Invitation to World Literature
The Epic of Gilgamesh: Map & Timeline
This map shows the world of Gilgamesh: his home city-kingdom, Uruk, is just northwest of today’s Iraqi city of Basra, on the Euphrates River, near the Persian Gulf and the border with today’s Iran. This was the heart of the Fertile Crescent, where the first great human civilization arose around 8000 BCE. While southern Iraq is mostly desert today, in the time of Gilgamesh (around 2800 BCE), it was wetter and greener, an agricultural center fed by its two rivers.
The earliest city states of Sumer are established.
The real Gilgamesh becomes king.
Early Sumerian literature appears and the real Gilgamesh is deified in the gods list.
The real Gilgamesh is worshipped in cults.
The advent of the Old Akkadian Empire occurs when King Sargon conquers Sumer. Akkadian emerges as the language of empire and later becomes one of the written languages of the story of Gilgamesh.
The oldest known copy of a Sumerian Gilgamesh poem dates from 2100.
The fall of Ur occurs and spoken Sumerian dies out.
The Old Babylonian Gilgamesh epic is written by an unknown person between 1800-1600 BCE.
Babylon is sacked by the Hittites.
Copies are made of the Middle Babylonian versions of Gilgamesh epic “Surpassing all other kings.”
Organizing and editing of Babylonian literature, including the Gilgamesh story takes place. Sin-liqe-unninni edits “Surpassing all other Kings” and other materials into the Akkadian-language epic “He who saw the deep.”
The Assyrians overthrow the Hittites.
King Ashurbanipal takes the throne at Nineveh. Sin-liqe-unninni’s version of the epic is copied for Ashurbanipal.
Nineveh falls following the death of King Ashurbanipal and spoken Akkadian is dying out.
Babylonian literature is copied out and preserved in libraries of temples and scholars. The last cuneiform tablets are written. Scribes use the Gilgamesh stories for practice, and archeological research has relied on these copies to help reconstruct the story of the text.
The story of Gilgamesh is lost when the tablets it is written on are dispersed and buried in many regions of the Near East.
Archeologists find tablets of the Gilgamesh epic in various sites, including the ruins of Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh. The tablets, which the archaeologists could not read, were deposited at the British Museum in London.
Amateur Assyriologist George Smith deciphers the tablets at the British Museum relating Utnapishtim’s story of the flood. Smith’s work becomes front-page news, and Gilgamesh begins a new life claiming its role as the first story of World Literature.
Gilgamesh is compiled, translated, and published in many editions and languages. Continuing archeological and textual research improve the text.
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.