Unlike the heroes of Greek or Celtic mythology, the hero of The Epic of Gilgamesh was an actual historical figure, a king who reigned over the Sumerian city-state of Uruk around 2700 BCE. Long after his death, people worshipped Gilgamesh, renowned as a warrior and builder and widely celebrated for his wisdom and judiciousness. One prayer invokes him as “Gilgamesh, supreme king, judge of the Anunnaki” (the gods of the underworld). Called Erech in the Bible, Uruk was one of the great cities of ancient Mesopotamia. The historical King Gilgamesh probably raised its walls, which archaeologists have determined had a perimeter of six miles. Today its ruins rest near the town of Warka, in southern Iraq, about a third of the way from Basra to Baghdad. A team of German archaeologists recently announced that they’d detected a buried structure there that might be Gilgamesh’s tomb. Though the military actions of 2003 stopped their work before excavations could begin, their claim has aroused considerable interest.

Dozens of stories about Gilgamesh circulated throughout the ancient Middle East. Archaeologists have discovered the earliest ones, inscribed on clay tablets in the Sumerian language before 2000 BCE. Other tablets tell stories about him in the Elamite, Hurrian, and Hittite tongues. Over time, many of those stories were consolidated into a large, epic work. The most complete known version of this long poem was found in Nineveh, in the ruins of the library of Assurbanipal, the last great king of the Assyrian empire. Assurbanipal was undoubtedly a despot and a warmonger, but he was also a tireless archivist and collector—we owe much of our knowledge about ancient Mesopotamia to his efforts.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is written in Akkadian, the Babylonians’ language, on eleven tablets, with a fragmentary appendix on a twelfth. The tablets actually name their author, Sin-Leqi-Unninni, whose name translates to “Moon god, accept my plea.” This poet/editor must have completed his work sometime before 612 BCE, when the Persians conquered the Assyrian Empire and destroyed Nineveh.

Gilgamesh’s fame did not survive Assyria’s collapse. Although he had been a ubiquitous literary, religious, and historical figure for two millennia, he would be completely forgotten until Victorian times, more than 2,000 years later. In 1839, an English traveler named Austen Henry Layard excavated some 25,000 broken clay tablets from the ruins of Nineveh. Henry Rawlinson, an expert on Assyria able to decipher cuneiform, began the painstaking, difficult work of translating them, first in Baghdad and then later at the British Museum. Rawlinson had discovered the Stone of Darius, also known as the Persian Rosetta Stone, a monument celebrating the Persian emperor’s conquests in several languages. This structure provided the key to translating cuneiform’s wedge-shaped alphabet.

When Rawlinson’s student George Smith rendered the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh epic into English in 1872, it set off an immediate sensation. This tablet contains the Sumerian story of the deluge, which has so many parallels with the story of Noah’s ark that many people surmise the author of the biblical account was familiar with Gilgamesh. Possibly, both versions hearken back to an even older source. Some scientists have recently speculated that the basic story reflects a folk memory of events in 5000 BCE, when melting glaciers caused the Mediterranean to overflow, inundating a vast, densely settled area around the Black Sea and scattering its survivors around the world.

Their interest roused, Victorian archaeologists dug up and translated more and more tablets. Within a few years, the broad outlines of the epic had been reestablished, and many more tablets have been discovered since. Even so, the poem is still as much as twenty percent incomplete, and a good part of what does exist is fragmentary to the point of unintelligibility. The different translations of Gilgamesh vary widely in terms of details included and their interpretation, but most of them follow Sin-Leqi-Unninni.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is more than just an archaeological curiosity. Despite its innumerable omissions and obscurities, its strange cast of gods, and its unfamiliar theory about the creation of the universe, the story of Gilgamesh is powerful and gripping. An exciting adventure that celebrates kinship between men, it asks what price people pay to be civilized and questions the proper role of a king, and it both acknowledges and scrutinizes the attractions of earthly fame. Most of all, Gilgamesh describes the existential struggles of a superlatively strong man who must reconcile himself to his mortality and find meaning in his life despite the inevitability of death.