McFarlane, Robert. 'A Fireball from the Sands'. The New York Review of Books, vol. LXIX, no. 16, October 20, 2022, pp. 65-67.
One November day in the British Museum in London 150 years ago, a man called George Smith jumped up from the desk at which he had been working and -- to the astonishment of onlookers in that hushed space of learning -- "rushed about the room in a great state of excitement," pulling off articles of clothing as he went, uttering cries of delight and shouting: "I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion."
"That" was a baked-clay tablet on which was inscribed in dense cuneiform script the eleventh section of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a long poem now recognized as one of the earliest written works of world literature. Smith was a young working-class Londoner who had taught himself to read cuneiform during his lunch hours while employed as an engraver at a printing firm in the 1860s. His talent for ancient languages was spotted by British Museum staff, and -- against the social grain of the day -- he was in due course appointed as an assistant in the Assyriology department, tasked with sorting and decoding the thousands of tablets and tablet fragments in the museum's holdings. Smith's ecstasies in 1872 were triggered by his realization that the tablet he was translating recounted a version of the Flood myth that significantly predated the Book of Genesis. His discovery stoked the Victorian debates over the age and origins of the Old Testament.
That the Epic of Gilgamesh exists at all is close to a miracle, and has much to do with the bibliophilia of the last great Assyrian king. Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-627 BCE), as well as the curatorial talents of desert sand. Partial versions of Gilgamesh are found in multiple languages, including an older Sumerian cycle of five (probably freestanding) stories that date back in written form to circa 2100 BCE; an Old Babylonian version from circa 1750 BCE; and the twelve-tablet Standard Babylonian version, which provides the main basis of all modern translations of Gilgamesh and is thought to have been edited between circa 1200 and 1000 BCE.
The best-preserved tablets bearing the Standard Babylonian version were recovered in the mid-nineteenth century from the buried ruins of the Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh (now Kouyunjik in northern Iraq). A cultured despot, Ashurbanipal used the might of his empire to create the greatest library of his age. He ordered the regional centers of Mesopotamia to send him copies of significant texts in their holdings, he plundered the repositories of cities defeated by his armies, he hired scholars and scribes to make copies of Babylonian sources on fine clay, and in many cases to stamp those copies with a colophon recording his ownership.
The total holdings of the library at its height, spread between numerous rooms in the palace complex at Nineveh, ran into thousands of texts, recorded on clay tablets, clay cylinders, wax writing boards, and leather scrolls. They ranged from military history and financial ledgers to divinations and incantations, medical prescriptions, recipes, and literary works -- of which Gilgamesh was one.
Nineveh's destruction, paradoxically, ensured the library's partial survival. In 612 BCE the city was invaded by a combined army of Babylonians, Scythians, and others, and the palace was sacked and burned. Though the wax boards and leather scrolls were lost to the fire, the heat seems to have baked some of the tablets into greater hardness, while shattering others. When the site was abandoned after the sacking, many of the library's texts -- some now in fragments, some still whole -- remained in its storage rooms.
In the centuries that followed, the shifting desert sands closed over the ruins of Nineveh, gently protecting the tablets. There they lay buried for more than 2400 years, until in the early 1850s the ruins began to be excavated, first by the British archaeologist Austin Henry Layard and then by Hormuzd Rassam, a talented Assyrian archaeologist from Mosul whose name has too often been elided from accounts of the Nineveh digs. Between them, Layard and Rassam shipped tens of thousands of clay tablets and fragments to the British Museum. During the process of excavation and transport, however, the pieces became jumbled together, with minimal records kept of which texts had come from which sites in the palace complex.
Most of the six hundred or so commonly used cuneiform signs have "more than one meaning" and "can also be used in more than one way: as either syllabograms representing a syllable or ideograms representing a whole word," such that the text teems with ambiguities and connotations.
"the house of dust"
... the episode at the heart of Gilgamesh known as the "Journey to the Cedar Wood," which occupies Tablets II to V of the Standard Babylonian version, and a version of which is also present in the earliest Sumerian story cycle. It describes how Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out on foot to a distant old-growth forest, hundreds of miles from Uruk. Before they reach it, the Cedar Wood is a beautiful and sacred place. In language unusually ornate for Babylonian poetry, the epic emphasizes the forest's harmony and beauty; the call-and-response of birdsong "fill[s] the forest with resounding joy," in Helle's translation. Andrew George and fellow Assyriologist Farouk al-Rawi note that the Cedar Wood episode contains "one of the rare passages of Babylonian narrative poetry that is given over to the description of nature." It has a strong claim to being the earliest known passage of nature writing in world literature.
The Cedar Wood is specifically described in animist terms; it has agency and voice, it "exults" (George), it has a "mind" (Helle). That is, until Enkidu and Gilgamesh reach it. They arrive at its brink armed with axes weighing 120 pounds each. There -- in a magnificently dramatic pause -- they hesitate, awed by what lies before them.
This is the pause in which all of human history trembles on the brink of a new extractive and destructive relationship with nature.
Once Enkidu and Gilgamesh cross the threshold of the forest, devastation begins. Protecting the Cedar Wood is a monstrous guardian spirit called Humbaba, a shape-shifting being whose seven magical auras give him the power to fight ooff those who would harm the forest. He is, explicitly, the manifestation of the Cedar Wood's life force and sentience.
Humbaba's powers cannot save him from Enkidu and Gilgamesh, however. "Destroy ... the guardians of the cedars," cries Enkidu in Helle's translation. "Destroy him, kill him! Crush his mind!" Humbaba begs for mercy, but Enkidu and Gilgamesh ignore his pleas, tear the tusks from his jaws, slice out his lungs. Then the two raiders turn their axes upon the trees. Gilgamesh cuts down the trees as far as the banks of the Euphrates, while Enkidu locates the best timber. They fell the mightiest of the cedars in order to make a temple door. They fashion a raft, load it with lumber and the head of Humbaba, and set sail for Uruk, leaving behind them a "wasteland" that was once a living forest.
Historically viewed, it is a military raid targeting the timber-rich resources of a neighboring realm; there is good evidence that such raids took place in what is now Lebanon, where cedars grew in abundance, in order to plunder building materials for the timber-poor Mesopotamia region.