Flood Tablet, 7th century BC
Clay
15.24 (length) x 13.33 (width) x 3.17 (thickness) cm
Kouyunjik, Iraq

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This, one of the world’s best-known cuneiform tablets, is the eleventh of twelve tablets containing the Epic of Gilgamesh. It was written out by a highly trained scribe for Assurbanipal, King of Assyria (668-627 BC) who kept it in his famous library at Nineveh.
A cycle of ancient stories circled around Gilgamesh, a very early king of the city of Uruk, and one of the most important ideas in the Epic, known in the first millennium BC, concerns the very human desire for immortality.
In this episode, Gilgamesh encounters Utnapishtim, who recounts to him the story of the Flood in which he had been forced to play a crucial part. The decision by the gods to completely destroy life on the planet with an overwhelming deluge was thwarted at the last minute by the god Enki, who instructed Utnapishtim to build a boat to save his family and one male and female of every living species. The description and the details in this account so astonished the British Museum curator George Smith when he first deciphered the text in 1872 that he felt driven to undress himself and run around the study room. This dramatic effect was due to the link – which he understood immediately – between what he was reading and the familiar story of Noah and the Ark in the Book of Genesis, with the realization that the narrative had existed independently of and probably earlier than the Bible. Announcement of the discovery sparked controversy, dispute, and despair in many, and discussions of the implications raised at that time continue to this day.

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