The chaos monster and the sun god from the palace at Nineveh

Mesopotamia: The Epic of Gilgamesh & Other Writings

By Sally Mallam
Contributing Writer

On December 3, 1872, the Assyriologist George Smith astounded the London Society for Biblical Archaeology with the news that he had discovered on a cuneiform tablet an account of the Flood that was so similar to that of the biblical Book of Genesis that its influence could not be denied.

In 669 BCE, Ashurbanipal became ruler of the Assyrian Empire. His library is the largest so far uncovered in Mesopotamia. During his reign he added more to the library at Nineveh than any of his ancestors had done over the previous two centuries.

Much of our knowledge of ancient Babylonian myths and early history comes from his effort. Among the books archeologists have recovered from the palace library were the Babylonian creation myth, spread out over 7 tablets, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, spread out over 12 tablets. The tablets survived into modern times because when the nomadic Chaldeans from the southeast and Medes (Ancient Persians) destroyed Nineveh in 612 BCE, they were content to push in the palace walls with battering rams, so the walls collapsed, burying and preserving the tablets for the benefit of modern scholars and archeologists.

photo of clay tablet

The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian.

The Flood story in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh found at Nineveh is very close to the biblical one, but it predates the Bible story by at least 2,000 years. The Izdubar (or “Gilgamesh”) legends included not only the Story of the Flood, but the story of the Tower of Babel and of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as well, all originally written down at least as early as 2000 BCE from an oral tradition that was very much older.

Like Moses, Sargon, the Akkadian king who unified Sumer, was found in a reed basket that was flowing up a river and brought up under the protection of the high priestess of Inanna, who was more than likely, a royal princess.

The high point of Babylonian civilization was the rule of Hammurabi (around 1700 BCE). From his reign, we have the first written record of a legal code, which most likely was established through oral tradition long before: the Law Code of Hammurabi, written more than a thousand years before the Israelites, while exiled in Babylon, wrote down their Ten Commandments.

map of Babylonia at the time of HammurabiMap showing the Babylonian territory upon Hammurabi’s ascension in ca 1792 BCE and upon his death in ca 1750 BCE.

 Babylonian and Assyrian poetry website

Listen: Ancient Poetry of Babylon

SOAS University of London

Hear ancient Babylonian and Assyrian poetry and literature  in the original language.

Related:

The Noble Ones
Indus-Sarasvati Civilization
Aegean Civilizations
Archaic Greece
Ancient China

Further Reading

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