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The Stubborn Hero of the Mesopotamian Epic: Gilgamesh or Jiḥsh al-Jiḥmash?*

©2013 by Saad D. Abulhab


Eventhough the Epic of Gilgamesh was probably adapted from the Sumerian era before 2100 BCE, we have not discovered a Sumerian version of it yet. All of the versions we have at hand belong to 2100-50 BCE. To understand the language of the Akkadians, one must master Classical Arabic and be familiar with the Iraqi dialects, particularly. Building a new speculative language solely based on inscriptions is like building a “sand castle”. Professor ʿAlī al-Jibūrī, head of the Archeology department of the University of Mosul and a well-known scholar of the Akkadian Language has recently published a comprehensive Akkadian dictionary (The Akkadian-Arabic Dictionary, Hayʾat Abū Dhabī lli-Thaqāfah wa-al-Turāth, 2009), which is based fully on the prominent Chicago Assyrian Dictionary (CAD) of the University of Chicago. He pointed out correctly in his introduction that Akkadian is the closest historical language to Arabic. He also put an asterisk next to every word still being used in today’s day-to-day Arabic language, counting more than 1700 of such words! That is much more than the 200-300 words presented by some modern day Syriac scholars to prove that the old Syriac language was the actual language of the Akkadians, while ignoring Arabic entirely. What Professor al-Jibūrī did not point out thought —possibly he did not know— is that most of the rest of the words in CAD and his dictionary are also from Arabic and can easily be verified when consulting the historical etymological Arabic references, which did not only record the Arabic word usages of their time, but those abandoned thousands of years before their time! Among these references are:

لسان العرب لابن منظور

مقاييس اللغة للقزويني

الصحاح في اللغة للجوهري

القاموس المحيط للفيروزآبادي

العباب الزاخر للصغاني


As for Sumerian, this language is still a highly speculative anthropological exercise, and will be “under construction” for a long time to come. The claim of some that Sumerian was “an isolate language” is highly debatable. Anyway, even if Sumerian was really a separate language, the fact is, we were only to decipher its sounds and words because we know Akkadian Arabic. In a way it is a “product” of modern Akkadian studies. In my opinion, it makes no sense to separate the two or to look primarily in Sumerian for Akkadian words’ roots.

In my book regarding the pre Islamic inscriptional evidence of Classical Arabic, before reading a sample text from the Epic of Gilgamesh, I investigated the meaning of the word/name Gilgamesh, a highly debatable topic. According to the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh was a large, powerful man. Some even thought he was half god half human. Enkindo, who came from the wild, was almost identical to him but smaller in size. Now, anyone with a fair knowledge of Iraq, the Iraqis, and the strong Iraqi dialects, would not imagine for a moment his name can be as soft as “Gilgamesh”. The name Gilgamesh sounds more like a European French name than an Iraqi name! It certainly does not fit the description of the epic’s hero.

Before proceeding to my analysis, I must point out based on the notes of professor al-Jibūrī and my personal experience that the Akkadians had replaced in writing the sounds of the Arabic letters أ ع غ ح هـ ض ظ ث ذ, which were not available in the Sumerian Cuneiform symbols, by the symbols of the vowels Romanized today as ā â ī ū, particularly ē, or by other close-sounding consonant symbols.

We do know that the earlier Babylonian tablets (~2000 BCE) used only Giš for the name Gilgamesh while the later Assyrian tablets (~1000 BCE) used Giš-gím-maš. This would certainly indicate that Giš was his actual name, while gím-maš is sort of a nick name, an adjective. After realizing based on the not above note that the Akkadians have used the sounds “ī”, “ē” or “í” for the Arabic letter Ḥāʾ one can conclude that the word Giš is from Arabic root word jiḥsh جِحْشْ, in the meaning of “the defender” or “the mighty fighter”, or “the mighty”, a very common male name in Ancient Arabia. Old Arabic references listed many examples for its usage (see below). Even today, Iraqis call a strong mighty person jaḥashجحش :

جحش (لسان العرب)

الجَحْشُ: ولدُ الحمار الوحشيّ

وجَحَشَ عن القوم: تَنَحّى،

وجاحَشَ عن نفسه وغيرها جِحاشاً: دَافَعَ.

كُنْتُ أُجاحِشُ أَي أُحامِي وأُدافعُ.

والجِحاش أَيضاً: القتال. ابن الأَعرابي: الجَحْشُ الجهاد، قال: وتُحَوّلُ الشينُ سِيناً: وأَنشد: يَوْماً تَرانا في عِرَاكِ الجَحْشِ، نَنْبُو بأَجْلال الأُمُورِ الرُّبْشِ أَي الدَّواهِي العِظام.

وقد سمَّوا جَحْشاً ومُجاحِشاً وجُحَيشاً.
وبنو جِحاش: بطنٌ، منهم الشمّاخ بن ضِرار. الجوهري: جِحاشٌ أَبو حَيٍّ من غَطَفان، وهو جحاش بن ثَعْلَبة بن ذُبْيان بن بَغِيض بن رَيْث بن غَطَفان. قال: وهُم قوم الشماخ بن ضِرار؛ قال الشاعر: وجاءت جِحاشٌ قَضُّها بقَضِيضِها، وجَمعُ عُوالٍ، ما أَدَقَّ وأَلأَما

جحش (الصّحّاح في اللغة)

وجاحَشَهُ: أي دافعه.
والجَحيشُ: المتنحِّي عن القوم.

جحش (مقاييس اللغة)

وكلمةٌ أخرى: جاحَشْتُ عنه إذا دافَعْتَ عنه.

قال الأعشَى:وأمّا الجَحْوَشُ، وهو الصبيُّ قبل أن يشتدّ، فهذا من باب الجَحْش، وإنّما زيد في بنائه لئلا يسمَّى بالجَحْش،

الجَحْشُ (القاموس المحيط)

وهو جُحَيْشُ وحْدِه، كزُبيرٍ: مُسْتَبِدٌّ بِرَأْيِهِ، لا يُشاوِرُ الناسَ، ولا يُخالِطُهُمْ.
وجَاحَشَهُ: دافَعَهُ.

وزينبُ أُمُّ المؤمنينَ وأخَواها عبدُ اللهِ وعبدٌ بنو جَحْشِ بنِ رِئِابٍ،

جحمش (لسان العرب)
الجَحْمَش: الصُّلب الشديد.




As for the word gím-maš, added in the newer Assyrian tablets, this word is most definitely an adjective, not part of his name. The Assyrian tablets were far more elaborative and repetitive in comparison to the early Babylonian ones. The word Giš-gím-maš must be from Arabic words jaḥmash جحمش, Jamash جمش, or jamas جمس, all of which have the exact meaning: “stubborn”, “rough”, “rigid”, “very old”. Northern Arabs, including the Nabataeans, had routinely used the symbol for the letter Shīn for the letter Sīn. Notice the use of “í” rather than “i” after the letter “g” in gím-maš. As indicated above, many Akkadian words used the equivalent sounds of “ī”, “ē” or “í” for the Arabic letter Ḥāʾ because the Cuneiform writing system had no symbol for it. We have numerous word examples attesting that.

جحمش (لسان العرب)
الجَحْمَش: الصُّلب الشديد.
وامرأَة جَحْمَش وجُحْموش: عَجُوز كبيرة.

جمش (لسان العرب)

الجَمْش: الصَّوتُ.

يقال لِلَّذي لا يَقْبَل نُصْحاً ولا رُشْداً،

جمس (لسان العرب)

وجَمَس وجَمَدَ بمعنى واحد. ودَمٌ جَمِيسٌ: يابس.
وصخرة جامسة: يابسة لازمة لمكانها مقشعرّة.
والجُمْسَةُ القطعة اليابسة من التمر.
والجُمْسَةُ الرُّطَبَة التي رَطُبَتْ كلها وفيها يُبْسٌ. الأَصمعي: يقال للرُّطَبة والبُسْرَة إِذا دخلها كلها الإِرْطابُ وهي صُلْبَة لم تنهضم بَعْدُ فهي جُمْسَة، وجمعها جُمْسٌ.
قال ابن الأَثير: قاله الخطابي، قال: وقال الزمخشري الجَمْسُ، بالفتح، الجامد،

والجامُوسُ: نوع من البَقر، دَخيلٌ، وجمعه جَوامِيسُ، فارسي معرّب، وهو بالعجمية كَوامِيشُ.


Despite its misleading similarity in sound, the word gím-maš is not the same as Jamūs جاموس, from the Persian word kamūsh for bull. Gilgamesh could have been depicted as a bull with human head, but he was a human; neither parts of his name meant bull. Equating his strength and stubbornness to that of a bull is only a metaphor.

Therefore, I believe the combined name Giš-gímmaš means “the stubborn fighter”, “the steadfast fighter”, or “the stubborn defender” or the “mighty fighter”, and was pronounced initially as a compound name Jiḥshi-jiḥmish جِحْشِجِّحْمَش similar to modern Arabic Jiḥsh al-Jiḥmash جِحْشْ الجِحْمَش. Although the Arabs used the article al أل, for “the”, long centuries before Islam, inscriptional evidence from Yemen and the rest of the Peninsula show they only wrote it when is fully pronounced. Many times they just used hamzah or the letter Lām alone in Musnad and Nabataean. This is not surprising since the writing systems for the Arabic language only matured after Islam, when it was finally capable of representing spoken Arabic accurately in texts, following the introduction of soft vowels and grammar rules. Here is how Accordingly, the name was originally:

Giš: Jish: جحشْ

gím-maš: Jihmash جِحْمَش or jimash جِمَش

Giš-gímmaš: Jiḥši-jiḥmash: جِحْشِجِّحْمَش or Jiḥši-jimash جِحْشِجِّمَش

Jišši-jiḥmash: جِشِّجِّحْمَش or Jišši-jimash جِشِّجِّمَش

According to al-Jibūrī, though, in the later Babylonian (i.e. Assyrian) time period, the letter Shīn was assimilated into the letter Lām in many Akkadian words when one stops on it (i.e. pronounce it with sukūn vowel). Here is his observation:

Shīn with stop + Arabic teeth letter -> Lām + Arabic teeth letter



ištakana -> iššakana -> iltakana

išdu -> ildu

išṭur -> ilṭur

išši -> ilši


Note that according to Lisan al-ʿArab, the Arabic letter Jīm, Shīn, and Ḍād are in one sound category, coming from the front of the mouth:والجيم والشين والضاد ثلاثة في حيز واحد، وهي من الحروف الشجرية ، والشجر مفرج الفم،. This would make the rule above applicable to it.

Applying the excellent observation by al-Jibūrī with little help from the Classical Arabic etymological references, one can easily explain how Jiḥsh-ijiḥmash was eventually pronounced jilijiḥmash جلّجِحْمَش. Or, how Jiḥsh-ijimash was eventually pronounced jilijimash جلّجِمَش. It is also possible, jilijiḥmash itself was eventually pronounced Jilijimash جلجِمَش after further assimilation of the letter Ḥāʾ of Jiḥmash جِحْمَش. Accordingly, in the later Babylonian (i.e. Assyrian) time period, the combined name with nickname was transformed along one of two ways, depending on whether the second word was originally Jihmash جِحْمَش or jimash جِمَش. It is also likely, both of the letters Ḥāʾ and Shīn of the word Jiḥsh were assimilated. The two derivation scenarios shown below are based on the inscriptional facts of the Akkadian Arabic language and the impartial historical Arabic etymological references, not on linguistic speculations:


Jiḥshi-jimash -> Jishshi-jimash -> Jilli-jimash -> Jil-jimash

Jiḥshi-jiḥmash -> Jishshi-jiḥmash -> Jilli-jiḥmash -> Jil-jiḥmash


جحشِ جِّمَش -> جِشِّ جِمَش -> جِشِّجِمَش -> جِلّجِمَش -> جِلجِمَش

جحشِ جِّحْمَش -> جِشِّ جِحْمَش -> جِشِّجِحْمَش -> جِلّجِحْمَش -> جِلجِحْمَش


To validate my above readings, I would like to point out two facts supporting my explanation of the name Gilgamesh. According to prominent Iraqi scholar of Akkadian and Sumerian, Ṭāhā Bāqir, some Akkadian texts indicated his name meant ‘the front fighter’ (Malḥamat Jiljamish: Ūdīsat al-ʿIrāq al-Khālidah, pg. 19). I think the Akkadian texts quoted by Bāqir are accurate, since Lisān al-ʿArab had clearly listed the word Jiḥsh in the meaning of “the defender”, or in other words “the fighter”.

The second fact I would like to point out here is that some Akkadian tablets listed Gilgamesh’s name as dGish-bil-ga-mesh or dGish-bíl-gi-mesh, both of which can literally be transliterated as “Jiḥshi-bil-Jiḥmish”, or “Jiḥsh abi al-Jiḥmishجحش ابي الجِّحْمَش, meaning “Jiḥsh, the father of stubbornness”, which is a very common Arab and particularly Iraqi use of nicknames. It certainly indicates the word gím-maš was not part of his name.

To conclude, the evidence that the Arabic language was the language of the Akkadians is overwhelmingly clear. Classical Arabic tools are the key tools to use to understand Akkadian literature. Ignoring them would only lead to lost scholarly opportunities and inaccuracies. As I will demonstrate again and again, historical Arabic etymological references are the most valuable tools to map the Akkadian language, because they included tremendous information preserving the linguistic experience of Arabia for thousands of years.


* The study included in this article was first published in 2013 in a book by the author titled:

Inscriptional Evidence of pre Islamic Classical Arabic: Selected Readings in the Nabataean, Musnad, and Akkadian Inscriptions (ISBN 9780984984336)