In 1872, English Assyriologist George Smith, deciphering a fragment of a clay tablet, stumbled upon the epic of Gilgamesh. Along with other archaeologists, he then began sifting through the archives of the British Museum in search of other tablets that might belong to the newly discovered epic poem. The first edition of twelve tablets, each containing some 300 lines, was published in 1891.

The extremely strong and handsome Gilgamesh, king of the Sumerian city of Uruk, was two-thirds god and one-third human. But he was concerned solely with his own pleasure, and failed to perform his royal duties. The men and women of Uruk had to wait on him hand and foot, day and night. The women’s lament reached Ishtar, goddess of love and tutelary deity of Uruk, who decided to re-establish order in the city. The gods therefore created Enkidu, a primitive, wild man, raised by animals, whose strength and handsomeness rivaled that of Gilgamesh. He was drawn to the city by Shamhat (“Well-Endowed”), one of Ishtar’s courtesans, who turned Enkidu into a civilized man. Enkidu became outraged by the king’s behavior. The two men entered into violent combat, but neither one could get the better of the other, so they wound up becoming friends.

Gilgamesh decided to take Enkidu with him on an expedition to distant Lebanon in order to kill the giant Humbaba, who guarded a cedar forest forbidden to humans. Gilgamesh wanted to be the first man to enter this still-virgin forest, to cut down its tall trees to make the doors and roofs of lavish buildings (as would subsequently be done by all powerful Mesopotamian kings after Gilgamesh). But Gilgamesh’s courage soon failed him. It was the sun-god who enabled the two friends to kill the dangerous Humbaba and seize his wealth. Gilgamesh and Enkidu then set out for other adventures, but their extravagances irritated the gods, who decided to put an end to the life of one of the two men: they chose Enkidu, who was immediately struck down by a high fever—the hero died in bed without having “made his name” on the field of battle.

After Enkidu’s royal funeral, Gilgamesh abandoned his city, his country, and all his splendor. Wearing a lion skin, he wandered the steppes in search of Utnapishtim, the only human being to have achieved immortality. Gilgamesh reached the ends of the earth, where terrifying scorpion-men guarded the entrance to the “path of the sun,” yet allowed him to pass. For twice twelve hours, Gilgamesh raced swiftly along the path of the sun around the earth; before the burning sun could catch up with him, he reached the netherworld, finding a wonderful garden of precious gems. Ishtar, the patron goddess of Uruk, awaited him there in the form of Siduri, an inn-keeper, who showed him the path leading to Utnapishtim.

Gilgamesh thought he could extract the secret of eternal life from Utnapishtim, the protagonist of the Flood. The latter recounted how, following the advice of the god of Wisdom, he and his wife were the only humans to survive the Flood, even though the gods had decided to wipe out humanity entirely. But the gods regretted their decision and, noticing joyfully that a few humans still lived, promised they would never exterminate mankind again. However, the king of the gods, Enlil, was able to preserve his own sovereign authority and the divine order of things only by exiling Utnapishtim to the land of the immortals. That was the sole reason—such is the lesson of the tale of the Flood—that Utnapishtim was granted immortality, rather than for petty, self-centered reasons. Utnapishtim therefore bluntly exhorted Gilgamesh to assume his royal responsibilities and to occupy himself with the well-being of his subjects.

Gilgamesh abandoned all hope of eternal life and returned to Uruk, where he rebuilt the temples destroyed by the Flood, which had been abandoned for thousands of years. He re-established the ancient rules of worship and sacrifice. It was only through his deeds that the mutually beneficial co-existence of god and humans, begun with Creation but destroyed by the Flood, was restored. Under the walls of Uruk erected by Gilgamesh, the grand Mesopotamian civilization could then blossom.