2550 B.C. is over 4,500 years ago. That is the age of one of, if not the world's earliest and most ancient legal documents.

Legal document because it was a binding peace treaty between two parties, two warring states of Mesopotamia.

Thus, it is also the world's oldest treaty, at least until, if ever, something older is dug up; unlikely as few civilizations existed at that time.

Most archaeologists mention the area then known as Mesopotamia as the birthplace of civilization. On the band of fertile land spreading between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, running in the direction from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. There lay, to the Eastern shores, Sumer, and the valley known as Gu'edena.

Sumer, a Mesopotamian civilization that existed from 3,500 to 1,900 BC, had glorious cities, each their own kings, and to each kingdom, sovereign rule over the surrounding land. Many were mentioned in ancient texts such as the Torah (the Old Testament of the Bible). These included, most notably, the city of Ur and Kish.

Entemena's pegLagash, with its capital at Girsu, and Umma, were lesser-known adjacent Sumerian kingdoms, and these two were only 20 miles apart. They  fought constantly over the stretch of the Gu'edena which ran between their two cities.

According to the treaty, dated to 2550 BC, the kingdoms of Lagash and Umma agreed to a set border between their two limitrophe territories, to be marked by a stele (in those days, a land border was marked by a large stone marker, a small stone pillar, called a stele).

The best record of the world's oldest treaty is now at the Louvre Museum in Paris, inscribed on the sides of a large clay peg (see image - also known as a clay nail or a foundation nail). In the style of the times, the inscription sets out the formal pronouncement of the historical record of the Lugash ruler, circa 2400 BC, Entemena. That cuneiform pronouncement, on the sides of the clay peg, refer to the original border treaty between Umma and Lagash as having been set by Mesilim (who lived in 2550). Because historians known when Mesilim lived, the date of the treaty is given as about 2550, although some authorities give the date the world's first treaty as occurring in 2600 and even 3100 BC.1

The treaty Mesilim imposed in 2550 had itself been written on a stele which was then placed on the new border. But it was later destroyed in events described on a clay peg of Entemena, well over a hundred years later:

"By the immutable word of Enlil, king of the lands, father of the gods, Ningirsu and Shara set a boundary to their lands. Mesilim, King of Kish, at the command of his deity Kadi, set up a stele in the plantation of that field.

"Ush, ruler of Umma, formed a plan to seize it. That stele he broke in pieces. Into the plain of Lagash he advanced.

"Ningirsu, the hero of Enlil, by his just command, made war upon Umma. At the command of Enlil, his great net ensnared them. He erected their burial mound on the plain in that place.

"Eannatum, ruler of Lagash, brother of the father of Entemena [who put up this inscription] ... for Enakalli, ruler of Umma, set the border to the land. He carried a canal from the great river to Guedin . He opened the field of Ningirsu on its border ... to the power of Umma. He ordered the royal field not to be seized. At the canal he inscribed a stele. He returned the stele of Mesilim to its place. He did not encroach on the plain of Mesilim. At the boundary-line of Ningirsu, as a protecting structure, he built the sanctuary of Enlil, the sanctuary of Ninkhursag....

"Urlumma, ruler of Umma drained the boundary canal of Ningirsu, the boundary canal of Nina. Those steles he threw into the fire, he broke (them) in pieces. He destroyed the sanctuaries, the dwellings of the gods, the protecting shrines, the buildings that had been made. He was as puffed up as the mountains; he crossed over the boundary canal of Ningirsu. Enannatum, ruler of Lagash, went into battle in the field of Ugigga, the irrigated field of Ningirsu. Entemena, the beloved son of Enannatum, completely overthrew him. Urlumma fled. In the midst of Umma he killed him. He left behind 60 soldiers of his force (dead) on the bank of the canal.... Then Ili, Priest of Ininni of Esh in Girsu, established as a vassal ruler over Umma.

"Ili, took the ruler of Umma into his hand. He drained the boundary canal of Ningirsu, a great protecting structure of Ningirsu, unto the bank of the Tigris above from the banks of Girsu. He took the grain of Lagash, a storehouse of 3600 gur . Entemena, ruler of Lagash declared hostilities on Ili, whom for a vassal he had set up. Ili, ruler of Umma, wickedly flooded the dyked and irrigated field; he commanded that the boundary canal of Ningirsu; the boundary canal of Nina be ruined.... Enlil and Ninkhursag did not permit [this to happen]. Entemena, ruler of Lagash, whose name was spoken by Ningirsu, restored their canal to its place according to the righteous word of Enlil, according to the righteous word of Nina, their canal which he had constructed from the river Tigris to the great river, the protecting structure, its foundation he had made of stone."

The document names the arbitrator, another king of Kish, Mesilim, who set the border, placed the stele and ordered that a canal be built to mark it.

The document suggests that soon after the stele was put in place, Umma gained the upper hand and began to routinely ignoring the border.

Another translation, by the Louvre Museum which owns the piece of legal history is set out at LawGallery >> The 2550 Peace Treaty of Mesilim.

In 2,400, according to another archaeological document known as the Stele of Vultures, the king of Lagash, Eannatum (also Ennatum) warred with Umma and won. He forced the Umma king to take an oath that his inhabitants would stick to their side of the canal.

The Stele of Vultures was discovered at Telloh, on the site of what used to be Girsu, but in fragments only. The reference to the treaty of 2,550 BC is hidden in the statements of religious celebration and pronouncements of the victory of Eannatum in 2450 BC. The name of the stele is taken from the sight of vultures feeding on the bodies of the 3,600 dead Umman soldiers. The Stele of the Vultures was again placed in a prominent position on the ancient dike-border where the destroyed stele of Mesilim had stood a hundred years earlier, and included this admonition:

"Let the man of Umma never cross the border of Ningirsu! Let him never damage the dyke or the ditch! Let him not move the stele! If he crosses the border, may the great net of Enlil, king of heaven and earth, by whom he has made oath, fall upon Umma!"

Eventually, the historic border became moot when a group known as the Akkad's defeated most of the Sumerian cities and brought them into a new kingdom called the Babylonian Empire, after their capital city of Babylon. Still, the two ancient neighbours fought intermittently for hundreds of years and the border moved with the fortunes of war.

Lagashian king Urukagina (the promoter of the 2350 BC Urukagina's Code), lost one of these wars to the Umma king Lugal Zagesi, who practically wiped out Girsu.

That lasted until Sargon, the leader of the Akkads (so called after their home city of Akkad, location still unknown) attacked and defeated Lugal Zagesi's forces and imposed the rule of the Akkadians - a unifying force that lasted from 2350 to 2000 BC.

All of this relative success of legal documents formed the background of legal codes as between ruler and citizen and citizen and citizen, including Urukagina's Code and, still 600 years later, Hammurabi's glorious code of law.

Note that the Mesilim's 2550 BC peace treaty is also featured in the LawGallery under "Documents".

REFERENCES:

  • Barton, George, A., "Inscription of Entemena #7", The Royal Inscriptions of Sumer and Akkad (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1929) p. 61-65.
  • Duhaime.org LawGallery re The Peace Treaty of Mesilim
  • Military leaders had the title of "Lugal" [NOTE 2]
  • Re 3100 BC, Phillips, Charl;es and Axelrod, Alan, Encyclopedia of Historical Treaties and Alliances, 2nd Ed. (New York: Facts on File Inc., 2006), volume 1, page 6. The Louvre Museum in Paris dates Mesilim's tenure as 2600 BC [Note 1].