cover image The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh

The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh

David Damrosch, . . Holt, $26 (315pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-8029-2

In the tradition of Edmund Wilson, Columbia literature professor Damrosch unearths the first great masterpiece of world literature: the ancient epic of the legendary Sumerian king Gilgamesh. Several copies of a largely complete version of the 4,000-year-old poem, which follows Gilgamesh on a heroic quest for immortality as he seeks out a survivor of a major deluge, were part of the great library assembled at the palace of Nineveh by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who ruled from 669 B.C. and sought ancient texts to guide him in ruling after his brother's disastrous rebellion. After Nineveh was sacked in 612 B.C., the Gilgamesh epic was forgotten for more than 2,000 years until archeologists Austen Henry Layard and Hormuzd Rassam uncovered the library and shipped 100,000 clay tablets and fragments to the British Museum in the 1840s and '50s. There, in 1872, assistant curator George Smith decoded the cuneiform writing and Akkadian language and discovered that the epic offered a controversial earlier version of the biblical flood account. Damrosch's fascinating literary sleuthing will appeal to scholars and lay readers alike as they ponder the intricacies of cuneiform, the abuses heaped on the Iraqi Rassam and the working-class Smith by the Victorian class system, and recent Gilgamesh-inspired novels by Philip Roth (The Great American Novel ) and Saddam Hussein. (Mar.)