How should we live when we know we must die? This question is raised by the first work of world literature – the Epic of Gilgamesh. Over 4,000 years ago, Gilgamesh set out on a quest for immortality. As with all Babylonian literature, the story has survived only in fragments. Nevertheless, since its rediscovery in the 19th century, scholars have managed to render his two-thirds of the text readable.
The Babylonians wrote in cuneiform on clay tablets, but they have survived in the form of numerous fragments. Over the centuries, scholars have transferred the inscriptions engraved on clay pieces to paper. It then carefully compares the transcripts and, at best, recognizes which fragments belong together and fills in the gaps. The text was written in Sumerian and Akkadian, which have complex writing systems. This was the work of Sisyphus, which experts in the Electronic Babylonian Literature Project can hardly imagine today.
Digitization of all existing cuneiform tablets
Since 2018, Enrique Jiménez, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Literature at the LMU Institute of Assyrian Studies, and his team have been working to digitize all surviving cuneiform tablets. During that time, the project has processed as many as 22,000 text fragments.
“It’s a tool that didn’t exist before, a huge database of fragments. We believe it will play an important role in reconstructing Babylonian literature, allowing us to make more rapid progress.” Aptly named Fragmentarium, this tool is designed to piece together text fragments using a systematic and automated method. The designers hope that in the future the program will be able to identify and transcribe cuneiform photographs. To date, thousands of additional cuneiform fragments have been photographed in collaboration with the British Museum in London and the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad.
Algorithm finds new text and matches fragments
The team is training an algorithm to stitch together fragments that have not yet been placed in the proper context. Already, algorithms have identified new connections between hundreds of manuscripts and many texts. For example, in November 2022, the software recognized a fragment belonging to the latest tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates back to 130 BC. This is thousands of years younger than the first known version of the epic. Jimenez says it is very interesting that people were still imitating Gilgamesh at this late period.
In February 2023, LMU researchers will reveal Fragmentarium. For the first time, we are also releasing a digital version of The Epic of Gilgamesh. The new edition will be the first edition to contain all known transcripts of cuneiform fragments.
Since the project’s inception, about 200 scholars around the world have accessed the online platform for their research projects. It is now available for use by the general public. “Anyone can play with his Fragmentarium. There are thousands of fragments that have yet to be identified,” says Jiménez.
When spring comes to Babylon
Enrique Jimenez wants to fill in the gaps in Babylonian literature bit by bit. Through his work on projects over the past few years, he has not only discovered new texts and authors, but also previously unknown genres. The city of Babylon, a very lively hymn. Text is fun. I can picture the city very clearly. It describes how spring will come to Babylon. ”
Babylon was once the largest city in the world. It straddled the Euphrates River about 85 kilometers south of present-day Baghdad. Built in the 2nd millennium BC, this ancient city was the seat of King Hammurabi. King Hammurabi expanded his inherited empire, extending from the Persian Gulf to northern Iraq. From the 7th century BC to his 6th century, Babylon experienced a second golden age. (In 2019, the ancient city was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)
(River of Babylon) Araḫtu is its name.
(Made by Nudimud, King of Wisdom)
Water the meadows, water the reed thickets,
Pour that water into the ocean and lagoons.
The field sprouts with new growth,
In that pasture, shining, barley springs up.
Thanks to its currents, the heaps of grain are piled high,
Grasslands grow taller, and herds roam and graze.
It grows the land, enriches it, makes it rain
Richness and splendor, that is what humanity deserves.
“Historically, no hymn to the city was known in Babylonian literature. We found 15 new fragments of this text. Without Fragmentrium, the reconstruction process would have taken 30 to 40 years.” I think so,” says Jimenez. His team also found that texts play an important role in the classroom. This was because Babylonian schoolchildren had to copy the text as an exercise.
Timeless and relevant text
“There is a lot of work to be done in studying Babylonian literature. The new texts we are discovering will help us understand Babylonian literature and culture as a whole,” says Enrique Jiménez. Experts in ancient Near Eastern studies are inspired by the text’s beauty and timeless relevance. The Babylonians tried to answer it, but were unsuccessful because the question had no answer. But the fact that they tried to tackle the problem and find the answer still helps. ”
build a house someday
someday we will start a family,
At one point the brothers divided (the inheritance) and
At some point, a dispute breaks out over the land.
One day the river rose (and) brought a flood,
Mayfly floating in the river.
The face was staring at the face of the sun,
Then suddenly there was nothing!
There is no canonical reading of the sagas that have influenced world literature for thousands of years. “How you make sense of the text is up to you,” says Enrique Jimenez. Gilgamesh returns to his native Uruk, the first city in world history according to modern scholarship. At this point the narration is abruptly interrupted and the text switches to enumerating the size of the city and its public squares. “Gilgamesh comes home and says, ‘Urk is such a beautiful city.’ Beneath this, something deeper is going on,” Jimenez says. In this interpretation, the episode shows that people die as individuals, but continue to live as part of the city they live in and the human society they belong to.
There was Enrique Jimenez. The photos on the shelf in his office at LMU look like plain ground. You have to lean forward and squint to recognize the faint hint of lines that are part of the once-mighty ramparts. Even the great city of Uruk, Gilgamesh’s hometown, was devastated.
For more information:
Electronic Babylonian Literature: github.com/ElectronicBabylonianLiterature
Courtesy of Ludwig Maximilian University Munich
Quote: Researchers use AI to make texts thousands of years old readable (Feb 2, 2023)
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