In Part 3 of The Nature of Our Ruin, Breton Langendorfer describes the powerful hold that the landscape of the Cedar Forest maintained upon the Mesopotamian imagination for millennia, driving powerful monarchs to emulate Gilgamesh’s exploits in this alluring terrain.
LANDSCAPES OF DESIRE AND POSSESSION
We tend to think of imperial systems as inherently pragmatic affairs, devoted to the extraction of natural resources and the exploitation of land and people to further the ends of the state. Yet just as often cultural interests can shape imperial policy towards what are fundamentally aesthetic considerations. In imperial Assyria, the enduring fascination of rulers with the Cedar Forest described in Gilgamesh’s epic lead them to travel vast lengths and even redesign the landscape itself in an effort to capture this exotic and mythical terrain for their own.
Perhaps the best-known version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, composed on twelve tablets and attributed to a scribe named Sin-leqe-unnini, was uncovered during the mid-19th century excavations at Nineveh (in current-day Iraq) by Hormuzd Rassam. The tablets were discovered in the royal library of a monarch named Ashurbanipal, last of the great kings of the Neo-Assyrian Empire that dominated much of the Near East from 911 to 612 BCE.
Unusually for a Mesopotamian king, Ashurbanipal was literate, boasting in his inscriptions of both his wide learning and his ability to read and write. His own pronouncements declare that he sent scribes and scholars across the empire to gather obscure texts for deposition in the great library he was constructing in the capital. The Epic of Gilgamesh may well have been included in this literary sweep, a collection made possible by the unprecedented power and enormous size of Assyria during Ashurbanipal’s reign.
Indeed, the Neo-Assyrian Empire stands as the first true “superpower” in history, pioneering many of the policies we think of as characteristically imperial down to the present day. Beginning as a small state on the upper Tigris, the fortunes of Assyria waxed and waned over the course of several millennia, until the reigns of Adad-nirari II (911-891) and Ashurnasirpal II (883-859) inaugurated a period of military expansionism that was to draw much of the Near East into Assyria’s orbit. By the reign of Sennacherib (705-689) the empire had roughly reached its maximum extent, and was able to maintain itself until torn apart by civil war and rebellion after Ashurbanipal’s death in 627.
In order to expand their holdings Assyrian kings campaigned on a yearly basis, ranging far and wide to collect tribute, extract resources, and invade hostile territory. The kings proudly recounted their campaigns within royal inscriptions, which presented their daring exploits in quasi-mythical terms or suggested that they reproduced the actions of great heroes of the past. Such could be said of Gilgamesh’s adventures in the Cedar Forest, which a number of Assyrian kings replicated with expeditions to Mounts Lebanon and Amanus (in modern Lebanon and Turkey).
In antiquity these locales were heavily wooded with cedar and juniper, evoking the forest of the Epic: “The pines, held up their luxuriance even on the face of the mountain. Their shade was good, filling one with happiness. Undergrowth burgeoned, entangling the forest” (Dalley, Tablet V, lines 7-9). Given the stark contrast between this landscape and the Mesopotamian terrain of hot alluvial flood plains, it is perhaps unsurprising that these forests became “the authentic site of topographical difference,” in the words of Allison Karmel Thomason, “a consistent source of mystical intrigue and pleasure in Mesopotamian history” (81). Indeed, Assyrian rulers were emulating not only the mythic Gilgamesh but also earlier historical kings of Akkad and Lagash in making the journey to the forest.
Expeditions to the cedar-filled mountains of the Levantine coast saw Assyrian kings as both explorers and acquirers of rare resources. Tigthlath-pileser I (1114-1076), for example, declared, “I marched to Mount Lebanon. I cut down and carried off cedar beams for the temple of the gods Anu and Adad, the great gods, my lords” (Grayson, Tiglath-pileser I 10, lines 28-35). Sometime later Ashurnasirpal II declared the same, noting that he had cedar transported back to the capital in order to construct a royal palace from the prized woods of this region, a palace of “cedar, cypress, juniper, boxwood [. . .] terebinth and tamarisk” (Grayson, Ashurnasirpal II 2, lines 52-62) These actions replicate those of Gilgamesh and Enkidu themselves, who felled cedar logs to be used for the construction of temples in Uruk. Such expeditions moreover served to highlight the vast reach of the Assyrian kings, able as they were to heroically campaign in this exotic location at the edge of the Mesopotamian world.
An intriguing shift occurs however with the reign of Sargon II (722-705). While constructing a new capital, Sargon laid out a vast garden, “like unto the Mount Amanus (tamšil kur-Hamanim), in which all the aromatic herbs of Hatti [North Syria] and fruit trees of the mountains were planted,” to complement his palace (Luckenbill, Sargon I.III, 85). These garden landscapes are depicted in the palatial reliefs of Sargon II’s palace, showing hillsides wooded with pine and populated by pavilions and shrines. Several Assyrian rulers thereafter declare the creation of gardens in the same terms in their inscriptions and reliefs. As such, at the height of the empire’s power Assyrian kings no longer ventured to the Cedar Forest but rather brought this landscape directly into the imperial metropolis, a feat Gilgamesh could only dream of.
A shared imperial impulse towards collecting runs through these royal deeds, proudly described in the inscriptions kings left behind for posterity. By Ashurbanipal’s day Nineveh had become a great storehouse of both tablets and landscapes, attesting to the might of Assyria in that its unprecedented reach could both monopolize knowledge and recreate (and thereby control) the periphery at the center. The capital thus stood as a microcosm of the empire as a whole.
Yet on another level this fascination for the Cedar Forest attests to the special status of this region as a “desired landscape” in the Mesopotamian imagination. The Assyrian kings traveled there in heroic exploit, taking back materials to construct palaces that were themselves microcosms of these distant forests. As Anastasia Amrhein has observed, royal inscriptions emphasize the sensual nature of these materials, such as the “great door-leaves of cypress, whose odor is pleasant as they are opened or closed” (98), while later rulers boasted of the aromatic plants and cool shade which their gardens engendered even in the midst of the north Mesopotamian plain.
In some ways, the Assyrian approach represents only the last, and most intensive, reckoning with the profound longing which this landscape inspired in Mesopotamian culture, from the mythic times of Gilgamesh and Enkidu down to the collapse of Assyria. More broadly, the Assyrian response to the desired landscape of the Cedar Forest highlights the impulse of powerful polities towards remaking landscapes not only along agricultural lines but also for aesthetic or even nostalgic purposes, for the creation of a yearned-for ecology within easy access to the imperial center, and one which projected the king’s power beyond military or engineering expertise and into the realm of myth and legend.
Amrhein, Anastasia. “Neo-Assyrian gardens: a spectrum of artificiality, sacrality and accessibility.” Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes 35 (2015): 91-114.
Dalley, Stephanie, ed. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others. Trans. by Stephanie Dalley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Grayson, A. Kirk. Assyrian Rulers of the Early First Millenium BC I (1114-859 BC). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
Luckenbill, D. D. Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia Vol. II: Historical Records of Assyria. London: Histories and Mysteries of Man Ltd., 1989.
Thomason, Allison Karmel. “Representations of the North Syrian Landscape in Neo-Assyrian Art.” Bulletin of the Schools of Oriental Research 323 (2001): 63-96.
Breton Langendorfer is a PhD candidate in the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania