[skip to content]

Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East

Gilgamesh at SOAS, University of London

  • The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the masterpieces of world literature. Exploring mankind's universal longing for immortality, the poem tells the story of a Babylonian hero's quest for glory and flight from death.
  • It is the work of an anonymous Babylonian poet who lived in Iraq more than 3,700 years ago.
  • It was lost for 2000 years until, in the 1850s, archaeologists unearthed the clay tablets of the Assyrian royal libraries of Nineveh.
  • Buried since 612 BC, the Assyrian tablets were shipped to the British Museum, where the brilliant George Smith began the work of sorting them. He
  • quickly identified the remains of a great epic poem about a legendary king called Gilgamesh.
  • In 1872 Smith gave a public lecture on the climax of the epic, the famous Babylonian Flood Story. He showed that the Biblical story of Noah had a close parallel in ancient Iraq.
  • We now know that the Babylonian legend of the Flood goes back to at least 1750 BC. It must have been the original source for the story recounted in Genesis.
  • Since the discovery of the tablets of Nineveh archaeologists have uncovered 250,000 more cuneiform tablets in Iraq and neighbouring countries.
  • A small fraction of them are literary compositions like the Epic of Gilgamesh.
  • The tablets of Gilgamesh have been collected in book form twice, in 1891 and 1930, but sources for the epic still keep turning up. From 1985 to 2001 Andrew George toured the museums of the world, gathering the cuneiform sources again, for a new, comprehensive edition of the Babylonian poem.
  • In March 1999 Penguin Classics published Andrew George's definitive translation of the epic and related texts. Based on first-hand study of all the tablets, including many deciphered for the very first time, it is the most complete and faithful rendering of the poem ever made.Further details are available from Amazon.co.uk.
  • On 23 May 1999 SOAS presented a dramatic reading of the new translation, featuring a distinguished cast of readers led by Timothy West, Prunella Scales and Samuel West.
  • In July 2000 George's translation of the epic won the British-Kuwait Friendship Prize in Middle Eastern Studies, adjudicated by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies.
  • The dramatic reading was repeated on 6 July 2003 as part of the 49e Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale.
  • Later that month Andrew George's two-volume scholarly edition of the epic was published by Oxford University Press: The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts. Further details are available from Oxford University Press.