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Alaskan Range: 3,300 Years Ago

Greg Hill tells of the the Gilgamesh epic - and the world's first great library.

Once, 3,300 years ago in Babylonian Mesopotamia, there lived a librarian named Sin-leqe-unninni, who’s known today for writing the most complete version of the Gilgamesh epic, a story-poem that was ancient even three millennia ago. Originally composed in Sumerian, Sin-leqe-unnini wrote in Akkadian, which succeeded Sumerian as the Mesopotamian lingua franca and was then an almost-dead language. His account is the most complete still extant, and it’s contained in 11 large clay tablets owned by the British Museum.

Sin-leqe-unnini drew upon much older versions of Gilgamesh, and he wrote to entertain as well as inform. In his version, King Gilgamesh of Uruk, doesn’t diplomatically decline the amorous advances of the goddess Ishtar, the patron deity of Uruk, as he did in older accounts. Instead, Sin-leqe-unnini has Gilgamesh rudely refuse Ishtar’s favors and hurl a litany of nasty insults at her. Admittedly, Ishtar was the goddess of love, had been around the track a few times, and her former boytoys were always left worse for wear, but she was still the patron goddess of Gilgamesh’s kingdom.

Rashness was Gilgamesh’s principle character trait, but Ishtar was irked and well-equipped for taking revenge. She sent the Bull of Heaven to vent her frustration on Uruk and Gilgamesh, but his best friend, a reformed wild man named Enkidu, helped him kill the Bull. When the pair began insulting Ishtar again, the other gods decided enough was enough, and they whacked Enkidu. His friend’s death sent Gilgamesh into an existential search that led him to a wise man named Utnapishtim, the only survivor of the great flood, and a guy who closely resembled Noah.

The Gilgamesh epic spread throughout the ancient world of the Middle East and Asia Minor, and parts, like the great flood, crop up in the Bible, the Iliad and other ancient books, but it was lost for millennia. We enjoy it today because a king of ancient Nineveh learned to read and built the first great library, which included several copies of Gilgamesh, including Sin-leqe-unnini’s.

Back in ancient times, rulers depended on scribes to read, write and organize their governments’ information. Scribes, the ancestors of modern librarians, were priests and bureaucrats who ran the behind-the-scenes political shows in Mesopotamia. An Assyrian King named Esarhaddon, the grandson of the great Sargon, had seen his brothers murder their father and was jumpy as a cat, sensing danger everywhere. It drove him nuts when informers would send him messages about plots that he couldn’t read because, like all the other rulers, he didn’t know how.

Ancient librarians knew knowledge equals power. They protected information from interlopers by organizing it in ways only they could figure out. As city-states grew into kingdoms and empires, the managing of realms, and their libraries, became increasingly complicated. Consequently, the librarians controlled the knowledge, Esarhaddon made sure his youngest son and heir, Ashurbanipal, could read, a royal rarity back in the 7th century BCE. Fortunately, Ashurbanipal loved reading and amassed the greatest library the world had known, and he ruled for 40 years, surviving civil war, rebellions, and invasions. He made enemies along the way, and after Ashurbanipal’s death, they overran his empire, utterly destroying his palace, particularly his great library. The clay books were broken, but many survived in the ruins until being rediscovered again in the 1800s.

One of the great themes of Gilgamesh is the transitory nature of things. Libraries have existed for 5,000 years, and the American public library, promising free access to everyone, has been around for a bit over a century. The Civil Rights movement made that promise a reality for all Americans 50 years ago, and today Americans enjoy access to information that’s rare in today’s world, making the Mesopotamian rulers’ libraries laughable in comparison.

However, U.S. libraries are being hit hard by the recession, right when the public most needs them. Ours is doing OK, but many libraries are having to drastically cut hours, services, and even whole facilities. American libraries illuminate the world of knowledge better than any time in human history. That light mustn’t expire, lest we find, as Gilgamesh did in his search for knowledge, “there is total darkness: deep is the darkness, with no light at all.”


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