Teaching Gilgamesh: The Historical Context of Obliteration
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the world’s first true literature: that is, it is a story about the nature of humanity rather than the lists of property that preceded it. The tale was born in the third millennium BC. The version that has survived in writing focuses on the king of Uruk. At the narration’s conclusion, Gilgamesh and his companion Urshabi return to Uruk, and Gilgamesh explains: “This is the wall of Uruk, which no city on earth can equal. See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun” (Book 11). The archaeological site of Uruk is now in shambles, gutted by war and consequent looting, and the World Monuments Watch took the unprecedented step of including the entire country of Iraq on its “100 Most Endangered Sites.” Some of the 10,000 archaeological sites have suffered such extensive damage that excavation is no longer possible. The Epic of Gilgamesh parallels the destruction of the city that gave it birth. Everything but the gods die, yet the human spirit attains immortality through the power of the spoken and written word. The course that I summarize here, which is in part a lament for the destruction of Iraq, examines the Epic from several angles: the historical context of third millennium BC Mesopotamia; several aspects of social history such as childhood, gender, and old age; from the perspective of several aspects of economic, political, and military history; as well as the question of textual transmission and modern legacy.
Keywords: Gilgamesh, Epic, Obliteration, Teaching, Memory
Dr. M. Lynn Rose
Associate Professor, History, Truman State University