Eannatum: The First Conqueror? Part I


Between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, lies a land known as Mesopotamia. It was here that men found suitable land, which they pierced, ripped, and seeded. Once the seeds took root, civilization was born. Lagash, like other city-states of its time, shared control over resources and social actives between the palace and temple. The temple controlled a great amount of land and exerted a powerful influence over the people. The palace authority controlled as much if not more land than the temple. This was fine until later on, when the palace was able to wield an even greater influence over the people.

Map showing Lagash located near the shoreline of the gulf

Map showing Lagash located near the shoreline of the gulf. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In doing so, the king was able to amalgamate the palace with the temple, in which the king saw himself as god’s own representative on earth. If god chose the king, then the temple must obey. This placed the temple in a predicament. However, this does not mean there would never be strife again between the palace and temple authorities. So long as they existed side by side, the desire to control and hold a monopoly over the other’s institution was desirable, especially if one wished to control the masses.

Relief of Ur-Nanshe, King of Lagash and grandfather of Eannatum. Early Dynastic III (2550–2500 BC). (Public Domain)

The First Conqueror?

Enter Eannatum, King of Lagash (c. 2455-2425 BCE), who established the first Mesopotamian empire in history through constant warring. But how did Eannatum achieve this, how did he create the first verifiable empire in history?

Eannatum, son of King Akurgal of Lagash ascended the throne due to his father getting into a bit of a squabble with his northwestern neighbors the city-state of Umma. Eannatum’s spat with the city-state of Umma led him on a quest for dominance in the region, which would ultimately ruin his empire.

The city of Lagash was located northwest of the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and east of the city Uruk. Lagash was a fertile area, with irrigation canals feeding its crops via the Shatt al-Gharraf channel that filtered in water from the rivers. Lagash grew bountiful crops due to fertile land and its location made it a prime economic powerhouse when it came to commerce, all due to the waterways. Commercial competition with other city-states was healthy. However, like all city-states, there comes a time when hostility rises and the need to settle disputes requires war.

A War For Water

Eannatum, upon receiving his power, understood that Lagash security relied on its water supply from the Shatt al-Gharraf. However, his neighbor, the city-state of Umma, also bordered this very channel on the western bank. The chief cause of hostility is unknown, according to some historians. However, it seems obvious that the conflict was over water.

Water is a precious resource and was especially so in Mesopotamia. Water could make or break kingdoms and alliances. Umma held this one strategic advantage over Lagash. Cutting the water supply to the city would hinder crop growth in their region thus causing domestic food shortages and trade issues via waterway, effectively crippling the commerce in Lagash and sending prices upward on all commodities. This, in turn, would cause the locals to either fight or pack-up and seek greener pastures.

Conflict between Lagash and Umma was common. Enmetena, son of Eannatum II and nephew of the famed conqueror Eannatum I, records the history of this conflict on a cone known as the “Enmetena Cone.” The first war between the two powers was over the fertile fields of the Guedena. 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.

One of the oldest diplomatic documents known, on a clay nail, by King Entemena, c 2400 BC.

One of the oldest diplomatic documents known, on a clay nail, by King Entemena, c 2400 BC. (Public Domain)

Kings and Gods of War

The inscription is an entanglement of religion and the state. Enlil was the main Sumerian god. Therefore, Enlil is the judge, jury, and executioner. Enlil is the god who fixes the boundaries and terrestrial estates of the lesser gods. His will cannot be changed and his decisions final, regardless of divine assembly. However, each city-state has a patron god. The god Ningirsu represented the city of Lagash. The god Shara represented the city of Umma.

Lagash made the argument that the borders were already set in place and Enlil was in favor of them retaining control over Guedena. Umma saw it differently. Therefore, a mediator was needed to settle the dispute. That mediator was Mesalim, king of Kish. The title “King of Kish” means “King of the world or King of Kings.” Mesalim was the supreme overseer of the Sumerian lands, which was the civilized world to these people. Mesalim’s decision was final regardless of the moral argument.

Inscription: "Ur-Namma, king of Ur, king of Sumer and Akkad, the one who built the temple of Enlil”. Foundation figure, c. 2075 BCE

Inscription: “Ur-Namma, king of Ur, king of Sumer and Akkad, the one who built the temple of Enlil”. Foundation figure, c. 2075 BCE (CC BY 2.0) “ The figure depicts the king carrying a basket containing the mud to make the temple’s bricks. The first brick was modeled by the king himself, who is represented in the occupation considered the lowliest in Mesopotamia–‘carrying the basket’–for in the presence of the gods the king was a humble servant.”

Mesalim’s final decision was to build a trench along with a levee on either side to separate the two territories. Finally, a stele was erected at the border indicating his decision. However, the decision made by Mesalim favored Lagash more so than Umma over the water rights and the fertile fields of the Guedena. The reason for this decision is unknown. However, could it be possible that Lagash was more powerful than Umma?

According to Mesalim, Enlil favored the stronger of the two. However, all gods aside, Mesalim likely chose Lagash because Lagash had a much stronger economy; this would provide the means to afford a strong military and could provide more to the loosely knit confederation of the Sumerian city-states in a time of crisis than Umma could. Therefore, in essence, the King of Kish picked the winners and losers of Sumer.

Victory Granted – But to Whom?

This was not the end of the border dispute between the two city-states. Later, Ush, ruler of Umma, marched to the border, smashed Mesalim’s stele, and advanced into Lagash territory. Ush proceeded with his forces to seize the fertile fields of Guedena. Ush would be defeated from any further advance by an unknown Lagash king.

The Sumerian inscriptions state that “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.” The victory was granted to the patron god of the city of Lagash. The reason there is no mention of the Lagash king of the time is that Enmetena, son of Eannatum and the great-grandson of Ur-Nanshe, wrote the story.

Ur-Nashe was the founder of the dynasty from which Enmetena came from. The man who defeated Ush had to be none other than Lugal-sha-engur, the predecessor of King Ur-Nanshe. So why would Enmetena not mention Lugal-sha-engur’s victory over Ush? Simple, Enmetena was not interested in giving thanks or glory to a dynasty that was not his own.

Vase dedicated by Entemena, king of Lagash, to Ningirsu. Silver and copper, ca. 2400 BC. Found in Telloh, ancient city of Girsu.

Vase dedicated by Entemena, king of Lagash, to Ningirsu. Silver and copper, ca. 2400 BC. Found in Telloh, ancient city of Girsu. (Public Domain)

Eannatum the Conqueror

One would think that Eannatum’s military campaign early in his reign would have begun by attacking Umma. However, the “Boulder Inscription” suggests otherwise. Instead of going straight for Umma, he turned his attentions to the troublesome Elamites, and he “conquered Elam” and ripped up their “burial mounds.” After subjugating Elam, he turned his forces towards the city-state of Urua, which he quickly conquered—and of course, ripped apart their burial mounds. The city-state of Umma, his archenemy, was next on his hit list, and they too suffered the same fate. After Umma, he defeated the city-states of Uruk, Ur, and Kiutu. Iriaz was destroyed and its ruler put to the sword. Mishime suffered destruction and Arua was obliterated. After some time, Zuzu, the king of Akshak, rose up, challenged Eannatum, and he was obliterated. However, Eannatum was not finished, as he turned his attentions towards the city-states of Kish, Akshak, and Mari, which were all defeated. However, a question remains, why did Eannatum conquer the city-states mentioned and what were his motives?

Eannatum’s Hit List

Why did Eannatum’s tour start with Elam? The Elamites were a troublesome hill people. In many ways, they were still partly nomadic at the time. In other words, they had moved past being hunter-gatherers and had established a civilization like those living in Mesopotamia. However, they still clung to nomadic methods of warfare such as raiding. An example is the destruction of Ur, which came much later. The actions of this event are found in The Lament of Ur, which states, “Enlil brought down the Elamites, the enemy, from the highlands … Fire approached Ninmarki in the shrine of Gu-aba. Large boats were carrying off its silver and lapis lazuli.” This type of pillage-and-run tactic likely became monotonous to those living nearest to them.

One would think that Eannatum would have dealt with Umma first. They were, after all, the archenemy of Lagash, and due to their weakness, they would have made a prime target. However, Eannatum saw an economic opportunity. He was confident that his military forces could protect Lagash while the main body was sent to conquer and confiscate the lands of Elam. Elam was a much bigger prize than Umma. Eannatum’s conquest of Elam gave him the resources needed to provide an army on the march. The lands of Elam were rich in timber, precious metals, and stone. Of these resources, one sticks out as the major factor in Eannatum’s conquest of Elam: tin. Elam had tin mines that dotted the Zagros Mountains. Moreover, there were valuable trade routes that ran through Elam from the east. Not only did Elam produce its own tin, (although how much they produced is uncertain), but also the mining and transportation of tin went beyond the Iranian plateau. Tin was rarer than copper during these times and rarely used as a pure metal. Without tin to accompany the copper, the manufacturing of bronze weapons was impossible.

The city-state of Urua was next. The location of Urua was located in the northwestern Iranian province of Khuzistan, which means Urua was within the vicinity of Elam. The importance of conquering Urua was due to its strategic location. Urua is located on the Susiana plain, which controls the passage that leads into what would be later the southern portion of Babylonia.

Umma was next on Eannatum hit list. As mentioned, Umma held a strategic advantage over Lagash due to Shatt al-Gharraf waterway, which bordered Umma. By conquering Umma, Lagash would have sole control over the waterway that filtered in water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Furthermore, Lagash would safely and securely control the fertile fields of Guedena.

Eannatum’s tour of Elam, Urua, and Umma paid off. Eannatum controlled provinces and regions rich with resources. He had metal to produce weapons and fertile fields to grow food—both of which were used to feed and arm his forces. Eannatum was far from finished. With an increase in resource-rich lands came an increase in manpower to replenish and increase the size of his ranks. Eannatum was drunk with power and looked west to quench his thirst.

With Eannatum’s eastern flank secured, the west was ripe for the taking.

Top Image: Statue of Gudea, prince of Lagash (long after King Eannatum) neo-Sumerian period, 2120 BC (Public Domain) and a fragment of the Stele of the Vultures (CC BY-SA 3.0);Deriv.

By Cam Rea


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