Friday, May 18, 2018

The earliest boundary water treaty

Figure 1: 
Memorial cone of the Mesilim Treaty
Thanks to Peter Sand for contributing this post!

[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.[1] 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.[2] The inscriptions, transcribed and translated into French, German, Italian and English,[3] 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.[4] 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
Part of the treaty was a crop-sharing arrangement for a portion of boundary land (some eleven square kilometers) downstream on Lagash territory, that was cultivated by Umma under lease, against payment of an annual rental fee (máš, calculated in silver-shekel equivalents of barley crops) to cover the costs of canal maintenance.[5] However, when Umma repeatedly refused to honor its accumulated tenancy debts, hostilities broke out, resulting in partial destruction of the canal and in unilateral diversions of water upstream. In several successive military confrontations (‘the first known war in history that was, in essence, fought about water’),[6] Umma was ultimately defeated by Lagash (first under the leadership of E’anatum, ca. 2470 B.C.; and later under his nephew Enmetena, ca. 2430 B.C.),[7] and was forced to accept the reconstruction (and extension) of the canal and the reinstatement of the boundaries as originally drawn up by Mesilim.

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’,[8] and as ‘the oldest treaty of which there is a reliable record’.[9] 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.[10]


[1] Arthur Nussbaum, A Concise History of the Law of Nations (New York: Macmillan, rev. edn. 1962) 1-2; Jerrold S. Cooper, ‘International Law in the Third Millennium’, in R. Westbrook (ed.), A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law (Leiden: Brill 2003) 241-251; David J. Bederman, International Law in Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004) 139; Stephen C. McCaffrey, The Law of International Watercourses (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2nd edn 2007) 59; Claus Wilcke, Early Ancient Near Eastern Law: A History of Its Beginnings (Winona Lake/IN: Eisenbrauns, rev. edn. 2007) 73-75; and Daniel E. Khan, ‘Territory and Boundaries’, in B. Fassbender and A. Peters (eds.), Oxford Handbook of the History of International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2012) 225-249, at 229-230 .
[2] Maurice Lambert, ‘Une histoire du conflit entre Lagash et Umma’, Revue d’Assyriologie et d’Archéologie Orientale 50 (1966) 141-146.
[3] François Thureau-Dangin, ‘Le cône historique d’Entemena’, Revue d’Assyriologie et d’Archéologie Orientale 4 (1897) 37-50; Arno Poebel, ‘Der Konflikt zwischen Lagash und Umma zur Zeit Enannatums I. und Entemenas’, in C. Adler & A. Ember (eds.), Oriental Studies Dedicated to Paul Haupt (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press 1926) 220-267; Giovanni Pettinato, ‘Il conflitto tra Lagaš ed Umma per la “Frontiera Divina” e la sua soluzione durante la terza dinastia di Ur’, Mesopotamia 5-6 (1972) 281-320 ; Jerrold S. Cooper, Sumerian and Akkadian Royal Inscriptions I: Presargonic Inscriptions (New Haven/CT : American Oriental Society 1986) 33-68 ; and id., Reconstructing History from Ancient Inscriptions: The Lagash-Umma Border Conflict (Malibu/CA: Undena Publications, 3rd edn. 2002).
[4] Amnon Altman, Tracing the Earliest Recorded Concepts of International Law: The Ancient Near East (2500-330 BCE) (Leiden: Brill 2012) 5-9.
[5] Michael J. Strauss, Territorial Leasing in Diplomacy and International Law (Leiden: Nijhoff 2015) 52-54. The scheme was similar to the irrigation tax or ‘loan fee’ in the share-tenancy system of modern Iraq; see Pjotr Steinkeller, ‘The Renting of Fields in Early Mesopotamia and the Development of “Interest” in Sumerian’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 24 (1981) 113-145, at 126, 140-145; and Johannes Renger, ‘On Economic Structures in Ancient Mesopotamia’, Orientalia 63 (1994) 157-208, at 194-195..
[6] Hillal Elver, Peaceful Uses of International Rivers: The Euphrates and Tigris Rivers Dispute (Ardsley/NY: Transnational Publishers 2002) 8.
[7] Enmetena [or Entemena] was a son of E’anatu’s brother and successor, Enannatu I. His (headless) statue, looted from Baghdad’s National Museum at the end of the Second Gulf War in 2003, was recovered in the United States and returned to Iraq in 2010; see Steven L. Myers, ‘Iraqi Treasures Return, but Questions Remain’, New York Times (8 September 2010) A4.
[8] Michael I. Rostovtseff, ‘International Relations in the Ancient World’, in E.A. Walsh (ed.), The History and Nature of International Relations  (New York: Macmillan 1922) 31-65, at 40; and Baron Michel de Taube, ‘Les origines de l’arbitrage international: antiquité et Moyen Âge’, Hague Academy of International Law: Recueil des Cours 42 (1932 IV) 1-114, at 17. 
[9] Curtis F.J. Doebbler, Dictionary of Public International Law (Lanham/MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2018) 374.
[10] But see the more skeptical assessment by Wolfgang Preiser, ‘Zum Völkerrecht der vorklassischen Antike’, Archiv des Völkerrechts 4 (1954) 257-288, at 270, who in essence views the agreement as a case of victor’s justice rather than an affirmation of mutually binding inter-state obligations.

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