A young programmer from Iraq tried to make Gilgamesh work for him. oldest surviving hero story


“View its parapet that no one could copy!” This is the world’s oldest known work of literature. It begins with a wall, the rampart at Uruk-the-Sheepfold. Its parapet is something that no one could duplicate! Andrew George translated the English text. “Rise up to the heights of an era gone by.” The crowning accomplishment of Gilgamesh the warrior-king and wanderer, Uruk, is Uruk’s wall. In the poem, we see him terrorizing his subjects and brawling and womenizing like a demigod of 17 feet tall. The gods give Gilgamesh an opponent to keep him busy. Enkidu is the “offspring from silence”, a clay-maule beastman. After fighting to the death, they become close friends, and embark on bloody male adventures. They ransack a sacred cedar forest, and kill the Bull of Heaven. This creature’s very breath causes earthquakes.

Then, tragedy strikes. These antics anger the gods, who decree Enkidu’s death from sickness. Gilgamesh feels betrayed by the news of Enkidu’s death and is devastated. He abandons his throne and embarks upon an exhausting search for Uta–napishti to discover the secrets of eternal living. He raced the Sun through the netherworld and crossed the Waters of Death towards Uta-napishti. The immortal man can’t help but to stop him. He warns, “You will fill your stomach with pain.” He warns, “Bringing forward your end.” Gilgamesh is offered a plant which can revive youth, or at least prevent death. However, the snake steals the plant, which is the source of its ability to shed skin. In despair, the king goes back to his kingdom. In the last lines of “standard”, he finds consolation in Uruk’s unique wall. It encloses the text and the city as a symbol and guarantor to his eternal fame.


Gilgamesh’s epic is the model for future heroic stories: just as brutal and gritty as Homer’s Iliad and as brave and courageous as the Odyssey, it also has a lot of heart. The subject matter of the epic is diverse and vibrant: Prostitution, dreams rites dismemberment, bread baking, prostitution. It is most importantly about the fear of death. Auday Hussein is currently completing his PhD in archaeology from the University of Heidelberg. “It should be taught in every elementary school around the globe, because it’s one of the first literary pieces where humans start to think about these questions.” Who am I? “Who am I?” Why are you here? Is there anything that is beyond my control? What is my limit? Since the 19th-century, European archaeologists translated the epic into English and have been constantly adapting the Gilgamesh character. The epic is largely unknown beyond academia. It has been overshadowed in recent years by hero stories from younger civilisations. Hussein continues, “It is deep philosophy that was had 5000 years back.” It’s something that nobody would want to discuss – they just keep it under the rug.”

The text’s incompletion may explain part of this. Today, it consists of many fragmentary clay tablets with cuneiform writing (mostly Sumerian or Akkadian). This collection includes episodes and perspectives written by many authors over thousands of years. Recent acts of conquest and bloodshed have made it difficult to recover those tablets. The area that was once Mesopotamia is now part of Iraq. It also includes parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Kuwait. The original Gilgamesh tablet translations were made from thousands of British Empire artifacts. The subsequent US-led invasions of the region have caused significant damage to historical sites. This has also sparked a bustling illicit trade in archaeological finds. In 2011, the latest Gilgamesh tablet was translated by smugglers.

Auday Hussein began his career as a programmer/designer during this troubled time. Born in Baghdad during the rule of the Ba’ath Party, Hussein grew up there. Hussein was passionate about programming and Mesopotamia, so he once tried to create an Amiga version of Gilgamesh’s story. This project is easy to see as Hussein’s assertion of cultural identity against foreign invasions and plundering. Hussein doesn’t see it that way. I believe that the term ‘identity’ in today’s society is archaic. There might be more things I can share with someone from Japan, Nigeria or France than with my neighbor next door. Hussein sees Gilgamesh as a universal figure, transcending all cultures. He is everyone’s pre-eminent, motivated by the deepest of fears. “I would like to share it with other people, much like I want others to know about the Iliad and Greek philosophy. These are all things I am proud to be a human being.

At the tender age 12 Hussein began programming when Iraq’s computing market was still in its early days. He was introduced to programming by Microsoft and ASCII Corporation’s MSX, which is where he first discovered Metal Gear. Sakhr Software in Kuwait has localized the MSX for Arabic markets. He recalls that the Iraqi government had a contract at that time to import large numbers of these machines into Iraq. My dad gave me one of these machines, and I was among the most fortunate people in Iraq. It was unbelievable the first time that I saw it. My mom was a programmer and used the Fortran language. When I visited her at work the computers looked like large fridges filled with tapes and punch cards. When I saw the little keyboard, which is called a computer I was immediately intrigued. You should make it a bedroom!


Hussein tried his hand at programming in BASIC. He has had a long-standing love for racing simulations and was later educated about the negative environmental effects of driving. He soon discovered that his goals exceeded the capabilities of the language. It’s slow and doesn’t have the graphics or all of these features. After discovering MSX Zen, he gravitated towards assembly and machine programming. He relied on reverse engineering for progress when there was no guidance. To force the system’s display of all instructions, I had to use some tricks from the BASIC instruction book. It was through trial and error that I was taught how to use it. There was no machine language in Iraq at that time, so it was not necessary for anyone to learn more advanced programming.

In the 1980s, the Commodore Amiga appeared in Iraq. I was sent one by a British relative. The Amiga was the catalyst that changed everything. The Amiga is a wonderful machine. Hussein, unlike the MSX was able get books on coding for Amiga and magazines like Amiga Format. These were often purchased by programmers while traveling overseas, then copied around. We reached the chipset level and knew all the wires from one chip to another, as well as how to control hardware fully.

Iraq also had a “big community of programmers, hackers”, aided by youth clubs that were supported state. These clubs offered courses, lectures, and contests in programming. That was one of few things the Iraqi regime did well. It was, as most people know, a dictatorship that was harsh and cruel. It did some things that were positive and effective, such as importing computers or [establishing] youth centers. After a while, they became too politicized and everyone who was really interested in programming had to go.

Hussein was passionate about racing, but he had always wanted to create a game that dealt with ancient times. As a boy, Hussein had spent countless hours reading Ladybird books published in the UK, which featured rich depictions of Islamic, Greek, and Roman history. “My first thought when I started programming was not racing, but how could I bring my passion for history into gaming – how do you create these worlds?”

Hussein was a student when he collaborated with Rabah Shihab on Babylonian Twins for Amiga. This joyful platformer, set in Babylon 576 BC, is a joy to play. The game was remade in 2009 and made available for iPhone. It features beautiful portrayals of ancient Babylonian landmarks, such as the Ishtar Gate (blue-tiled). Hussein was determined to take the game back to Mesopotamian literature’s beginnings. “I love the Iliad, the Odyssey of Homer. They are amazing. I have read all of them and know every character in each scene. Here’s what I have to say: Gilgamesh is deeper. It’s less exciting and not as Hollywood-ish. But it does contain philosophy, which makes it more profound. This is like the man who believed he could do everything.


At first, he wanted to recreate all of Gilgamesh’s story from its salad days through to old age. He worked as a designer, programmer, and art director. A university friend Ali Aboud Al-Gaffari was his artist and Mahir Hisham Al-Salman was his high school friend to help him create the music. Shihab helped by sharing the tools that he’d written for Babylonian Twins. It’s an editor he used for the background design. He did a lot of work and I took the rest from him.

They worked tirelessly to make sure the project was completed in time for their classes. Hussein notes that the trio had three Amigas, but no hard drives, so we needed to exchange discs. I programmed in the evening, while the artist did the rest of the work during the day. Because he didn’t own an Amiga, he visited my house and helped me plan and program my Amiga. When he went to bed, I took his artwork and attempted programming it in the game until the next morning. That was it.

Al-Salman was able to use his Amiga but the biggest challenge in the development of the sound effects for the game was the Amiga’s limitations. No one knew how to create proper sound effects at that time. We had to come up with our own sound effects. To make the waterfall sound, we put something on top of the faucet to force the water out. To make the fire sound, we heated some oil in a saucepan and let it burn. Then, we sampled to create nice effects like lava or volcanoes.

Rabah Shihab’s interview about creating the Babylonian Twins proves that it was not easy to develop a game after the Persian Gulf War. Coalition bombing had decimated Iraq’s infrastructure which was once a source of envy throughout the Middle East. It was a disaster for the economy and power supply. The greatest challenge Hussein had to face when adapting Gilgamesh’s epic was interpreting the complex and mysterious text.

The first section of Gilgamesh’s “standard” edition contains Enkidu and the king. They set out to plunder the cedar forests of Mount Lebanon, and to slay Humbaba (a monstrous guardian placed there by Enlil). Humbaba is not easy to see even when you consider the state of the tablets. Enkidu says that he is “a man to not be seen on”, and his “voice” is the Deluge. He is covered in seven “auras”, or “terrors”, which cover his body. Professor Farouk Al Rawi translated the 2011 Sulaymaniyah Museum tablet and identified them as Humbaba’s “sons”, with names such as “Typhoon” and “Screamer”.

How do you portray that? says Hussein. How do you achieve the Humbaba shape? That was the first thing we tried. We tried to work on that first. Developers also had difficulty picturing the majestic Bull of Heaven. Is it a winged Bull of Heaven? It is sometimes referred to as a winged bull by some, but that’s incorrect. It is a bull with human heads? It’s not clear. Are you imagining a huge, angry bull? Is it really that big? We tried again with this, but I was not satisfied.

Hussein believed that faithfulness to the topic matter was essential. I didn’t want too many liberties. The work that I do for a game is more important to me than the game itself. He admitted to being a bit concerned about the cartoonish style of Babylonian Twins. It took Mesopotamian archaeology in a comical direction. It was not something I liked at the time. It’s now clear to me. We needed to make things simple for our audience, but not in an overly simplistic way.

He realized that visualising the epic was to make it a mockery. The text contains some beautiful descriptive passages. However, the 2011 tablet gives a vivid account of Humbaba’s cedar forest with its noisy birdlife. It leaves much up to imagination. Hussein says, “Once it is put into any kind of drawing it loses much.” So I felt discouraged at everything that we attempted to do. It should be mentioned, however, that translation of the text to English requires many compromises. Hussein points to the fact that Akkadian, a complicated language with its own unique features, is important. Babylonian poetry also has its own structure and style. Modern English translators attempt to translate the sentences into English, but I believe that much of the original poetry has been lost. “I would prefer to keep the essence of original poetry even though the English may be broken.

These considerations were taken into account by Hussein, who eventually made a new game that was a departure from the original source material, but heavily influenced Mesopotamian art. “I was not ready to take too many liberties, and I was worried about making mistakes like this. It was then that I quickly decided to give myself full freedom to create a game and not worry about the truth. Hussein and his small group found the shift in direction to be very motivating. We said: “You know what? Let’s forget this whole story. We can create whatever kind of monsters that we like. Then I realized that I had just received the most stunning art from this artist. It’s amazing.

Hussein has given the game today, “Kingdom of Death”, as its working title. The 2D platform adventure features a sword-wielding, musclebound hero and a large number of monsters. It also has intricate, cavernous environments. This game draws inspiration from many non-Mesopotamian sources such as Shadow of the Beast and Zelda’s 1987 RPG Fairy Tale Adventure. It is more free and open than the Gilgamesh story, featuring puzzles that take you deeper into the world.

Puzzles can be linked to background surfaces with cuneiform inscriptions (fortunately, for non-Assyriologists), the game also provides English subtitles. It tells you that even the most darkest corners could provide clues. That’s what does it mean? Ok, I’m going to need to find a dark spot and turn on the light. How do I find the light? It’s important to consider it. It’s an adventure-type game. I remember playing such games as a child. Hussein’s description of the opening of the game reminds me of the Open-ended boss structures of Dark Souls. He says that there are five bosses at this level who you must fight to gain access to the Kingdom of Death or some similar. We didn’t say it in words but we did try to convey the idea that you are trying to escape the underworld. It was abstracted a little. You can imagine the events.

Although Kingdom of Death may be considered a less “generic” title, Hussein says it retains some of the Gilgamesh’s horror-stricken atmosphere. His own children defend one of the guardians of Kingdom of Death, a dragon. You’ll battle the sons, and they both will be killed. The boss then comes in. He’s not supposed to be your enemy but he is still a creature with emotions. The death of his children has scared him. “He gets angry, but also sad.”

There were also plans to create a majestic temple setting beyond the threshold of the underworld. This would feature carved lion heads and statues enthroned in honour. This, however, did not come to pass. Hussein states that the project was more difficult than I expected and, by the time the level was complete, the Amiga platform had died and publishing of the game seemed unlikely. The PS1 had just been released, and I was able to see the 3D graphics in Tekken. It became clear that although I have spent a lot of time making this game, the world has changed and so the Amiga no longer exists.

After graduating from university in Iraq, Hussein teamed up with Rabah Shihab and founded the award-winning multimedia consulting firm Cosmos Software, based out of Dubai. In 1997. He has worked with game developers around the world, such as EA, Relic Entertainment, and Slant Six. He is currently working in Vancouver with Klei Entertainment on Don’t Starve.

Although he still has hopes of finishing the Kingdom of Death, he warns that it will need to be modified to meet current accessibility and difficulty standards. It took me two hours to complete the game. I just started it on my Amiga emulator. It was hard! Hussein believes that both his days as an artist and player are over. “I used to play on Amiga and MSX. Once Amiga went away, I stopped playing games altogether. Despite being in the gaming industry for over 35 years, I found my job very technical and close to the ground. Since 2008 I have been working as a consultant, but I have never held a full-time job for any company. When I accept a contract, I tell the company that I don’t wish to participate in gaming. Show me the technology, tell me about the game. I’ll understand.”

Hussein’s passion project ImpulseGP is the exception. It’s a WipEout-style hoverbike racer that incorporates ecological themes. The iPhone 5 was released in 2015 to great acclaim. The game was created over four years and runs at 60 frames per second. It is completely new with no third-party components. The game reflects Hussein’s ingenuity as a novice programmer in Baghdad. It also features a Trackmaster course editor, which allows for fast design and testing. I had artists and designers just bring their 3D art from Maya, or other applications that make 3D objects, into Trackmaster and start paving the tracks along the lines. They just have to draw the line, then they twist the track and can do all the rest in an easy manner. It takes only a few hours to design an entire track with the surrounding environment. You can even play Trackmaster as you work on it.

Hussein has also found a way to express his love for Mesopotamia: in 2019, he received an MPhil from Cambridge University in Assyriology & Archaeology. His dissertation focuses on King Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, an ancient Assyrian capital. He explains that ISIS destroyed a part of the palace and he is now trying to record its history. To connect archaeological evidence from the past 200 years and the description the king wrote 2700 years ago from Mesopotamia, to the connection that we now have.

This brings us to Gilgamesh’s story of Uruk the-Sheepfold. It is the architectural triumph that will immortalize his legend. His declaration of Uruk’s wall as “unimpeachable” is ironic because we know nothing about it except through copying, recreating, and rewriting. Gilgamesh’s epic is not a single artifact that can be sealed, but rather a collection of text in various languages which has been painstakingly translated and iterated on from one century to the next. The 19th-century discovery of the king means that he has grown beyond Uruk and Mesopotamia. He lives on today in Japanese visual novels and operas, as well as in fierce arguments about Uta Napishti’s influence on the Bible’s Great Flood story. In North America, environmentalist fiction, thrash music, and superhero comics. Although it’s no longer Gilgamesh’s story, Hussein’s adaptations are part of a lineage that focuses on the same deep questions and longings in different places and times.

These variations should be traced back to a single source and understood as a reflection of a hierarchy between cultures that has been shaped by geopolitical power. He feels Gilgamesh is a larger story than any one society or identity. However, Hussein wants Mesopotamian literature and art to be recognized alongside more well-known and widely disseminated civilisations like Ancient Greece. He says that some of these people get the front page and the cover pages all the time. It’s the three great civilizations of Egypt, Rome and Greece that are most prominent in every period. All else is pushed to the sidelines. Sometimes, it’s justifiable! Mesopotamian civilisation is not better than any other – but if you put it that way, your credibility will be shattered. There’s nothing better. There are always new developments taking place in various places around the world. People in all parts of the globe are constantly creating something and being creative.

Publiated at Sun, 25 July 2021 08:49:58 +0000


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