|Figure 1: |
Memorial cone of the Mesilim Treaty
[Footnotes after the jump.]
The Musée du Louvre in Paris holds tangible evidence of the world’s first known legal agreement on boundary water resources: viz., the Mesilim Treaty, concluded in the 25th century B.C. between the two Mesopotamian states of Lagash and Umma. The terms of the treaty have been preserved as cuneiform inscriptions on a limestone cone (figure 1) and a stele commemorating Lagash’s victorious battle enforcing the treaty. Fragments of both artifacts were excavated in 1878-1912 by French archeologists on sites at Tellō (Tall Lawh, Dhi Qar Governate in Southern Iraq), the ancient temple-city of Girsu, once the capital of Lagash. The inscriptions, transcribed and translated into French, German, Italian and English, turned out to match several other texts on corresponding archeological finds of the period. The key exhibit, the so-called ‘Stele of the Vultures’, depicts Lagash ruler E’anatum leading his army, and vultures devouring slain Umma warriors (figures 2 and 3).
Mesilim [or Mesalim, born ca. 2600 B.C.] was the ruler of Kish, a kingdom further to the north of Lagash and Umma, which held a traditional ‘hegemonic’ position in the loose alliance of small adjoining Sumerian city-states in the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, south of what was to become Babylon. Because of the prevailing precarious rainfall conditions, the agricultural economy of the entire basin area has always been crucially dependent on irrigation, mainly from the ‘great Tigris’, through an elaborate system of canals and levees which inevitably require close inter-community cooperation. The geographic focus of the bilateral Lagash-Umma agreement, concluded under Mesilim’s authority as external arbiter, was the fertile Gu-edena valley, roughly ten by four kilometers wide and irrigated by Tigris waters from a canal named Lum-magirnunta on the border between Umma and Lagash, with boundaries marked by stone steles.
|Figure 2: Stele of the Vultures|
|Figure 3: Stele of the Vultures|
Alas, the treaty so renewed and ‘writ in stone’, and the peace so re-established, does not seem to have survived for long, and was eventually overtaken and mooted by external political events (the Akkadian/Sargonic invasions) in subsequent generations. Even so, the agreement has been hailed as ‘the first international arbitration’, and as ‘the oldest treaty of which there is a reliable record’. It remains a unique early attempt at resolving a dispute over boundary waters by formal reference to a superior spiritual order (in this case, the deities of both parties, repeatedly ‘sworn to’ in the text), and hence may indeed qualify as a precursor of international law in this field – well over 4,000 years ago.