Sumerian Hundred Years War

Umma vs Lagash

A foundation cone of Enmetena gives a summary to the long-lasting border dispute between Umma and Lagash. They fought for possession of the fertile fields of the Guedena. The conflict lasted on and off for many generations starting around the time of 2500 BC through to the rise of Lugalzagesi in 2340 BC. For those interested in reading the composition in its original form (the italicised text below), without the annotations, see Enmetena Cone.

Mesalim, king of Kish.
Enlil, king of all the lands, father of all the gods,
by his righteous command, for Ningirsu and Shara,
demarcated the (border) ground.
Mesalim, king of Kish, by the command of Ishtaran,
laid the measuring line upon it, and on that place he erected a stele.

Here mythology and history become intertwined. Enlil was the chief Sumerian god; Shara and Ningirsu were the patron gods of Umma and Lagash respectively. The story is cast in religious overtones to suggest the demarcation of the Guedena ('edge of the steppe-lands') was sanctioned by the gods and the borders were therefore inviolate. This was Lagash's point of view; Umma obviously held a different opinion.

The war between Umma and Lagash had been going on for quite some time before Mesalim was called upon to settle the dispute. As the king of Kish, Mesalim held suzerainty over the region and his word carried considerable weight and authority. Mesalim apportioned the land between the two cities. A stele was erected at the border to announce his decision. Then a trench was dug with an earthen levee on either side to separate the two territories. Nonetheless, Mesalims arbitration did little to resolve the problem. Apparently his decision greatly favored Lagash (the larger and more powerful of the two cities) much to Ummas lingering resentment. The wars would continue unabated for more than a century.

Ush, ensi of Umma.
Ush, ruler of Umma, something greatly beyond words he did.
That stele he tore out, and into the plain of Lagash he entered.
Ningirsu, the hero of Enlil,
by his (Enlil's) just command, with Umma battle he did.
By the command of Enlil, he cast (his) big battle-net upon it,
and its many tumuli he laid upon the ground in the plain.

Ush was the first known ruler of Umma to violate the terms of the treaty. He marched across the border and destroyed Mesalims stele. This would happen many times during the course of the war. Ush obviously predates Ur-Nanshe, Enmetenas great-grandfather and the founder of the Lagash I dynasty. An inscription relates that Ur-Nanshe battled with Umma (and its allied city of Ur) at some point during his reign, but the inscription is broken off before the name of the ruler of Umma is revealed. However, its unlikely to be Ush. Evidence for this is found in the above section. Notice how the victory is credited to Ningirsu, the god of war, not to a specific ruler of Lagash - war in the Dynastic period of Sumerian history was often waged on 'behalf' of the city's deity. If Ur-Nanshe had been the victor in the battle, then Enmetena surely would have mentioned it. The victory was probably won by Lugal-sha-engur, Ur-Nanshes predecessor. Lugal-sha-engur was contemporary with Mesalim, who presented him with a ceremonial macehead for the temple of Ningirsu in Lagash. In any case, Enmetena wasnt interested in glorifying any dynasty but his own.

The many tumuli laid upon the ground were mass graves for the war dead, piled high to emphasize the scope of the kings victory. Sometimes the tumuli were stacked so high that men had to climb ladders to dump baskets of dirt on top of the bodies.

Eannatum, ruler of Lagash.
Eannatum, ruler of Lagash, uncle of Enmetena, ruler of Lagash,
with Enakale, the ruler of Umma, demarcated the (border) ground,
and its levee from the Princely Canal to the Gu'edena he extended.
Of Ningirsu's field 215 nindan he left under the control of Umma
and made it into a field with no owner.
On that levee steles he inscribed, and the stele of Mesalim he restored.
Into the plain of Umma he did not pass.
On the boundary mound of Ningirsu (named) Namnunda-kigara,
a dais of Enlil, a dais of Ninhursag, a dais of Ningirsu,
and a dais of Utu he constructed.

It seems as if Eannatum is concluding a treaty after the victory that’s described in the previous section, but this is not the case. That victory was credited to the gods, but Enmetena would have mentioned the fact if the victory had been won by Eannatum, who was his uncle. This section refers to Eannatum’s later victory over Umma, the one that’s depicted on the Vulture Stele (see Vulture Stele Translation).

Actually, at least one other war had been fought with Umma prior to this one. Akurgal, son of Ur-Nanshe and the father of Eannatum, had lost some of the Guedena in an earlier war with Umma. The fact that Akurgal had a very short reign suggests he was killed in the war, though this has not been proven. Even if true, Enmetena wouldn’t include the story here; neither is the story told on the Vulture Stele. Royal monuments never mention defeat. This was one of only two times in the history of the wars that Umma was victorious over Lagash. The other time was about 50 years later, during the reign of Enannatum II, who was the son of Enmetena and the last king of Ur-Nanshe’s dynasty.

Enakale, ruler of Umma.
Enakale was the new ruler of Umma with whom Eannatum demarcated the new borders. Presumably the previous ruler had been killed in the war with Eannatum. A damaged portion of the Vulture Stele suggests Eannatum sponsored a rebellion against the Ummaite king that occurred simultaneously with his attack on the city, They shall raise a hand against him, and in the heart of Umma they shall kill him. Usurdu, by name [. . .] Usurdu was the name of Eannatums agent inside the city. This could have been Eannatums revenge for the death of his father.

Eannatum built large daises on his side of the border to show that the treaty had the blessing of the gods and to demonstrate his permanent ownership of the land. He set up new steles and restored the stele of Mesalim, which would later be destroyed (again) in yet another war with Umma. Eannatum declared that part of the Guedena would be a field with no owner, a kind of No Mans Land.

He made Enakale swear By the life of Enlil, king of heaven and earth, the fields of Ningirsu I shall exploit as an interest-bearing loan, meaning that Umma could farm the fields for the payment of rent (a share of the crops). Eannatum probably thought he was being quite generous, considering the fact that Umma had lost the war, and that Enakale was lucky to have what he could get. Enakale, on the other hand, would certainly find it galling to pay rent for land that he considered to be rightfully his own. Eannatum himself would have shrugged off the matter, The ruler of Umma, when has he ever been appeased?

Of the barley of Nanshe and the barley of Ningirsu,
one grain-heap measure (5184 hl.)
the Man of Umma consumed as an interest-bearing loan.
The share of the yield was imposed,
and 144,000 large grain-heap measures it had become.

The narrative has moved forward to the prelude of another war. Eannatum and Enakale have both died. The Man of Umma is now Ur-luma, the son of Enakale. He owes a payment for the grain that his city has consumed, grain that was grown in the fields with no owner that were actually controlled by Lagash. Interest for the loan has accrued, payable as a share of the yield. The amount of interest due is difficult to understand because of the different units of measure named in the translation, but it is obviously quite high. The stage was set; the war was about to continue for another generation.

Ur-luma, ruler of Umma.
Because he was unable to repay that barley,
Ur-luma, ruler of Umma,
the levee of the boundary territory of Ningirsu
and the levee of the boundary territory of Nanshe
he removed with water.
To its steles he set fire, and he tore them out.
The daises of the gods, which on the Namnunda-kigara (mound)
had been constructed, he demolished.
He hired foreign countries,
and over the levee of the boundary territory of Ningirsu he crossed.

This is actually Ur-luma’s second attack on the border; the previous attack is mentioned in the section below. He destroyed the daises of the gods which Eannatum had built to show Lagash’s ownership of the land. The border steles were once again destroyed, this time with fire. The steles were made of stone, so it's difficult to imagine how they were burned, but this is how it probably happened: Wood was stacked around the steles then set ablaze. If the fire was hot enough, the limestone steles would burst into flame. Alternatively, fire was used to heat the steles until they were very hot, then suddenly doused with cold water to shatter them. The steles were also uprooted, just for good measure. Then the earthen levees of the boundary trench were washed away with water, effectively erasing the border. This also made it easier for Ur-luma’s army to pass over them. The army now included foreigners that Ur-luma had hired as mercenaries.

Enannatum, ruler of Lagash.
Enannatum, ruler of Lagash,
in the Ugiga field, the field of Ningirsu, had (previously) fought with him,
but Enmetena, the beloved son of Enannatum, defeated him.
Ur-luma fled into the middle of Umma and was killed.
His donkeys, sixty teams,
on the bank of the Lummagirnunta (canal) were left behind,
and their personnel's bones were all left out on the plain.
Their tumuli in five places he heaped up.

A fanciful depiction of Eannatum in his war cart - note the way the artist has misunderstood Sumerian art depiction with the front of the battle cart on the side - it does convey however the impression of the king attacking with his soldiers quite well.

While Eannatum was still alive, Ur-luma did not dare attack him; Eannatum was too powerful and too great a warrior. Upon the death of Eannatum the kingship passed to his brother Enannatum, the father of Enmetena. At the time, Enannatum had his hands full trying to quell the rebellions in various parts of Eannatums crumbling empire. This is when Ur-luma decided to attack.

The first battle occurred in the Ugiga fields. An Enannatum tablet tells us that Ur-luma by the Hill of the Black Dog brought up his vanguard (what a perfect place to have a battle, by the Hill of the Black Dog). Ur-luma was defeated and fled the battle with Enannatum close upon his heels.The tablet then relates how Enannatum "did smite" Ur-luma all the way up to the levee of the border territory of Ningirsu. Then Ur-luma came to the Lumma-girnunta canal, which blocked his retreat. Ur-luma plunged into the canal in his haste to get away. Enannatum in the ... of the Lumma-girnunta canal went after him, and his outer garment he put all over(?) him. This suggests Eannatum had actually grabbed Ur-lumas cloak before Ur-luma was able to free himself and escape. However, the story may be apocryphal. By this time Enannatum was at least 50 years old, quite elderly by the standards of the ancient world, so he may have been too old to participate in the battle except as a general. Perhaps the details of the story narrate the actions of one of his lieutenants. In any case, it shows just how close Ur-luma had come to being captured.

Enannatum died soon afterward. Because of the shortness of his reign (about 7 years) its been speculated that Enannatum was killed in the battle just described. This, however, seems unlikely because he is known to be alive at the very end of the battle. Of course he could have been killed in the final skirmish to capture Ur-luma, but its far more likely that he later died of natural causes because of his age. The kingship of Lagash now passed to his son Enmetena.

The above section also describes the second battle, with the same disastrous results for Ur-luma. Once again he had to beat a hasty retreat, this time with Enmetena in hot pursuit. Once again he was blocked by the same Lumma-girnunta canal. Once again he managed to get away. He abandoned 60 teams of chariot donkeys (with four per team, thats 240 donkeys, a large number by Sumerian standards), plus their personnel, plus other soldiers left behind to cover his retreat; not to mention the soldiers unlucky enough to be stranded on the wrong side of the canal when Enmetena's army fell upon them. Some historians state that the donkeys were slaughtered, but it wasnt the donkeys that were slaughtered, it was the soldiers. The chariot donkeys were very expensive and highly prized. They would later be used to pull the chariots of Enmetenas victorious army. As for the enemy soldiers, their bodies were heaped into five tumuli and left out on the plain, their bones bleaching in the sun.

Ur-luma fled into the middle of Umma and was killed. Notice how Enmetena doesnt claim that he killed Ur-luma. If he had killed Ur-luma, he surely would have bragged about it. Instead Ur-luma had already escaped and was in the middle of Umma when he was killed, or assassinated to be more precise. Like Darius in his infamous flight from Alexander the Great 2,000 years later, he was probably murdered by someone in his own entourage. Not only had he lost two battles, but he had disgraced himself by running away like a coward. He therefore no longer had the respect of his soldiers or his subjects. Ur-luma thus met the same fate as many other failed kings in the ancient world. He should have done himself a favor by allowing himself to be killed in battle. 

Enmetena, ruler of Lagash.
At that time, Il {as in "ill"}, who was the temple administrator of Zabalam,
from Girsu to Umma in retreat(?) he marched.
Il the rulership of Umma seized.
Lagash harbour

This is further proof that Ur-luma was murdered by his own men. It is said that Il seized the kingship of Umma, as if were a coup d’état. This is how Enmetena saw the matter, but it is not entirely correct. Ur-luma was succeeded by E'andamu'a, his brother. E'andamu'a died after a brief reign and was succeeded by his son Il, who was Ur-luma's nephew. It is possible that Ur-luma was assassinated by his own brother; such a thing happened more than once in the ancient world, but a more likely explanation is that he was murdered by someone else and his brother succeeded him because Ur-luma had no sons to inherit his crown. In any case, as will soon become apparent, Il had his own plans about the next war with Lagash.

The levee of the boundary territory of Ningirsu,
the levee of the boundary territory of Nanshe,
and the boundary mound of Ningirsu
which was located on the bank of the Tigris in the region of Girsu,
the Namnunda-kigara of Enlil, Enki, and Ninhursag,
he removed with water.
The barley of Lagash, one grain-heap measure, he repaid.
Il, ruler of Umma.

Il made only a token payment for the grain that he owed to Lagash. He then commenced hostilities by marching into Lagashs territory and destroying the levees of Nanshe and Ningirsu, just as his predecessors had done. The Namnunda-kigara, the boundary mound built by Eannatum that was destroyed by Ur-luma and restored by Enmetena, was again destroyed by washing it away with water.

When Enmetena, ruler of Lagash,
because of those levees, to Il had sent envoys,
Il, ruler of Umma, the stealer of fields, speaking hostilely,
“The levee of the boundary territory of Ningirsu and the
levee of the boundary territory of Nanshe are mine!” he declared.
“From the Antasura (temple) to the temple of Dimgalabzu
I shall remove the earth from them!” he declared.

This seems to be an uncharacteristically mild response from Enmetena. Why did Enmetena send his envoys instead of his armies? Il had refused to repay the grain he owed, then marched into Lagashs territory, destroyed the boundary levees, destroyed the daises of the holy gods, and made threats to the sacred Antasura temple. All of these actions were deliberate acts of war, so why didnt Enmetena pounce on Il? This is what his predecessors would have done. Il, the stealer of fields, is allowed to get away with it?

We can only speculate on Enmetenas reasons for not going to war. Perhaps he had other pressing issues at home; perhaps his treasury was empty or he had another war on another frontier that needed attending to. Perhaps he was merely sick of war and hoped to resolve the problem diplomatically.

But Enlil and Ninhursag did not allow him this. {i.e., not allow Il to destroy the levees}
Enmetena, ruler of Lagash, nominated by Ningirsu,
by the just command of Enlil, the just command of Ningirsu,
and the just command of Nanshe,
that levee from the Tigris River to the Princely Canal he constructed.
The Namnunda-kigara's base he built with stones for him,
and for his master who loved him, Ningirsu,
and his mistress who loved him, Nanshe,
he restored it.

Notice how the Namnunda-kigara, the dais of the gods built by Eannatum and destroyed twice before, is now rebuilt with stone so it couldnt easily be washed away with water.

As no battle is mentioned, it seems that Enmetena was successful at resolving the situation diplomatically without resorting to weapons (though it seems somewhat anticlimatic). Now we are left wondering, why did Il back down? He had escalated the situation to the very brink of war, now he silently folds his tents and goes back home? Again we can only speculate. When he assumed power after the ineffectual Ur-luma, he probably made a lot of bellicose statements about teaching Lagash a lesson.

Perhaps Enmetena made enough concessions so that Il could return home without losing face and claim a diplomatic victory. Perhaps the new king suddenly realized that he needed to strengthen his home front before he attempted another battle with Lagash. One thing is for certain, however; this wasnt the last that would be heard of Il. He was simply biding his time.

Enmetena, ruler of Lagash, given the scepter by Enlil,
given wisdom by Enki, chosen by the heart of Nanshe,
chief ruler of Ningirsu,
the man who held fast to the commands of the gods,
may his (personal) god Shul-mush{x}pa
for the life of Enmetena unto distant days
before Ningirsu and Nanshe stand (interceding) for him!
Enmetena, ensi of Lagash.

Enmetenas foundation cone ends with an invocation to the gods and a warning to anyone who would dare trespass on his territory:

A Man of Umma
who, over the levee of the boundary territory of Ningirsu
or over the levee of the boundary territory of Nanshe
in order by violence to take fields might (in the future) cross,
whether he be a man of Umma or a man of a foreign land,
may Enlil annihilate him!
Ningirsu, when his big battle-net he has cast over him,
his great hands and great feet may he bring down (upon him) from above!
When the people in his city have raised a hand against him,
in the middle of his city may they kill him!

Enmetena was sadly mistaken if he thought his kingdom was secure in the protection of the gods. After his death, Il would lead a full scale attack against Enmetenas son, Enannatum II, the last king of Ur-Nanshes dynasty, and seize control of the Guedena. This was the first time in more than a generation that Umma was victorious over Lagash. Thereafter, Umma was in the ascendency and Lagash was on the decline.

The final culmination of the wars between Umma and Lagash would occur a generation later when Lugalzagesi, another Man of Umma, would sack and burn the city of Lagash. The heyday of Umma would be brief, however. Soon afterward, Umma, Lagash, and all the rest of Sumer was conquered by the Akkadians under Sargon the Great. Only then did the two cities stop fighting each other. It would be more than two centuries before Sumer was liberated from the Akkadians. By then, Umma and Lagash had finally learned to live in peace.


  1. do you have any information about the artists who created the pictures?

  2. Sorry. They're just pictures I grabbed off the internet.

    They are nice.