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Biblical Archaeology Review 49:2, Summer 2023

Epistles: Text Treasures: Gilgamesh: A Mesopotamian Story of Longing and Loss

Biblical Archaeology Review

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an ancient Mesopotamian literary work that tells a fantastic story of King Gilgamesh’s failed quest for immortality. Set in early dynastic Uruk (c. 2600 BCE), Gilgamesh reentered the literary world in 1872, when George Smith—an Assyriologist at the British Museum—first translated a line of the poem from a cuneiform tablet that had recently been excavated from the great library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh.

The anonymous work is named for its main character, King Gilgamesh, who some believe was an actual historical figure of the third millennium BCE, but was later venerated as a demigod or underworld deity.a Only fragments survive of the earliest, Old Babylonian version, which was produced in the Akkadian language shortly after 2000 BCE but which draws upon three separate and much earlier Sumerian poems featuring Gilgamesh. A more extensive Akkadian version of the composition survives on tablets from first-millennium BCE repositories at Nineveh, Assur, Sultantepe, Babylon, and Uruk. Known as the “standard version,” it is usually copied on 12 tablets. Prose retellings of the story were also written in the Hittite and Hurrian languages of Bronze Age Anatolia and Syria. Tablet fragments are now held by many museums, including the British Museum in London and the Sulaymaniyah Museum in Iraq.

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