The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered the oldest surviving piece of literature and is an epic poem that was carved onto tablets around 2100 BCE in ancient Sumeria. The tales in the epic, as you might imagine, are complex stories of gods and kings wrangling for power. The hero, Gilgamesh, is King of Uruk, an ancient kingdom on the banks of the Euphrates in what is now Iraq. Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and one third man and was extremely powerful. He was terrorizing his people, taking ‘king’s rights’ with all of the brides on their wedding day, and requiring taxes and tributes from all of the young men. The people cried out to the gods for assistance. So in response, the gods created an equal to Gilgamesh, Enkidu, who was born into the wilderness and communed with the animals. Once civilized, he herded sheep
One day, a passerby told Enkidu tales of Gilgamesh and the tribute he required from all brides. Enkidu became incensed by this imposition and traveled to a wedding in the valley to intervene. Enkidu blocks Gilgamesh from entering the wedding and a fight between them ensues. Enkidu fought, wrestled with Gilgamesh until Enkidu realized that he could not defeat the king. Enkidu and Gilgamesh ended their battle in a truce and recognized each other’s great strength and prowess. The two become companions and travel the land going on adventures.
Gilgamesh always seeking more renown and power, suggested that the two travel to the cedar forest. Because it is the realm of the gods, the forest is protected by a fierce and vicious monster Humbaba. Their fame would grow when the monster was defeated. Gilgamesh also wanted to cut down the trees and bring this bounty back to his kingdom.
Walking into the untouched forest, the two warriors travel deeper and deeper through the trees. They walk higher and higher up the mountain, exploring where no human had been before. At the center of the forest, they find an ancient and enormous tree. Enkidu decides he wants to use this tree to build the gate to the temple of his god. They begin to work together to fell these giant trees.
The demon, Humbaba, emerges with a roar as soon as he hears the two warriors attacking the trees he protects. A battle ensues, the earth quakes and the sky turns black from the intensity of their struggle. The heroes can barely muster their courage to fight the demon but they are given strength from the gods and Humbaba is bound by the winds and is finally captured. Humbaba pleads with Gilgamesh. He promises to serve Gilgamesh as King of the forest and says that he will chop down all the trees by himself if they will spare his life. Gilgamesh hesitates. Enkidu will hear nothing of mercy for he believes that Humbaba is lying. Enkidu urges Gilgamesh to kill the monster.
Before he is killed, Humbaba curses both Gilgamesh and Enkidu. This curse will come to haunt the two warriors. Gilgamesh slays the monster Humbaba with a blow to the neck. The warriors make haste to chop down many cedar trees from the forest, including the enormous tree Enkidu has marked for the temple gate. They use the trees to build a raft to transport the trees, Humbaba’s head and themselves down river to the city of Uruk.
Although, we’ll end our story of Gilgamesh here with his return to his kingdom, the poem continues with more adventures, more battles and triumph.
It's hard to say how extensive the cedar forest originally was, but ancient texts state that the mountains in the picture above were once shaded by the forest. All Empires in the region - from Rome to the Israelites to Egypt to Persia - harvested the trees to use in building temples, palaces, ships, and houses until the forest shrank to it's current size. The Cedar forest is now under the protection, is a Unesco World Heritage Site and saplings are planted each year.