For nearly 2,000 years The Epic of Gilgamesh was considered the greatest poem ever written. It told of the mighty king Gilgamesh, who, grieving over the death of his friend Enkidu, tried to find immortality. This was a story of the power of love, the inscrutability of the gods and the ultimate fate of all men hero, king or peasant. The tale was respected by kings and studied by priests, until it vanished, forgotten beneath dust and stone as ancient Mesopotamia crumbled into history. For another 2,000 years, not even the name Gilgamesh raised the ghost of a memory. The king who sought immortality had apparently lost the struggle.
Then in 1872, amateur linguist George Smith, working for the British Museum, began to translate ancient tablets from the ruins of Nineveh. Smith thought he had stumbled on an account of the Biblical flood, but soon he unearthed the tale of a hero we now know as Gilgamesh the king who was dead and lost lived again. The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh is David Damrosch's account of the discovery, preservation and translation of this remarkable poem, tracing both the history of the epic and archaeology itself. Like the epic, Damrosch's book offers tales of dangerous journeys, heroic struggles and tragic defeats. Sometimes the battles are as grand as the clash of East and West, sometimes as petty as scholarly jealousy, yet always the story is compelling and fascinating.
Damrosch treats his subject with both excellent scholarship and a deft hand; he has a gift for telling the human side of events, revealing the characters behind the names and dates of history. The Buried Book is equally fast-moving and fascinating, offering insights not only into the distant past, but also the very immediate conflicts of today. Kings, emperors, scholars, poets even dictator Saddam Hussein all share a part in the story of Gilgamesh a fitting taste of immortality for a once forgotten king.
Howard Shirley is a writer in Franklin, Tennessee.