Here's the One of the Oldest Peace Treaties from the Ancient World

Ur in War...and Peace

Here's part of the Stele of the Vultures, showing the captives in a net. DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images's head back to the Early Dynastic Period in ancient Mesopotamia: more specifically, the southern part, a.k.a. Sumer. Around 2500 B.C., the predominant polities, resulting from consolidation of power in small areas, were city-states; they began compete for domination of local resources and influence. Two in particular, Umma and Lagash, battled particularly hard, resulting in the Stele of the Vultures, one of the oldest historiographical monuments. Pretty epic. 

There are seven remaining fragments of the Stele of Vultures, now in the Louvre. Found on what was once the town of Girsu, part of Lagash's sphere of influence, it was erected by one Eannatum, ruler of Lagash, around 2460 B.C. The stele depicts Eannatum's version of his conflict with the neighboring city-state of Umma over a tract of land bordering both territories. The inscription on the stele is quite long, longer than most votive plaques, indicating that this is a new type of monument. One of the first monuments we know to be intended for public view, it's also one the first example historians have of ancient rules of war.

The stele has two sides: one historical and one mythological. The first features several different registers, most of which depict the military campaign waged by Lagash against Umma. A chronological narrative is divided into an easily readable tripartite story. One register depicts Eannatum, clad in a fleecy garment worn by kings (here, we see the development of the image of the warrior-king), and marches with tons of fierce soldiers with pikes. Lagash tramples its enemies into the ground. The second register shows a victory parade, soldiers marching behind their king, the next register brings to life funerary proceedings, in which the men of Lagash bury their massacred enemies.

On the reverse of the stele, we get the mythological story of how the divine forces intervened on behalf of Lagash. It's in direct contrast to the historiographic narrative featured on the previous side of the stele. According to Eannatum, he was the son of his city's patron god, Ningirsu. It's on behalf of Ningursu that Eannatum claims he went to war; after all, the city of Lagash and its boundaries belonged to the god himself, and it was sacrilege to transgress upon his land. Vultures swarm around the bodies, giving the stele its name.

Depicted most prominently on this side is Ningursu, holding the enemy soldiers of Umma in a giant net, the ​shushgal net. In one hand he holds the net; in the other is a mace, with which he smacks nude soldiers in the net. On top of the net sits a symbol of Ningursu, the mythical imdugud bird. Made up of an eagle body and a lion head, the hybrid creature personified the power of rainstorms. As Ningursu, shown as bigger than any human, single-handedly dominates these soldiers, we see the god as a wielder of power on his own; the king served the god of his city (and his putative father), not the other way around.

So this imagery is great, but what about the actual treaty between the kings of Lagash and Umma? Placed on the boundary between the two cities, this monument involved oaths to half a dozen really important Sumerian deities, who were always invoked in treaties as witnesses. The men of Umma were supposed to swear by Enlil, another important god, that they'd respect the boundary and the stele. In exchange for Umma giving up its claim to Lagash's land, though, Eannatum promised to rent another tract of territory to Umma. Later, though, it was revealed that Umma never paid rent, so the cities went to war again. Eannatum's successor, Enmetena, had to push his enemies back again.

In addition to creating a new treaty, Eannatum showed himself a restorer of old monuments, reaffirming himself as a builder-king in the vein of his predecessors, as he rebuilt a stele put up there by King Mesalim of Kish years earlier. 

Sources include Zainab Bahrani's classes at Columbia University.