The Olympic Games were an invention of the ancient Greeks, right? Perhaps you’ve read that the oldest games we know about were held in Olympia in 776 B.C.

Au contraire, says David Chibo, who recently posted an analysis of five ancient epics about the semi-divine hero called Gilgamesh by the Babylonians and Assyrians, and Bilgames by the Sumerians. A recently published study of the Sumerian poem “The Death of Bilgames” adds significant details showing that the prowess of Gilgamesh was honored in periodic games held the first week of August — in ancient Iraq.

The piece of geography we now call Iraq was known as Mesopotamia many years ago, the “land between the rivers,” with the rivers in question being the Tigris and Euphrates. The Sumerians inhabited the southern part of what is now Iraq during their heydey in the third millennium; the Babylonians and Assyrians later occupied all of it, though Babylon’s power center tended to be south of Assyria’s heartland.

During the eighth century B.C., Mesopotamian influence had spread far beyond its homeland, and the Greeks quickly picked up on a number of Eastern innovations, including writing. About the same time, they started holding athletic contests that had much in common with the “Gilgamesh Games.”

Was Greece a Hermes-come-lately when it comes to organized athletic competitions? Could be. Read for yourself.

A tiny Iraqi team faced incredible obstacles in making their way to Beijing for the 2000 Olympic Games this year. I don’t think they’ve had much success, but perhaps they can take comfort in knowing that the early inhabitants of their land showed the Greeks a thing or two about running a good race.

(Picture: MS 3025 Gilgamesh Epic: The dream of Gilgamesh, Babylonian, 19th – 18th c. The Old Babylonian original version.)

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