This Akkadian cylinder-seal impression shows the flood as mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Utanapishtim is in the ark on the left and Gilgamesh (right) is fighting the bull. CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images
In November 1872, a self-taught historian named George Smith toiled away in the archives of the British Museum sorting through fragments of clay tablets recovered from ancient Mesopotamian archeological sites in modern-day Iraq. The tablets were written in cuneiform — a language that had only recently been recovered and translated after 1,000 years of obscurity — and most of the fragments contained humdrum accounting records or opaque prophecies from palace priests.
But then Smith found something remarkable. As he translated the cuneiform word by word, a familiar story unfolded. There was a god punishing humanity with a catastrophic flood, one man who was chosen to survive using a specially constructed boat filled with animals and seeds, and after the flood, birds being released to find dry land.
This wasn't the story of Noah and the ark, though, and this wasn't the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament). What Smith had discovered was only one chapter in a sprawling Mesopotamian tale now known as the Epic of Gilgamesh, first written in 1,800 B.C.E., around 1,000 years before the Hebrew Bible. Read more >>