The Missing Lines


Mesopotamian tabletThe National Museum of Iraq – known originally as the Baghdad Archaeological Museum - once housed some of the oldest works of literature in the world. Treasures from the origins of civilization, from the cities of Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria were on display*.

In 2003, when the Americans invaded**, a battle was fought between US and Iraqi forces at the museum. The Iraqi troops fled, and looters came in. According to Wikipedia:

According to museum officials the looters concentrated on the heart of the exhibition: “the Warka Vase, a Sumerian alabaster piece more than 5,000 years old; a bronze Uruk statue from the Akkadian period, also 5,000 years old, which weighs 660 pounds; and the headless statue of Entemena. The Harp of Ur was torn apart by looters who removed its gold inlay.”[4] Among the stolen artifacts is the Bassetki Statue made out of bronze, a life-size statue of a young man, originally found in the village Basitke in the northern part of Iraq, an Acadian piece that goes back to 2300 B.C. and the stone statue of King Schalmanezer, from the eighth century B.C.
In addition, the museum’s aboveground storage rooms were looted; the exterior steel doors showed no signs of forced entry. Approximately 3,100 excavation site pieces (jars, vessels, pottery shards, etc.) were stolen, of which over 3,000 have been recovered. The thefts did not appear to be discriminating; for example, an entire shelf of fakes was stolen, while an adjacent shelf of much greater value was undisturbed.
The third occurrence of theft was in the underground storage rooms, where evidence pointed to an inside job. The thieves attempted to steal the most easily transportable objects, which had been intentionally stored in the most remote location possible. Of the four rooms, the only portion disturbed was a single corner in the furthest room, where cabinets contained 100 small boxes containing cylinder seals, beads, and jewelry. Evidence indicated that the thieves possessed keys to the cabinets but dropped them in the dark. Instead, they stole 10,000 small objects that were lying in plastic boxes on the floor. Of them, nearly 2,500 have been recovered.
One of the most valuable artifacts looted was a headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash. The Entemena statue, “estimated to be 4,400 years old, is the first significant artifact returned from the United States and by far the most important piece found outside Iraq. American officials declined to discuss how they recovered the statue.” The statue of the king, located in the center of the museum’s second-floor Sumerian Hall, weighs hundreds of pounds, making it the heaviest piece stolen from the museum – the looters “probably rolled or slid it down marble stairs to remove it, smashing the steps and damaging other artifacts.” It was recovered in the United States with the help of Hicham Aboutaam, an art dealer in New York.

The looting was severe enough to spawn several books and magazine articles (also here and here). The museum is still rebuilding and not open to the public, a decade later.

One of the side effects of the war was to end international archeological research into the region. And while we wait to see if the country ever settles so it becomes safe enough to resume such activities, looters continue to steal everything they can, including from archeological sites.

The Museum reported that many of its cuneiform tablets were looted, although some were later recovered. Those tablets contain some of the oldest writing in the world, among them the epic of Gilgamesh (the tablet shown in the image above, is the 11th tablet in the epic, from the library of Ashurbanipal (Assyrian King 669-631 BCE), now in the British Museum).

I don’t know if all of those tablets had been translated; certainly collections in other museums worldwide contain untranslated, even unsorted, material. There is still much to be revealed about the ancient Middle East and its literature.

Gilgamesh is the world’s oldest adventure story, but it remains incomplete. It is likely based on a real Sumerian king who ruled around 2500 BCE (his possible tomb was discovered in 2003). The story was so popular in Mesopotamia that it was recopied and retold for two thousand years.***

Here’s how Stephen Mitchell has written the opening of his version of the Gilgamesh epic:

He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions,from exaltation to despair, had been granted a visioninto the great mystery, the secret places,the primeval days before the Flood. He had journeyedto the edge of the world and made his way back, exhaustedbut whole. He had carved his trials on stone tablets,had restored the holy Eanna Temple and the massivewall of Uruk, which no city on earth can equal.See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun.Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine,approach the Eanna Temple, sacred to Ishtar,a temple that no king has equaled in size or beauty,walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its coursearound the city, inspect its mighty foundations,examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built,observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens,the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shopsand marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.Find the cornerstone and under it the copper boxthat is marked with his name. Unlock it. Open the lid.Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli. Readhow Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all.

How can you not want to read something that opens so beautifully like that? It reminds me of the opening of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, in that it draws the reader inexorably into the rest of the book.

The story was originally made of several tales dated around 2150-2000 BCE. It was rewritten and collated into a single “standard” epic around 1800 BCE. It was again revised and rewritten in Babylon in the period between 1300 and 1000 BCE. It was written on 11 tablets, although a 12th tablet was added later. Although many tablets have been found throughout the region, none of the tablets remain intact, and roughly a third of the epic remains missing.

And therein lies the issue: this magnificent work is incomplete. The missing lines likely will be found, but not until the region becomes safe for archeologists to return to the mounds of ancient cities and start searching again.

The Gilgamesh tale has fascinated me since I first discovered it in the early 1970s. It has always been my hope that those missing lines would turn up in one of the archeological digs that were happening in Iraq until the American invasion. Now that hope is, like so many of the tablets unearthed, shattered. But yet I hope to see the work completed in my lifetime.

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* The Museum’s treasures can be seen in a virtual museum here, and the museum has a news and update site here.

** While no one can argue that Saddam Hussein was not a brutal dictator, that alone was not sufficient reason for an invasion of such magnitude. After all, the USA has propped up hundreds of worse dictators in its history.

*** Of the five versions of the story in my library, the best by far is Stephen Mitchell’s modern retelling (Free Press, 2004), but if you want a look at the academic and a more literal (and spartan) translation, read Andrew George’s translation (Penguin, rev. 2003). The latter’s introduction is especially informative. Reginald Campbell’s 1901 translation is online here and another version by Maureen Gallery Kovacs is here. Just for fun, here’s a comic version (based on a lecture by Mitchell). I recently started to reread several versions of Gilgamesh, and the introductions to both George and Mitchell inspired the thoughts that led to this post.