Scene from the Epic of Gilgamesh on a rolled wax seal (Montclair State University Classics Dept.)

Beginning around 12,000 – 14,000 B.C.E., animal husbandry had developed in central north Africa. By 9,000 B.C.E., agriculture had matured in Mesopotamia to the point that it allowed the construction of some of the world’s first cities. Agriculture afforded the new city states the luxury of free time. No longer did everyone have to hunt and scavenge for food each day, because there were now reserves of grain that aided people when game was scarce. No longer required to be hunters, many urban dwellers could specialize and they often constructed tools and implements that farmers could use, so there developed a symbiosis between the city and the countryside.

That symbiotic relationship figures heavily in metaphorical form in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where the to key characters (both male) Gilgamesh and Enkidu represented the city (Uruk) and Enkidu the country. The Epic highlights the mutual interdependence of the city with the country by informing the reader that the two characters were surprisingly intimate (shall we say liberal?) for what we may today na├»vely consider the perceived mores of the ancient Middle East. But this metaphor is representative of the founding of urban culture itself – the interdependence of roles in society, despite farmers and urbanites living very different lives.

One of the world’s oldest extant pieces of literature, the oldest cuneiform tablets with early portions of the story date to as far back as 2150 B.C.E., though the oral tradition may be far older. It also describes an account similar to the Biblical flood – though its clay tablets were enscribed before the Bibllical scrolls. Most of all, the Epic of Gilgamesh describes some beliefs and conditions (natural and supernatural) that people enscribed into clay tablets very long ago. It is worth a read simply to find out how people thought and communicated back then and to learn what things in society then are similar to today and what things are different.