For the ancient Sumerians, writing, the extraordinary art of giving form to words, had divine origins that can be dated back to a distant mythical past: before the flood, when “royalty descended from heaven”, Sumer’s rulers were helped by seven semi-divine sages, Apkallu, sent by the god Enki to teach men all the rules, arts, sciences, and disciplines on which civilian city life was based. The first of these essays was Oannes, a creature half man and half fish that came up out of the sea, which also revealed writing to humans.
What began in ancient Mesopotamia around 3000 BC, with the birth of cuneiform, is a cultural adventure that marks a real turning point in the history of civilization. Thus a Sumerian hymn praises the art of writing, which suggests how much it was valued: “The art of writing is the mother of the speaker, the father of teachers; the art of writing is exciting, it never satisfies you; the art of writing is difficult to learn, but he who has learned it will have the world in his hand ”.
The last great season of Sumerian civilization flourished in the late third millennium BC, at the time of the famous third dynasty in Ur, the capital of Sumer made famous by excavations carried out between 1922 and 1934 by Sir Leonard Woolley, who reported to light Ziqqurat and the royal tombs with their impressive finds. With 2000 BC. the Sumerians were repressed from a political, ethnic and linguistic point of view first by the Babylonians and then by the Assyrians, but in spite of this their cultural heritage remained an essential basis of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia; of this cultural heritage, cuneiform was an element that was to remain in vogue for many centuries to come. Although the Sumerian language was gradually abandoned in everyday use, it continued to be studied in scriptural schools and remained for centuries as a learned language with religious and ritual connotations, as the Sumerian religious system would also have been preserved as a whole. . however, with some adaptations, by the new rulers of Mesopotamia. As the great Italian Assyriologist Giovanni Pettinato notes, it is no coincidence that the Babylonians and Assyrians chose a Sumerian hero as the undisputed protagonist of their epic, Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, son of a goddess and of the semi-divine king Lugalbanda, a figure, that has reached us from the distant times when history disappears into myths.
To play an important role in the transmission of the stratified Gilgamesh epic (ancient Sumerian poems, an older Babylonian version and finally a later one, which later became the classic, without counting the material found outside Mesopotamia), as well as in preservation of the cultural heritage of Sumer, Akkad and Assur as a whole, the discovery in the mid-nineteenth century of the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC), was found during the excavation campaigns in Nineveh by Austen Henry Layard and his assistant Hormuzd Rassam, whose discoveries are the origin of the collection of cuneiform tablets unique in the world, since then stored and studied at the British Museum.
“Warrior. Scholar. Empire Builder. King Killer. Lion Hunter. Librarian”: this is how the last great Assyrian king was described in the great exhibition that the famous London Museum dedicated to Ashurbanipal between 2018 and 2019; beyond the understandable search for a safe effect on the visitors of the exhibition, it was not so out of place to define Assur’s ruler also as a ‘librarian’ as well as a ‘scholar’. His intellectual horizon: he declares, among other things, that he was educated in all the most refined scriptures, among other things, could interpret heavenly and earthly warnings, had read even the darkest texts in Sumerian and Akkadian, and had been able to interpret inscriptions from the time before the flood.
That his passion for knowledge was authentic and not merely a solemn formula is undoubtedly demonstrated by the Royal Library of Nineveh, designed to preserve the intellectual heritage of the day in the most complete way and in every way through the tireless activity of acquisitions, requisitions and copyists, as a part of a systematic program. The Ashurbanipal Library, comprising some 30,000 tablets and fragments, some of which are well-preserved and most valuable pieces on display permanently at the British Museum, included various disciplinary areas and literary genres: religious, ritual, magical, divine, epic texts, historians, numerous interpretations of oracles and warnings and finally administrative texts, letters, reports. Surprising to today’s librarian are some elements of an organizational / managerial nature, such as the presence on many tablets of colophons shown in the margins and containing the number of the tablet, the series to which it belongs, and the first line of text of the following tablet; in some cases it was also stated that the manuscript belonged to the collection of “Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria”.
Among the texts transcribed by the copyists in the king’s service, there was also the greatest literary work of the ancient Mesopotamian civilization, the Gilgamesh epic, quoted above: without the tablets found in the excavations of Nineveh, it would not have been possible to reach it current reconstruction of the text, although it is still incomplete. After the important edition of Giovanni Pettinato, in 1992, a new edition that reconstructs the text tablet by tablet and makes the status of the different versions, starting from the “classic”, the least fragmentary, going back to the end of the second millennium BC C., was published in 1999 by the English Assyriologist Andrew George and was published in an Italian edition in 2021.
The rediscovery of Gilgamesh from the mists of the past begins in 1872, when George Smith, commissioned by the British Museum to study the collection of tablets from Nineveh, first translated the famous tablet XI from the epic, the one that reports the amazing description of the flood narrated by the Mesopotamian Noah Utnapishtim, a connoisseur of the secrets of the cosmos and the meaning of life.
The significance of this ancient literary masterpiece actually lies in the reflection on the fate of man and on the meaning of life and death, which represent the central core of the poem, as well as in the duties of the ideal king: to honor. the gods, to worry that he has celebrated the cult, take care of the subjects that a shepherd does with his flock. Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, initially torments his subjects, unable to control rage and youthful arrogance, at times he even lacks respect against the gods, desecrating the sacred cedar forest and insulting the goddess Ishtar (Inanna for the Sumerians). Obsessed with the thought of death and the desire for immortality, he undergoes a grueling journey to the end of the world. When he finally meets the elder Utnapishtim, the survivor of the flood who has attained immortality as a gift, an inner change begins to take place in the hero. When he returned to Uruk, exhausted but finally at peace with himself, Gilgamesh has attained the wisdom that is the understanding of his role as man and ruler, in the cosmic order that the gods wanted.
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