Geography of Gilgamesh Travels, Part II:

The Route to Mount Mashu

(Emilio Spedicato)



In this part of the paper, we consider Gilgamesh trip to Mount Mashu. We identify this mountain with the Anye Maquen range, close to the sources of the Yellow River, sacred to the local Ngolok population. We propose that Gilgamesh reached this mountain via the Zungarian Gates.


In questa parte del lavoro consideriamo il viaggio di Gilgamesh verso il Monte Mashu, da noi identificato nella catena montuosa detta Anye Maquen, localizzata presso le sorgenti del Fiume Giallo e sacra alla tribu' degli Ngolok. Proponiamo che Gilgamesh abbia raggiunto tale meta passando dalle Porte di Zungaria.

1. The second trip. Numerics and geographical information

The second trip aims to reach mount Mashu, the dwelling place of Utanapishtim (in Assyrian; Ziusudra in Sumerian), a man who survived the Flood and who was granted granted immortality by the gods. Gilgamesh hoped to get from Utanapishtim the secret for immortality. He did not get it (we may hint that the secret is the one that locally survived till the time of Marpa, the teacher of Milarepa).

In the following we give the surviving information from the Gilgamesh texts in Pettinato (1992).

Tablets from Assurbanipal library.

After crossing the death waters with Urshanabi, they were in Tilmun, aiming to the Mashu mountain in a straight way, in the direction of the far away great sea. On the way there was the town Itla, sacred to the god Ullu-Yah.

2. Identifying the route of the second trip

According to the scenario proposed by us, Gilgamesh trip took him to the heart of Asia, to Mount Mashu, that we will identify, close to the sources of the Yellow River, with a huge mountain range still sacred to the local population, the Ngolok tribe. Then he returned to Uruk by water, first following the Yellow River (for about 4000 km), then coasting the eastern-southern side of Asia, for at least 15.000 km. Thus Gilgamesh succeeded in performing a voyage of truly epic dimensions.

Gilgamesh reached mount Mashu by a route about which some information had to be available. The distance travelled in the second trip was about 3000 km longer than by the route he had attempted the first time. Now however he did not have to go through the almost impassable high ranges of the Karakorum. The route took him through wild and almost unpopulated steppes, fraught of difficulties in term of quick sands, salt flats and lack of sweet water. We think that without the guiding help of Urshanabi he would have been lost after the about 5000 kilometers that had taken him to the "sea" where he met Siduri, the custodian of the tple of Sin.

It is perhaps interesting at this point, before unveiling the final destination, to introduce a digression on how the routes proposed here came to my mind. I first read Gilgamesh epic in the Penguin edition, in 1971, when I was visiting the University of Essex in UK for research in numerical optimization. Already at that time I had doubts about the real destination of Gilgamesh trips. Several years ago, having reread the epic in the 1992 book of Pettinato, I looked in the great italian Enciclopedia Treccani (almost twice the size of the Britannica), about cedars of Lebanon. To my delight I found out that they grow in the variety Cedrus Deodara in Kashmir. Since the Indus basin and Mesopotamia at Gilgamesh time were in well documented contacts via water, it made sense to hypothesize that not only Kashmir had to be a well known source of cedar timber, but that reaching and exploring that region might have been an interesting goal -- personal and even political, in view of incipient trends towards forms of "imperialism" -- to a strong willed, intelligent and physically powerful person as king Gilgamesh.

The identification of Mount Mashu came suddenly to my mind on a day of May 1999, while I was reading Sitchin's "The Stairway to Heaven". At the point where Sitchin, whose source is mainly the Hittite text in Friedrich's translation, describes how Gilgamesh, after crossing a mountain pass, saw a water extent, near which there was a city with a temple dedicated to Sin, I closed the eyes and visualized the map of central Asia. It dawned to me that the water expanse, certainly not a sea but a large lake, had to be the Balkash lake, which, as will be discussed soon, fully satisfies the features in the text. Then I thought what Mount Mashu might be in this geographical context, and the answer flashed back immediately, the product of a geographical and anthropological information I had memorized a couple of years before from a book by Leonard Clark. Of Leonard Clark, possibly with Heyerdahl the greatest explorer of the 20th century, I had read and reread in my teens the fascinating book Thr rivers ran to east, describing his explorations in Amazonia. Reading his less known book The Marching Wind, led me to the proposed identification of Mount Mashu.

Let us now discuss the route that we propose to Mount Mashu. Our guess is very natural once the "sea" with the temple of Sin and Mount Mashu are identified.

Let us first discuss the "sea" with the temple of Sin. The text calls it a "sea", and the local Kirghiz actually call it "sea" (their word for sea being just "Balkash"), but it is actually a large lake. Notice that what we call "Caspian sea" is also a large lake, the remnant of a previous very large lake, hence in a sense a "sea", that included at least also the Aral lake, as the Atlas of Ptolemy shows, see the critical edition by Pagani (1990).

We claim that Gilgamesh reached this "sea" after a very long way, in a mainly easterly direction, along which he was attacked by wild beasts and had to cross large rivers always full of water. The "sea" appearead just after crossing a mountain pass. Going beyond the sea appeared to be difficult, the steppes around were also appearing difficult, making Gilgamesh feel depressed. Near the "sea" there was a city with a temple dedicated to Sin, the god, inter alia, associated with the Moon.

We identify the above "sea" with the Balkash lake on the following grounds:

From a description of the lake at the end of the 19th century by Grégoire (1876) we have the following information (to be probably updated in the sense of a decreasing size of the lake, the phenomenon of drying up of inner lakes being common worldwide and being probably related to the fact that such lakes were filled over their normal capacity during some catastrophical flooding event, the Noah-Utanapishtim flood being one of such likely events): - present elevation (Times Atlas, Comprehensive Edition, 1974) is 339 meters over sea level. Just east of Balkash two smaller lakes are found aligned in an easterly direction: lake Sasykul, elevation 334m, and Alakul, 340m. In case the water level in the Balkash would increase by about ten meters, these two lakes would join with the Balkash, as appears it was the case from maps in atlases of the 18th century, then giving rise to a lake over 800 km long but no more than 100 km wide. - if the level of the lake would reach the isoipse 500 meters, quite a possibility in the event of a great flood, it would give rise to a water expanse with no outlet to the ocean and a size of about 150.000 square kilometers. We do not know how was the elevation of the Balkash at Gilgamesh time (but see below). We guess, in view of the drying up tendency of inner lakes, that it was significantly higher than now; Let us now discuss our proposal about the meaning of the name BALKASH. We have been unable of getting literature information on the etymology of that name, that for the Kirghiz is now synonimous of "sea". Our proposal is that the name BALKASH is the contracted form of a more ancient BALKASHIN. To my delight I have found that atlases and geographic dictionaries up to the mid 19th century call the lake BALKASHI, one step closer to the proposed BALKASHIN. Now there are no linguistical problems in the equivalence BALKASHIN = BALKASIN, that we see as a word composed by three meaningful monosyllabic words, namely BAL - KA - SIN, for which we claim the validity of the following translation: Sin, Lord of the people. The references to Sin and the term Lord are obvious. The main point is the validity of the identification KA = PEOPLE, that is addressed in the Appendix.

Having thus identified the "sea" with the temple of Sin with the Balkash lake, we can now make an educated guess on the first stage of Gilgamesh trip, from Uruk to the Balkash lake.

From the Hittite text in Friedrich translation, but not from the corpus in Pettinato, the trip appears to have started when Enkidu was still alive, and by sea, on board of a boat named MA-GAN. The boat sank near the coast of MA-GAN, with Enkidu dying in the accident. Then Gilgamesh continued the trip alone overland. Sitchin identifies Magan with Egypt, while most scholars identify Magan with the easternmost coast of the Arabian peninsula, i.e. Oman and part of the Emirates, in view of the fact that copper was among the exports of Magan and that bronze age mines of copper have been found in the mountains of Oman. If the Hittite version used by Sitchin is correct, then we may think that Gilgamesh again intended to reach the heart of Asia by the Karakorum passes tried before, reaching the Kashmir mountains not by the overland route explored in the first trip but by the more usual way via the Indian Ocean and the Indus river.

Moreover we claim that MAGAN, also read as MAKAN, is neither Egypt nor Oman, but a land including the southern coast of the Iranian plateau, the ancient Gedrosia, a vast extremely dry expanse of valleys, plateaus and low mountains, that Alexander insisted to cross on the return from India, for reasons that are not clear in the surviving reports of his adventures (Arrianus, Curtius Rufus, Plutarch, perhaps not unrelated to a memory of the feat that we are now proposing Gilgamesh accomplished). This region, while difficult and even now sparsely populated, is not a complete desert. Now mainly inhabited by Baluchi people, divided between Iran and Pakistan, in classical times, as reported in that superb navigational reference book that is the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, had a number of ports and a coastal population, the Icthyophagies, that survived on sea life (some of them even had cows, that were fed with dried fish: the flesh of these cows tasted of fish, according to the report of Nearchos, quoted in Arrianus book on India; thus we see that feeding proteins to cows predates our times!!). The present local name, attested as I have checked at least in atlases of the 18th century, is MAKRAN (sometimes also spelled as MEKRAN, MUKRAN). The name MAKRAN has obvious similarity with MAGAN/MAKAN, a fact reinforced by the observation that the sound KR does not belong to the Sumerian phonama. Moreover the name MAKAN appears in the 18th century great D'Anville Atlas as a region in the present Kara Kum desert, which comprises much of Turkmenistan, north of Khorasan. In view of references to a people called Maka in several inscriptions found in the excavations of Persepolis after second world war, located in the east, and of other considerations that will be developed in a forthcoming paper, we claim that MAGAN/MAKAN should be indentified with the eastern part of the "great Iran" to which Shanameh refers, comprising much of present Turkmenistan, Khorasan, Sistan, Baluchistan and Makran.

Whether or not the second trip of Gilgamesh began by boat, the "sea" with the temple of Sin was reached overland. The likely route is the following.

Let us now discuss the second stage of the trip, from lake Balkash to Mount Mashu. As observed before and as additionally discussed below, at Gilgamesh time lake Balkash was almost certainly much larger, with a length close to 1000 km and a width possibly over 100 km on average. We do not know where the temple of Sin was, certainly close to the ancient higher shore, so at some distance of the present shore. A look at the map of the Times Atlas of the World, Comprehensive Edition, 1974, suggests that Gilgamesh, who presumibly had coasted the western side of the Tien Shan (Mountain of the Sky), may have crossed the Chu-Ili hills in the pass where both a road and a railway exist now, near the towns of Khantau and Burubaytal, hence approaching the lake at its southern shore. At his time the lake probably filled much of the Zhusandala steppe, that extends east of the present southern side of the lake. As is the case for many flat bottomed lakes in central Asia, navigation is often extremely dangerous due to the low level of the waters. Once a boat gets stuck in the muddy bottom, putting it again in motion may be an almost impossible task, because the soft bottom, essentially consisting of quick sands, is extremely dangerous for anyone who would jump in the waters trying to push the boat.

The above navigational problem first suggested to me that the "stone stelae" that looked so important to Urshanabi and that Gilgamesh had broken, might have been magnetite, and could have been used as a compass (recall that compass comes from China, and that many elements of Chinese culture and science have their original source in the heart of Asia). This would also explain why Urshanabi was still able to navigate using apparently fragments of the broken stelae, since they of course would still maintain their dipole characteristics.

There is however an even more interesting possibility. If the water level of lake Balkash at Gilgamesh time was about 150 meters higher than now, the lake would extend into Zungaria flooding the Zungarian depression and the pass called Zungarian Gates, a corridor about 80 km long, 10 km wide, with very steep mountains walls, appearing from Shuttle photographs just as a clear vertical cut in the mountains (let us recall the biblical statement that at the time of Peleg the earth was dividedů.) and would almost reach the present city of Urumchi. Thus there would have been a connected water basin, most certainly of salt water possibly originated from the Arctic Ocean via a huge tsunami associated with the Flood. It would have had an extension of several hundred thousand kilometers, given by a much larger Balkash connected with the flooded Zungarian basin. Under these conditions one had to navigate the flooded Zungarian gates to enter present Xinjang.

Now the Zungarian gates are a very special geographical structure, characterized not only by steep walls where trails were probably not existing and (presently at least) by lack of sweet water, but they are extremely windy, so much so that caravans in the past tended to avoid them when they had to reach Kirghizistan and Khazakistan from Xinjang, preferring to pass by the longer and more northernly way of Chuguchak, through the Tarbagatai hills, see Lattimore (1929, 1995). In view of the difficulty of navigating the flooded Zungarian Gates, with their strong winds and presumibly also strong and turbolent currents, it is possible that the big stones used by Urshanabi were the so called "drag stones", i.e. flat large stones that tied with a rope to the boat were used to increase the drag of the boat, hence to stabilize it against winds and currents. Such stabilizing technique is known from Herodotus to have been used by people navigating the Nile when strong northernly winds from the Mediterranean made navigation impossible even by following the natural Nile current; the boatmen in such a case dropped large stones and so were able to navigate as under normal conditions. The technique is essentially even now used by fishermen in the Bosphorus, who have no problem in navigating tp an easternly direction by following the upper current from the Marmara Sea towards the Black Sea, and are able to navigate to the westernly direction against such a current by dropping a chest full of stones that catches the lower cold current from the Black Sea towards the Marmara Sea. It should finally be noted that several huge specially shaped anchor stones have been found in the Kazan/Uzengili region near Mount Judi of last century Armenian maps in eastern Turkey, where a structure has emerged in 1948 that might be the remnant of Noah's Ark, see Fasold (1988); in this context Fasold, a marine expert dealing in recovery of foundered spanish vessels in the Caribbeans, has proposed that the stones were drag stones stabilizing the ark against the strong winds and rough seas of the Flood.

Finally notice that evidence that the inner basins of central Asia were in fact huge lakes, as we have above proposed in connection with the Balkash-Zungarian system, has recently been given by the Turkish geomorphologist Erol on the basis of satellite pictures, see Ryan and Pitman (1998).

Now near Urumchi, precisely on the northern side of the Bokhda-Ula (or Bogdo Ola, sacred mountain) range, there is a huge solfatara, with a perimeter of some 25 km at the beginning of the 19th century, see Marmocchi (1856), where large amounts of poisonous gases are emitted, killing every being, birds included, that would attempt to cross the area. The gases would escape from the waters and might kill anyone on a boat. We are presently unable to ascertain the actual coastline of the Balkash at Gilgamesh time, but the phenomenon here described would provide a perfect explanation of the "waters of death" described in the epic. Another phenomenon that may have characterized such an extended Balkash would also have been the low visibility associated with the dust carried by the winds, very strong in Zungaria, making the availability of a compass very important.

3. Mount Mashu and the return to Uruk

According to a recent proposal by Temple (see Hera Magazine, n.1, 2000), Mashu means the place where the sun rises in the orient. This interpretation fits perfectly with our scenario and the considerations that will be put forward in a forthcoming paper about the original land of the Sumerians. Now, to introduce our identification of Mount Mashu, let us recall some war events of the 20th century.

At the beginning of 1949 the armies of Mao Tsedong were already in control of the whole eastern part of continental China. On the western part Tibetans in the south still hoped they could keep their ancient autonomy, while in the north, along the corridor Xining-Lanzhou, a muslim army led by general Ma Pufang tried to stop the advance of a Chinese army led by Lin Biao. The muslim army was quickly routed, and Xinjang returned under the firm control of Beijing. The way was then opened for the Chinese army to enter Tibet, via the eastern, warriors inhabited, Kham and Amdo regions. During the few months when Ma Pufang army still hoped to stop Lin Biao, Leonard Clark, an American military envoy by Ma Pufang, tried to ascertain whether it would have been possible to continue resistence against the communists from the northern Tibetan territory. Clark made a recognition of northern Quinghai, particularly of the Tsaidam Basin, rich of rivers and lakes, including two lakes, Gyaring Hu and Ngorin Hu, formedby the Yellow River at about 100 km from its multiple sources. This region was inhabited by a Tibetan tribe called the Ngolok (also spelled as Gu-Lok, Go-Log, Mgo-Log), who still practiced the ancient Tibetan pre Buddhist religion named Bon-Po, and who were excellent horsemen and fighters.

The territory of the Ngolok included a great mountain range sacred to them and closed to foreigners. The range is over 300 km long and, except for the northern part, is surrounded by the Yellow River that defines its border for over 800 km. The name of the mountain is so given in the following atlases:

The Yellow rivers, which braces most of the range, has also a special local name, written as follows: Now we can linguistically accept the equivalence between MAQU=MACHU with the Gilgamesh epic word MASHU, especially since these wordings do not completely characterize the exact local prononciations, which moreover certainly has local variations and changes in time. The term ANI, ANYE (ANY-E ?, E turkish-like dative suffix?) is intriguingly suggestive of the Sumerian name of the god ANU, the head of the Sumerian pantheon. Changes from I to U are linguistically well documented, e.g. in the well known iotization undergone by modern versus classical Greek and in some transitions from Arabic to Farsi in personal names (e.g. ADHUB becomes ADHIB, HAMUD becomes HAMID..). Hence on linguistical grounds the sacred mountain of the Ngolok can be equated with the sacred Sumerian Mashu, a relation reinforced by the additional reference to ANI=ANU. Thus we may conclude that the sacred mountain of the Ngolok fits the basic requirents for an identification of Mashu (a sacred place; a place in the east; a place named Mashu) and we propose, using also Temple's claim, the following translation of the name/names of the sacred mountain


= the place of god Anu, where the Sun rises .

We might even infer the identification ANU MASHU = NIMUSH, Nimush being the name of the mountain where Ziusudra (alter ego of Utanapishtim in the older versions of the epic) landed his boat, thus confirming the assertion that we made elsewhere (Spedicato, 1991) that Noah and Ziusudra are distinct survivors of the Flood, by them experienced in quite far away lands, Noah in eastern Anatolia, Ziusudra in the heart of Asia. That many boats were built to survive the Flood and that more than one of them survived the event is stated in Talmud and in Midrashim, and additionally in the Koran.

Having thus identified the final destination of Gilgamesh second trip, let us make an educated guess on his route from the Zungarian Gates.

From Anye Maqen the return to Uruk can be accomplished over water. First by following the Yellow River, which is a rather peaceful river, without the dangerous gorges and currents found for instance in the Yang Tze-Kiang. Then by coasting China, Indochina, India and Makran to Uruk via a short stretch of the Euphrates. Certainly a rather long trip, some 15.000 km, but without any real great difficulties, the main danger after Gilgamesh time for this trip coming from piratery, a profession certainly not yet developed at his times.


This paper (parts I and II) would never have been written without the following contributions:


D. Fasold, The ark of Noah, Wynwood Press, New York, 1988

J. Friedrich, "Die hethitischen Bruchstueckes des Gilgamesh-Epos", Zeitschrift fuer Assyriologie, 49, 1930

L. Grégoire, Géographie Générale, Garnier, 1876

S. Hedin, Il lago errante, Einaudi, 1943-XXI

O. Lattimore, The desert road to Turkestan, Little, Brown and Company, 1929

(also by Kodansha International, 1995)

F. McLean, Eastern approaches, Jonathan Cape, London, 1949

F.C. Marmocchi, Geografia Universale, SEI, Torino, 1856

G. Pettinato, La saga di Gilgamesh, Rusconi, 1992

L. Pagani (editor), Cosmographie, Tables de la Géographie de Ptolémé, Bookking International, 1990

W. Ryan and W. Pitman, Noah's Flood. The new scientific discoveries on the event that changed history, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1998

Z. Sitchin, The stairway to heaven, Bear and Company, Santa Fe, 1980

E. Spedicato, Apollo objects and Atlantis, a catastrophical scenario for the end of the last glaciation, NEARA Journal 26, 1-14, 1991

E. Spedicato, "Who were the Hyksos?", C\&C Review 1, 55, 1997

G. Tucci, La via dello Swat, Newton Compton. 1978

Appendix: on the meaning of KA

It is now believed by many language specialists, in the aftermath of the seminal work done by professor Joseph Greenberg of Stanford University, that all human languages descend from a single original language, paralleling the recent discovery, by sophisticated genetic analysis (of mithocondrial DNA and of the Y gene), that all present humans descend from a single woman and a single father, who lived an estimated circa 200.000 years ago. The work of Greenberg has led to group the existing and the known extinct languages in different levels of families and superfamilies, one of which,called the Afroasiatic family, includes hamitic, sitic, indoeuropeans, turkish and other previously defined families.

Here we claim that the syllable KA should be related to an afroasiatic word vowel - K - vowel with the general meaning of people, clan on the basis of the following arguments:

- - - - -


[The first part of this paper has been published in Episteme, N. 1, June, 2000]