The Rotunda of the British Museum
by cheri sabraw
Today, many of us still maintain and adore our libraries full of hard-bound and paperback books, testaments to classes we have taken, reminders of our deep and abiding interests and loves, literary tickets to those unspoken desires or journeys we have imagined.
One hundred years from now, our libraries may become historical curiosities– old friends that have disappeared into the annals of time, like my hot hair rollers, tiny 1963 transistor radio, 45 rpm record of Leslie Gore’s It’s My Party , or the red rotary telephone that hung like a piece of modern art on the floral wallpaper that decorated our kitchen in 1960.
I have a virtual library on my iPad, with all of my purchased books–histories, mysteries–congeries of my deepest interests and a few wild stories that no one knows I am reading.
Take heart. We are not the only people in history whose physical libraries have changed.
King Ashurbanipal (as viewed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Last month, while visiting the British Museum, I came upon this installation, right after seeing the Rosetta Stone, Were you to have visited King Ashurbanipal’s library in ancient Nineveh (Upper Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq) in about 640 BCE, this is what you would have seen.
The Library Project (as seen in the British Museum, June, 2016)
In his library was one of the complete sets of the Epic of Gilgamesh, twelve tablets written in approximately 1800 BCE and considered by many to be the first important work of literature.
Part of the Epic of Gilgamesh (as seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
I read the Epic of Gilgamesh as part of my Master’s curricula in 2009 and summarized, on this blog, just part the strangely modern story. If you are interested in reading all of it, I recommend this translation.
“The story that is now playing in my imagination was first written sometime between 1800-1600 BCE. That’s about 3800 years ago.
That it showcases a handsome king, that this king misdirects his passions, that he suffers a deep emotional crisis which sends him on an archetypal journey in search of immortality, that he returns to his city a wise but lonely character— reinforces our humanness.
The king’s name is Gilgamesh. He was a real person who lived during the Early Dynastic II period (2700-2100 BCE) in the city of Uruk in Sumer, the earliest known civilization in human history.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is an old poem written on clay tablets in cuneiform a long time ago— before the Hebrew Bible, before the New Testament, before the Bhagavad Gita, before the Buddhist scriptures, and before Homer’s The Odyssey.
Archeologists found the twelve-tablet story in the Library of King Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE)
First translated into English in 1885, the Epic was written in the Mesopotamian language of Akkadian, one of the languages spoken in Ancient Babylonia, now present day Iraq.
The King Gilgamesh in the poem is a mythological one, 2/3 god and 1/3 human.
As with most who enter or are born into public service or royalty (think the Windsors, the Roosevelts ), Gilgamesh has, in modern parlance, issues.
He suffers from what many of today’s teenagers and 20-somethings expect: instant gratification. But hey, he’s a studly king, admired by Ishtar, the Love and War Goddess. He erects monuments, participates in contests of strength, and regularly sleeps with virgins the night before their weddings.
He has it all. All except friendship and perspective.
Instead of inflicting him with a venereal disease or a vulnerable spot that is his undoing, as with the Greek Achilles or the biblical Samson, the Mesopotamian Gods put their heads together and with a big Marine oorah, and came up with what might be one of the most creative solutions in all of literature: they create a complement to Gilgamesh, the Wild Man of Mesopotamia, Enkidu.
Enkidu is Rousseau’s man: a natural guy, comfortable running with gazelle and resting by cool watering holes. All eight pistons are operational but his brain power is simple and functional. How to bring a guy like this to the palace for a visit?
In the forest one day, Enkidu startles a trapper, who then returns home to ask his father what to do about this hairy beast who is 2/3 animal and 1/3 man, a hybrid that has been setting the animals free from the traps.
The trapper’s father suggests that his son travel to Uruk where King Gilgamesh, the strong and virile, lives. Perhaps the King might have a solution.”
If you want to know what happens, you will have to read the story. Its modern implications are many.
My Library Project.
Is to organize my library alphabetically, by author. I think I’ll start this winter, when the skies turn grey, the days shorten, and when my natural inclination to ponder serious topics occurs.
This morning, I organized the library on my iPad by pressing a button.
King Ashurbanipal? His library is being organized by young scholars (and old) at the British Museum.