George Smith and the Epic of Gilgamesh

February 4, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism, writers, writing.


Writing: It started with the Sumerians 

— The library of Ashurbanipal: its discovery changed our view of history

 Henry Rawlinson on the Behistun inscription: key to the translations of Ashurbanipal’s library

When George Smith stood up before London’s most important people at the British Museum in late 1872, he was within walking distance of the neighborhood where he had been born, Chelsea, but he had traveled life’s road a great distance from his humble birth. The audience that day included William Gladstone, England’s prime minister and most important politician, and scholars, theologians, and many high-born gentlemen. They were all waiting almost breathlessly for what the young 32-year-old of humble birth had to say.

George Smith had spent the last several years studying the astonishing findings of Austen Henry Layard and Hormuzd Rassam when they stumbled upon the Library of Ashurbanipal while digging up the ancient city of Nineveh in Persia. Smith was fascinated by the clay tablets that contain cuneiform characters that were obviously from some ancient culture, likely the Sumerians who lived more than 4,000 before.

Much of the cuneiform code had been broken through the work of Persian language expert Sir Henry Rawlinson, who had risked his life to find the secrets of the ancient languages of  Mesopotamia. Despite Rawlinson’s work, the cuneiform impressions in the tablets were still damnably hard to read and decipher.

Smith, as a printer’s apprentice,had taken an amateur’s interest in all of these findings and had made it a habit of visiting the museum almost on a daily basis to view the tablets. Doing so allowed him to develop a knowledge and understanding of the shapes and impressions that went beyond anyone else’s, and museum officials and Rawlinson took notice. They eventually extracted him from the printer’s shop and brought him onto the museum’s staff.

One day while looking through some of the tablets spread out on a table, Smith’s eyes zeroed in on a particular one, and he began to read what would become the most sensational discovery of them all. It was the story of a flood — a flood during which a man survived by building a large boat. The boat was caught on a mountaintop, and a bird was sent from the boart to search for dry land.

It was, Smith was convinced, the Biblical story of Noah. Because the stone from which Smith was reading, the story was only a few lines, but to him and to others it was confirmation of the Biblical text from an ancient source — far older than anything that had ever been discovered. His appearance before the Society of Biblical Archeology, which included Prime Minister Gladstone, caused a sensation throughout the Western world.

Smith subsequently found that he was incorrect about the story. To the disappointment of many theologians and clergy, the tale was not about Noah. It was something mo

re ancient. It was part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, now thought to be the oldest piece of literature we have on record.

After his appearance before the Society of Biblical Archeology, the London Daily Telegraph financed an expedition for Smith to go back to the Nineveh site to see if he could find more tablets that contained the story. Because of the state of the site and the thousands of tablets that remained there, it was a needle-in-a-haystack hunt. Miraculously, however, Smith discovered tablets that had many other parts of the story, and eventually Smith was able to translate and better understand what he had found.

Smith made a second journey to Persia in 1873, after which he finished one of his books, The Chaldean Account of Genesis, which you can read online. During a third expedition, tragedy struck. Smith became ill and died of dysentery. He was 36 years old.

Illustration: A representation of some of the pieces of the tablet from which Smith extracted the flood story.

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