction was attributed to Gilgamesh by later ancient writers and referred to in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh is mentioned in the Sumerian King list, an ancient stone tablet that provides a chronical of the kings of Sumer through about 1700 BCE.  His place in the list occupies an interesting point of transition from the legendary to the historical.  Before Gilgamesh every king is recorded as reigning for over 100 years, some for the tens of thousands of years.  After Gilgamesh, dynasties lasted from 3 to 36 years and this portion of the list has been proven to be historically accurate.  Gilgamesh is listed as having ruled for 126 years, and thus seems to represent the last of the god-like kings.

Cuneiform writing (source:  Wikipedia).

The Sumerian civilization dates to about 5000 BCE, disappearing in about 1700 BCE after the rise of Babylonia.  Much of what we know about Sumer comes from cuneiform texts written on clay tablets.  Cuneiform (the name means “wedged shape”) is one of the earliest forms of writing, invented by the Sumerians in about 3000 BCE.

Writing became increasingly common during the centuries around when Gilgamesh ruled.  King Shulgi of Ur (30 miles south of Uruk, reign 2094 – 2047 BCE) became the first major patron of literature, commissioning a series of Sumerian poems about the exploits of Gilgamesh, probably based on even earlier works.  These poems eventually became the basis for the original Babylonian version of the Gilgamesh epic.

Fragments of the Epic of Gilgamesh has been found in 14 cities around the Near East, and traveling performers likely told the epic during the same time period as the early days of the Homeric epics.  The first version of the Epic of Gilgamesh was written in about 2000 BCE.  The flood story is thought to have been added to the epic at around 1200 BCE based on earlier Sumerian flood tales.  The oldest Sumerian flood story, with many of the same elements as found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, was discovered at Nippur and dates from 1600 BCE.

North of Sumer the Assyrian Empire rose from the city-sate of Assur (Ashur) on the Tigris River in northern Iraq starting around 2600 BCE.  Assyria grew to be an impressive empire that stretched from western Iran to Egypt, and from southern Turkey to northern Saudi Arabia.  Tiglath-Pileser III (reign 745-727 BCE) created the world’s first professional army and conquered most of the Near East.  While the formal language of the Assyrian Empire was Akkadian, Tiglath-Pileser III established Aramaic as the de facto language of the people throughout the empire.  Assyria conquered Israel in 710 BCE and conquered Egypt and Babylon multiple times in this era.  This great empire collapsed with the fall of Nineveh in 612 BCE.

Central to the story of the Epic of Gilgamesh as we know it today is the rule of King Ashurbanipal (reign 669 – 627 BCE).  The capital of Assyria was moved to Nineveh, just east of present-day Mosul in Iraq, by Ashurbanipal’s grandfather and it quickly grew to be the largest city in the world (>100,000 residents).  Ashurbanipal was a rare king who learned to both read and write in multiple languages (rather than relying on scribes for this specialized skill as did most kings).  He built a great library and spent much of his life collecting and copying the great works of literature of his day.  Records indicate that Ashurbanipal acquired one copy the Epic of Gilgamesh (written in Akkadian) in 647 BCE.  It is from this library that the Epic of Gilgamesh will eventually be found.

Like many empires, overextension eventually led to Assyria’s downfall.  Instability followed Ashurbanipal’s death, with Babylonia declaring independence shortly after.  Rebels from Babylonia to the south and Persia to the east eventually attacked Ninevah, and the capital fell in 612 BCE.  The fiery end to the palaces of Ashurbanipal left the library collapsed and in ruin.  Ironically, though, it was the dramatic destruction of the library that led to the preservation of its works.  Broken tablets from tens of thousands of books lay buried under the rubble of Nineveh for the next 2500 years.


The city of Nineveh was rediscovered by the British Archeologist Austen Layard in 1840.  It was a formless mound of dirt 40 feet high and a mile wide that had remained lost for over two millennia.  Excavating with his assistant Hormuzd Rassam, a native of Mosul, Ashurbanipal’s library was discovered in 1853 and eventually twenty-five thousand tablets would be sent to the British Museum.  But nobody could read them, since cuneiform writing was only then being deciphered, and Akkadian could not yet be translated.

Cuneiform was decoded in the mid-19th century when French scholar Eug´┐Żne Burnouf discovered that it contained an alphabet of 30 letters.  Akkadian began to be understood when British polymath Henry Rawlinson translated the Behistun Inscription (the equivalent of the Rosetta stone for the Egyptian language) and found that the language was made up of about 600 phonetic syllables written in cuneiform combined to create words.  Over a period of twenty years after the discovery of the Ashurbanipal library the Akkadian language began to be translated. 

British Museum Flood Tablet.jpg

Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 11: Story of the Flood.(source:  Wikipedia).

An assistant curator at the British Museum, George Smith, was slowly working through the many tablet fragments found in Nineveh when in 1872 he came across a fragment of the flood story from the Epic of Gilgamesh.  Parallels to the Biblical story of Noah were immediately obvious and electrified Smith.  In December of that year he gave a lecture at the Biblical Archeology Society in London, attended by Prime Minister William Gladstone, and his discovery became an instant sensation.  All of a sudden these obscure tablets from an obscure era of history became the talk of the nation. 

Smith would eventually be sent to Iraq three times where he found many of the missing pieces of the Epic of Gilgamesh, including the missing parts of the flood story.  He published his translation of the flood story in 1875, and died of dysentery in Allepo in 1876 at age 36 while returning from his last archeological dig.


Translation of a portion of Table 11, Epic of Gilgamesh (source:  David Damrosch 2006).

The Akkadian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh remains incomplete.  Only about 2,000 out of the poem’s 3,000 lines have been discovered. 







David Damrosch, “The Buried Book: the Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh”, Henry Holt and Co., New York (2006).

Alexander Heidel, “The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels”, University of Chicago Press (1945).

Chris Mack is a writer in Austin, Texas.

© Copyright 2018, Chris Mack.

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