Year of the Reign of Ur-Nungal (2574 BC)
Mount Mashu (near modern Tabriz) — Devastated by the death of his companion Enkidu and terrified by the thought of his own mortality, Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, entrusts his kingdom to his sun Ur-Nungal, and sets out in search of the secret of eternal life — known only to Utnapishtim, survivor of the Great Flood.
At the gates of the Land of Night, Gilgamesh encounters a helpful time traveler who, seeing the hero’s piteous state — unshaven, unwashed, ill-fed — leaves him with a week’s supply of sertraline hydrochloride. Fortified by the antidepressant, the hero presses on, ignoring the warnings of Mashu’s scorpion-guards, demanding passage from the ferryman of the Waters of Death, until at last he finds his man.
Unable to dissuade the hero, Utnapishtim offers a challenge: to become immortal, Gilgamesh must remain awake for six days and seven nights. By this time, however, the drugs have run out, and Gilgamesh, suffering from the insomnia that often accompanies serotonergic withdrawal, has no difficulty avoiding sleep. Having succeeded in cheating death, he returns to Uruk and retakes his throne.
Through the millenia that follow, the city-state of Uruk and its undying ruler are an island of stability amid the chaos that regularly sweeps through south-west Asia. Akkadians and Hurrians, Aramaeans and Assyrians come and go, but Gilgamesh remains. In 1180 BC, Uruk’s support in the east is crucial in allowing the Hittites to repel the Thracian and Phrygian invaders from the west; in 550 BC, Gilgamesh mediates a dispute between the Medean king Astyages and his Persian vassal Cyrus, and so prevents the dissolution of the Medean Empire.
Over time, the local climate changes brought on by over-grazing and over-irrigation, combined with the inevitable shifts in river courses take their toll, and by the time Uruk first enters Western records in the fourth century AD, it is accounted little more than a village, and the immortality of its “petty king” (late Latin basilellus) a local legend. The only prominent Roman inclined to believe it is Julian the Apostate, and his death on the point of a Medean spear relegates the question to heresiology.
It is not until the seventh century AD that Uruk returns to historical prominence, when Gilgamesh, long weary of the gods and goddesses who served him so badly during his mortal life, professes Islam, and comes unexpectedly to Caliph ‘Umar’s forces at the battle of Qadasiya. The Medean relief army that might have rolled back the Arabs’ gains is routed, and over the decades that follow, al-Warka becomes a metropolis, the center of Islam in the east.
With the death of the heavy-handed ‘Umar in 644 AD, Gilgamesh becomes an advisor to caliphs, instrumental in assuring the succession of Muhammad’s nephew Ali ibn Abu Talib to the caliphate and preventing the rise of the Umayyads. In 657, Gilgamesh leaves Mesopotamia for the first time in nearly millennia, at the head of an Islamic army comprising all the peoples of south-west Asia: Arabs, Medes, Persians, Elamites, and Khazars.
Rolling across Europe, the jihad is not stopped until it reaches Britain. Pursuing a retreating Saxon army across Somerset, Gilgamesh stumbles across the tomb of the sleeping Arthur and is caught in its spell. Deprived of their hero, the Islamic soldiers falter; a combined force of Celts and Saxons forces them back across the Channel.
Some twelve hundred years later, a cuneiform inscription, said to have been found in Glastonbury Abbey, is brought to the British Museum and deciphered by the Orientalist Henry Rawlinson. The resulting explosion in Sumeriana is a major factor driving the University of London’s research into time travel.¤