Ancient Near East - The Umma Lagash Border Conflict

Updated: Mar 19

The increased competition over land among city-states is first demonstrated in detail during the border conflict between the city-states Umma and Lagash. Over a period of 150 years, from about 2500-2350 B.C., the kings of Lagash provided their accounts of this dispute while portraying themselves as deputies acting on behalf of the gods. According to these Lagash accounts, the chief god Enlil in the distant past had demarcated the border between the two states. The inscriptions acknowledge that the act had historically been performed by a king of Kish called, Mesalim, who would have lived around 2600 B.C. Even at this early time, the two city-states already had competing claims and recourse to outside arbitration. The sequence of events is difficult to establish, as only one view is documented. Whenever Lagash was strong, it tried to enforce its rule over the disputed land. Successive kings stated that the army of Lagash defeated Umma’s rulers, but the conflict persisted over several centuries, which shows how inconclusive these battles really were.

Not all interactions between states were hostile, however. The royal houses communicated with one another as equals and had diplomatic relations, often with the exchange of gifts. These city-states often grouped themselves in various coalitions in order to stand up to one another. Around 2400 B.C., for example, a king of Uruk claimed kingship over Ur, a city 50 kilometers to the south. The process of conquest and unification culminated at the end of the Early Dynastic Period when the king of Umma, Lugal-zagesi, conquered Ur and Uruk and then defeated Urukagina of Lagash, thus taking control of the entire south of Babylonia and creating the first documented kingdom to encompass all of Sumer.

Before losing to Lugal-zagesi, Urukagina may have created the first example of a legal code in recorded history. This code sought to achieve a higher level of freedom and equality among his people and limited the power of the priesthood and large property owners. He states,

“The widow and the orphan were no longer at the mercy of the powerful man.”

Although the actual text has not been discovered, much of its content may be surmised from other references to it that have been found. In this code, Urukagina exempted widows and orphans from taxes, compelled the city to pay for funeral expenses, and forced the rich to use silver when purchasing from the poor while at the same time, denying the rich to force the poor to sell if they did not wish to do so.

There existed an overarching sense of religious unity that joined the cities of Babylon together. This is already attested around 3000 B.C., as discussed in the last episode, when multiple cities looked to the oldest urban center, Uruk, as their religious capital. Here, various cities supported the cult of the goddess Inanna.

At some point in the Early Dynastic Period, the focus of the cult of Uruk shifted to the city of Nippur, in the center of Babylonia. Each Babylonian city was the domain of a god, who resided there with his or her family of deities. These divine families were joined together in a common Babylonian pantheon that, by the Late Early Dynastic Period, was headed by Enlil, patron of the city of Nippur. He had supreme power in the divine world and demarcated, for example, the border between Umma and Lagash according to the descriptions of the war between the two cities. Enlil’s city, Nippur, attained a unique status that was to last until the eighteenth-century B.C. In the late third millennium all Babylonian cities were to provide support for its cult, and in the early second millennium, political control over it gave a king the right to claim sovereign rule. Somehow the priesthood of this militarily unimportant city had the authority to grant a special status to one of the many competitors. They seem to have had this power already in the early dynastic times, when kings of Adab, Kish, Lagash, Umma, and Uruk left short inscriptions at Nippur, suggesting that they sought to curry favor with its priesthood.

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