Gilgamesh through the sands of time

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Collage: SALMAN SAKIB SHAHRYAR

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Collage: SALMAN SAKIB SHAHRYAR

My first contact with the world of Gilgamesh stems from a now hazy memory of a storytelling session. It was a particularly hot Friday afternoon and I had just returned from a trip to Neelkhet. Halfway through my first year history homework, my mother, while fanning herself with a 100 taka Shanonda magazine, told me how the story of the ark and the flood of Prophet Noah who led humanity to non-existence predates the Abrahamic religions. She went on to say that “We live to tell the same stories over and over again.”

Unlike the shining blind bard who would have designed Iliad and Odyssey. or Ved Vyas who put the story of Mahabharata on paper with the help of a pot-bellied deity, and in contrast, also, to Virgil’s journey of oscillating between a tortured artist and a corporate parrot in Aeneid, there are no legendary traces of the artist behind Gilgamesh. Yet the text itself stands as a myth and almost seems to get rid of the need for a solitary author. Michael Schmidt, the author of Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem (Princeton University Press, 2019), said in an interview that “Gilgamesh is made by a river, by fire, by generations of scribes, by shepherds, ruin robbers, archaeologists and scholars. In all the debris there are literally no remains of an identifiable poet to be found. “

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The epic even predates the representation of the famous Trojan War; it is, in fact, the oldest epic found to date. Originating from a series of five Sumerian poems on the adventures of the mythological hero Gilgamesh, the “Epic of Gilgamesh” was stitched together into an Akkadian-language epic of 12 tablets, decades, if not centuries, later. Most of Gilgamesh’s poems were written in the early centuries of the second millennium BC. The most complete edition comes from the 7th century library of Ashurbanipal, antiquarian and last king of the Assyrian Empire. The debris of the poem was first discovered in the mid-1800s by two Englishmen when archaeologists began to uncover the buried cities of the Middle East. Since then, scholars and archaeologists have strived to bring the fragments together and tie them together into a unified whole – a tale of adventure, morality and tragedy. The main body of the Assyrian epic has not been altered for the most part since the gigantic publications of the text, accompanied by commentaries by Campbell Thompson, around 1930.

Its story tells how Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk (now Iraq), fights and befriends a giant named Enkidu. They then quarrel with the gods, causing Enkidu and Gilgamesh to lose their lives in embarking on a quest to defeat death.

UNESCO calls the return of Gilgamesh’s dream tablet to Iraq “a significant victory in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural objects”. Photo: REUTERS

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UNESCO calls the return of Gilgamesh’s dream tablet to Iraq “a significant victory in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural objects”. Photo: REUTERS

Over time, wars have completely buried the Assurbanipal library. Historians assume that the Babylonian gods and their universes went underground only to reappear in later Mediterranean religions, and the heroes transformed and survived by traveling both west and east. NK Sanders, in the introduction to the paperback edition of the epic, writes: “Although the Sumerian hero is not an older Odysseus, neither Heracles, nor Samson, nor Dermot, nor Gwain, it is nevertheless possible let none of them remember them. as it is if the Gilgamesh story had never been told. “This implies that the epic has resurfaced through time in various ways, sometimes literally and sometimes, through known tropes and narrative plots. The fragmented tablets of this ancient poetry are still frozen in fluidity, perhaps still seeking its next puzzle piece.

The final sections of the story find Gilgamesh, sorry in the grief of his late friend Enkidu, and far from overcoming mortality. After returning to Uruk, the sight of the colossal walls of his city prompts him to marvel at this enduring work of mortal men. And suddenly, readers are back where they started, too, admiring the prosaic excellence of the city walls. The implication is obvious – that mortals can achieve immortality only through dazzling creations and art that will stand up over time, unlike fragile and perishable physical bodies; it is the knowledge that Gilgamesh obtains in his conquest to overcome death.

A few weeks ago, headlines reported that a 3,500-year-old ‘dream tablet’, a 5 x 6 inch section of the epic story that Gilgamesh described his dreams to her. mother, who then called it premonitory of the arrival of a new friend — was sent back to Iraq after being robbed during the 1991 Gulf War and illegally imported to London and finally to the United States. It is one of the 17,000 stolen antiques returned by the United States to Iraq.

Artifacts seized by the US government and returned to Iraq are on display at the Foreign Office in Baghdad, Iraq, August 3, 2021. Photo: REUTERS / Saba Kareem

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Artifacts seized by the US government and returned to Iraq are on display at the Foreign Office in Baghdad, Iraq, August 3, 2021. Photo: REUTERS / Saba Kareem

You can’t help but juxtapose this homecoming loot and tablet story with Gilgamesh’s own journey against the passing of time. The clay tablet, like the wounded hero himself, has come full circle after going through terrible wars during the American invasions and erasure attempts by Islamic militants. Here we have an ancient trail of storytelling that has quite survived the test of time, existing in fragmented echoes of engraved cuneiform writing; existing, despite the changing topography of the world and despite being dispersed in a wide swath from Turkey to Iraq; existing, although written, composed and recomposed, reformed and transformed over a period of more than a thousand years. The story of it spreading, resurfacing, and moving from time zone to time zone, space to space, is strangely synonymous with the ethics of the epic itself.

Through Enkidu’s sexual intercourse with the “harlot” in the early sections of the story and his rejection of the natural world thereafter, we remember the fall of Adam and Eve after consuming the fruit of desire and of knowledge. While Enkidu symbolizes the raw innocence of nature, Gilgamesh symbolizes the pride of civilization; a dichotomy that has been rigorously explored in literature and art, especially in this era of ecocritical and posthumanist discourse. There is also the numbing depiction of love and loss in the homoerotic friendship of Enkidu and Gilgamesh, and Gilgamesh’s desperation and anxious desire to conquer death is a longing embedded in all of us. Reading the epic repeatedly reminds us that although to this day our universes may seem infinitely larger, it always ends in an abyss, the darkness laughs at our ignorance and in the end we come back to the same point from which we settled outside, just like Gilgamesh, a king terrified of dying, knocking on doors of eternal and ever-green poetry.

Jahanara Tariq is a postgraduate student in English Literature. She often finds herself praying to Tagore and Woolf on sorry mornings while drinking espressos and listening to Vivaldi’s Winter.


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