Gilgamesh (Akkadian cuneiform: 𒄑𒂆𒈦 [𒄑𒂆𒈦], Gilgameš, also known as Bilgames in the earliest text) was the fifth king of Uruk (Early Dynastic II, first dynasty of Uruk), ruling 126 years, according to the Sumerian king list. He was said to be contemporary with some of the earliest archaeologically-known figures, placing his reign ca. 2500 BC. According to the Tummal Inscription, Gilgamesh, and his son Urlugal, rebuilt the sanctuary of the goddess Ninlil, in Tummal, a sacred quarter in her city of Nippur. Gilgamesh is the central character in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the greatest surviving work of early Mesopotamian literature. In the epic his father was Lugalbanda and his mother was Ninsun (whom some call Rimat Ninsun), a goddess. Gilgamesh is described as two parts god and one part man. In Mesopotamian mythology, Gilgamesh is credited with having been a demigod of superhuman strength who built a great city wall to defend his people from external threats and travelled to meet Utnapishtim, the sage who had survived the Great Deluge.
Statue of Gilgamesh on grounds of University of Sydney, Australia
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is credited with the building of the legendary walls of Uruk. An alternative version has Gilgamesh telling Urshanabi, the ferryman, that the city's walls were built by the Seven Sages. In historical times, Sargon of Akkad claimed to have destroyed these walls to prove his military power.
Fragments of an epic text found in Me-Turan (modern Tell Haddad) relate that at the end of his life Gilgamesh was buried under the waters of a river. The people of Uruk diverted the flow of the Euphrates passing Uruk for the purpose of burying the dead king within the river bed. In April 2003, a German expedition claimed to have discovered his last resting place.
It is generally accepted that Gilgamesh was a historical figure, since inscriptions have been found which confirm the historical existence of other figures associated with him: such as the kings Enmebaragesi and Aga of Kish. If Gilgamesh was a historical king, he probably reigned in about the 26th century BC. Some of the earliest Sumerian texts spell his name as Bilgames. Initial difficulties in reading cuneiform resulted in Gilgamesh making his re-entrance into world culture in 1891 as "Izdubar". Some[who?] have suggested a connection between Gilgamesh and the Nimrod of the biblical book of Genesis.
In most texts, Gilgamesh is written with the determinative for divine beings (DINGIR) - but there is no evidence for a contemporary cult, and the Sumerian Gilgamesh myths suggest that deification was a later development (unlike the case of the Akkadian god kings). Over the centuries there was a gradual accretion of stories about him, some probably derived from the real lives of other historical figures, in particular Gudea, the Second Dynasty ruler of Lagash (2144–2124 BC).
Later (non-cuneiform) references
In the Qumran scroll known as Book of Giants (ca. 100 BC) the names of Gilgamesh and Humbaba appear as two of the antediluvian giants (in consonantal form), rendered as glgmš and ḩwbbyš. This same text was later used in the Middle East by the Manichaean sects, and the Arabic form Jiljamish survives as the name of a demon according to the Egyptian cleric Al-Suyuti (ca. 1500).
The name Gilgamesh appears once in Greek, as "Gilgamos" (Γίλγαμος), in Aelian, De Natura Animalium (On animals) 12.21 (ca. AD 200). In Aelian's story, the King of Babylon, Seuechorus or Euechorus, determined by oracle that his grandson Gilgamos would kill him, so he threw him out of a high tower. An eagle broke his fall, and the infant was found and raised by a gardener, eventually becoming king.
Theodore Bar Konai (ca. AD 600), writing in Syriac, also mentions a king Gligmos, Gmigmos or Gamigos as last of a line of 12 kings who were contemporaneous with the patriarchs from Peleg to Abraham; this occurrence is also considered a vestige of Gilgamesh's former memory.