rating: 5 of 5 stars
One might be forgiven for thinking that a book that is half-devoted to the archaeological expeditions and discoveries in Mesopotamia in the nineteenth century, and the subsequent attempts of linguists to crack the linguistic "code" that ultimately led to the recovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh, would be dry. One would be wrong: Damrosch writes with velocity and poise, yet does not sacrifice scholarly heft, weaving in issues of pertaining to colonialism, culture, race, and the arbitrariness of history, as he hurtles backward towards ancient Mesopotamia. Along the way, he attempts to set the record straight by shedding new light on the (unlikely, and remarkable) career of Iraqi archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam, so central to the Western re-discovery of the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian pasts, and so often shunted to the side by his British colleagues, whether as an archaeologist or a diplomat; Damrosch's rescue of Rassam's work from oblivion seems to me as much an ethical act as one of scholarship.
But the book offers other pleasures too: Damrosch has a novelist's gift when it comes to characterization, and vividly sketches nineteenth century scholars like George Smith and Henry Rawlinson to life. But most rewarding of all is Damrosch's evocation of the ancient milieu of the epic, and his account of the functionings of the Assyrian court and bureaucrac; not to mention his engagement with the poem itself, and with its abiding relevance. It is man's fate to die, the poem seems to tell us, and even at such great remove, the uncompromising clarity of that insight unsettles.
View all my reviews.