Reforms of Urukagina – oldest “Bill of Rights”

Preserved on two complete cones and one cone fragment, the text of the so-called Reforms of UruKAgina details the transgressions of former times and the new regulations of UruKAgina. The reforms are particularly concerned with the governance of the land of the gods and rules relating to burials. The text has been seen as a forerunner to the later law-codes but is probably better seen as a royal inscription with a particular focus on the role of the king as protector of the weak.

The Oxen of the Gods the Garlic Plots of the Ruler did Plow

For Ningirsu, the hero of Enlil,
Urukagina, king of Lagash,
the palace Tirash he built,
and the Antasura {temple} he built.

The temple of Bau he built for her,
the pantry(?), her house of regular provisions,
he built for her,
and her sheep-plucking shed of the Holy City
he built for her.

For Nanshe, the Canal Going to Nigin,
her beloved canal, he dug,
and its outlet into the center of the sea
he extended.

The wall of Girsu he built for him (Ningirsu).

From distant times,
from when the seed (of life first) came forth,
in those days
by the chief of the boatmen boats were seized,
donkeys by the head herdsman were seized,
sheep by the head herdsman were seized,
fish stores by the fisheries inspector were seized,
{Officials could seize private property.}

By the lustration priests {excessive} grain taxes
in (the locality of) Ambar were measured out.

The shepherds of wool-bearing sheep
instead of a pure(?) sheep put silver.
{Rather than making a costly offering of pure (flawless} sheep,
 a bribe to the temple administrators was given instead.}
The surveyor, the chief lamentation singer,
the steward, the brewer, and all the foremen
instead of a young lamb put silver.

The oxen of the gods
the garlic plots of the ruler did plow,
and in the best fields of the gods
were where the garlic plots and cucumber plots
of the ruler were located.
{The ruler took the best plots of land for himself
 and used the temple oxen to plow his fields.}

Team donkeys and unblemished oxen
were the ones that for the temple administrators
were harnessed,
and the barley of the temple administrators
to the teams of the ruler was distributed.
{The temple administrators also used the temple oxen to plow
 their personal tracts of land, and gave a “kickback” of grain
 for the ruler to look the other way.}

A mongoose-ear garment, a …-holding garment,
an outer(?) garment, a draped(?) linen …,
naked(?) flax, flax tied with cord,
a bronze helmet, a bronze arrowhead,
a bronze …, gleaming leather,
wings (feathers?) of a yellow crow, cumin,
…,
a goat with its fleece,
(the preceding) by the temple administrators
(as payment) for the il-tax  were delivered (to the palace).
{Taxes were collected from the people by the temple administrators,
 then given to the ruler.} 
  
The … administrator in the orchard of the poor
cut down trees, and with reed twine tied them (in bundles).
{The fruit trees of the poor were cut down for firewood.}
    
{The following records the high cost of burial in Sumer.
 The fees were paid in barter to the priests: “death and taxes”.}
For a corpse being brought to the grave,
his beer was seven jugs, and his bread 420 loaves.
Two barig (72 l.) of hazi-barley, one woolen garment,
one lead goat, and one bed the undertaker took away,
and one barig (36 l.) of barley the person(s) of … took away.
When (for burial) into the reeds of Enki a person was brought,
his beer was seven jugs and his bread 420 loaves.
Two barig of barley, one woolen garment, one bed, and one chair
the undertaker took away,
and one barig of barley the person(s) of … took away.
The craftmen {ferry boatmen} were the ones who did get,
and it was paired-workmen who
the ferry toll for the main gate (of the netherworld) did get.

The household of the ruler and the fields of the ruler,
the household of the Woman’s House and the fields of the Woman’s House,
and the household of the (royal) children and the fields of the children
were all set side by side(?)
{This added up to a large estate for the ruler. Generally, land was allotted 
 only to adult male heads of household, not to women and children.
 This is a direct reference to Urukagina’s predecessor, Lugalanda,
 who appropriated land in the name of his wife and children.}

{There was a bloated and corrupt bureaucracy.}
From the border territory of Ningirsu to the waters of the sea
ones who served as (court) officers were present (everywhere).
When a royal subordinate on the narrow side of his field
built his well, blind workers were appropriated for it,
and for the irrigation channels(?) located within the field
blind workers were (also) appropriated.
As the customs were, it was.

When Ningirsu, the hero of Enlil,
to Urukagina the kingship of Lagash had given,
and from the myriad people had grasped his hand,
the fates of former times he restored,
and the commands which his master
Ningirsu had spoken to him he seized upon.

From the boats the chief of the boatmen he removed,
from the donkeys and from the sheep
their head herdsmen he removed,
from the fish stores the fisheries inspector he removed,
from (control over) the grain taxes of the lustration priests
the granary supervisor he removed,
for the instead of pure(?) sheep and instead of young lambs
the officers (responsible) for it he removed,
and as for the taxes which the temple administrators
to the palace had delivered, the officers (responsible) for them
he removed.
   
Over the household of the ruler and the fields of the ruler
Ningirsu as their master he assigned.
Over the household of the Woman’s House, and the fields of the Woman’s House,
Bau as their mistress he assigned.
Over the household of the children and over the fields of the children
Shulshagana was their master.
{Urukagina confiscates the property of the ruler
 and places it under the jurisdiction of the temples.}
From the border territory of Ningirsu
to the waters of the sea
no {corrupt?} persons shall serve as (court) officers.
{Surely not all of the officials were dismissed.}

{Urukagina decrees lower burial costs.}
For a corpse being brought to the grave,
his beer will be 3 jugs and his bread eighty loaves.
One bed and one lead goat the undertaker shall take away,
and three ban (18 l.) of barley the person(s) of … shall take away.
    
When to the reeds of Enki a person has been brought,
his beer will be 4 jugs  and his bread 420 loaves.
One barig (36 l.) of barley the undertaker shall take away,
and three ban of barley the person(s) of … shall take away.
One woman’s head band(?), and one sila (1 l.) of princely fragrance
the eresh-dingir priestess shall take away.

{New “wage controls”:}
420 loaves of bread that have sat are the bread duty,
40 loaves of hot bread are for eating,
and 10 loaves of hot bread are the bread of the table.
5 loaves of bread are for the persons (in charge) of the levy,
2 mud vessels and 1 sadug vessel of beer of Girsu.

490 loaves of bread, 2 mud vessels and 1 sadug vessel of beer
are for the lamentation singers of Lagash.
406 loaves of bread, 1 mud vessel and 1 sadug vessel of beer
are for the (other) lamentation singers.
    
{Charity for the poor: }
250 loaves of bread and 1 mud vessel of beer
are for the old wailing women.
180 loaves of bread and 1 mud vessel of beer
are for the old men of Nigin.

The blind one who in … stands,
his bread for eating is one loaf,
five loaves are his bread at midnight,
one loaf is his bread at midday,
and six loaves are his bread at evening.
    
60 loaves of bread, 1 mud vessel of beer, and three ban of barley
are for the person who is to perform as the sagbur-priest.

The ferry toll for the main gate of the paired-workmen he revoked.
The craftsmen’s bread for the Raised Hand (ritual) he revoked.
By the …-administrator the orchard of the poor was not carried away.

{Urukagina decrees that people cannot be forced to sell to their superiors,
 they can name their own price, and they are protected against retaliation.}
When to a royal subordinate a fine donkey has been born,
and his foreman: “I want to buy it!” has said to him,
whether he lets him buy it from him
and: “The silver that will satisfy me pay me!” he has said to him,
or whether he does not let him buy it from him,
the foreman in anger must not strike him.

When to the house of an aristocrat
the house of a royal subordinate lies adjacent,
and that aristocrat: “I want to buy it from you!” has said to him,
whether he lets him buy it from him,
and: “The silver that will satisfy me pay me!” {or} 
“My house is a cauldron, fill it up with barley for me!” he has said to him,
or whether he does not let him buy it from him,
that aristocrat the royal subordinate in anger he must not strike.

(All these things) he commanded.
As for the citizens of Lagash,
the one living in debt,
the one who had set up a (false) gur measure
and had lowered (the amounts of) barley,
the thief, and the one who had killed,
their prison he cleared out,
and their remission (of obligations, ama-gi4) he established 
{It sounds as if an amnesty was declared for everyone, even thieves and murderers.}

That the orphan or widow to the powerful will not be subjugated,
with Ningirsu Urukagina made a binding agreement as to that command.
{Two hundred years later, Gudea would make a similar decree: 
  “To provide protection for the orphan against the rich, and to provide 
  protection for the widow against the powerful.”}

In that year
The Little Canal Which Girsu Had Gotten,
for Ningirsu he dug, and its former name he restored.
Canal Ningirsu Has Authority from Nippur
Urukagina named it for him,
and the Canal Going to Nigin he extended it for him.

Uru-ka-ginaUru-inim-gina, or Iri-ka-gina (Sumerian: 𒌷𒅗𒄀𒈾 URU-KA-gi.na; c. 24th century BC, middle chronology) was King of the city-states of Lagash and Girsu in Mesopotamia, and the last ruler of the 1st Dynasty of Lagash. He assumed the title of king, claiming to have been divinely appointed, upon the downfall of his corrupt predecessor, Lugalanda.

He is best known for his reforms to combat corruption, which are sometimes cited as the first example of a legal code in recorded history. Although the actual text has not been discovered, much of its content may be surmised from other references to it that have been found. In it, he exempted widows and orphans from taxes; compelled the city to pay funeral expenses (including the ritual food and drink libations for the journey of the dead into the lower world); and decreed that the rich must use silver when purchasing from the poor, and if the poor does not wish to sell, the powerful man (the rich man or the priest) cannot force him to do so.

He also participated in several conflicts, notably a losing border conflict with Uruk. In the seventh year of his reign, Uruk fell under the leadership of Lugal-Zage-Si, énsi of Umma, who ultimately annexed most of the territory of Lagash and established the first reliably documented kingdom to encompass all of Sumer. The destruction of Lagash was described in a lament (possibly the earliest recorded example of what would become a prolific Sumerian literary genre), which stressed that “the men of Umma … committed a sin against Ningirsu. … Offence there was none in Urukagina, king of Girsu, but as for Lugal-Zage-Si, governor of Umma, may his goddess Nisaba make him carry his sin upon his neck” (alternatively – “may she carry his sin upon her neck”). Lugal-Zage-Si himself was soon defeated and his kingdom was annexed by Sargon of Akkad.

Reforms

Urukagina’s code has been widely hailed as the first recorded example of government reform, seeking to achieve a higher level of freedom and equality. It limited the power of the priesthood and large property owners, and took measures against usury, burdensome controls, hunger, theft, murder, and seizure (of people’s property and persons); as he states, “The widow and the orphan were no longer at the mercy of the powerful man”. Here, the word “freedom” (“ama-gi”), appears for the first time in recorded history.

Despite these apparent attempts to curb the excesses of the elite class, it seems elite or royal women enjoyed even greater influence and prestige in his reign than previously. Urukagina greatly expanded the royal “Household of Women” from about 50 persons to about 1500 persons, renamed it the “Household of goddess Bau”, gave it ownership of vast amounts of land confiscated from the former priesthood, and placed it under the supervision of his wife, Shasha (or Shagshag). In his second year of reign, Shasha presided over the lavish funeral of his predecessor’s queen, Baranamtarra, who had been an important personage in her own right.

In addition to such changes, two of his other surviving decrees, first published and translated by Samuel Kramer in 1964, have attracted controversy in recent decades. First, he seems to have abolished the former custom of polyandry in his country, on pain of the woman taking multiple husbands being stoned with rocks upon which her crime is written. Second is a statute stating that “if a woman says [text illegible…] to a man, her mouth is crushed with burnt bricks.” No comparable laws from Urukagina addressing penalties for adultery by men have survived. The discovery of these fragments has led some modern critics to assert that they provide “the first written evidence of the degradation of women”.

Excerpt of some regulations from the Reform document

“Reforms” cone of Urukagina

Cone of Urukagina,
Louvre Museum
AO 3278.

Cone of Urukagina (transcription). Here Urukagina appears as “King of Lagash” 

  • From the border territory of Ningirsu to the sea, no person shall serve as officers.
  • For a corpse being brought to the grave, his beer shall be 3 jugs and his bread 80 loaves. One bed and one lead goat shall the undertaker take away, and 3 ban (18 l.) of barley shall the person(s) take away.
  • When to the reeds of Enki a person has been brought, his beer will be 4 jugs, and his bread 420 loaves. One barig (36 l.) of barley shall the undertaker take away, and 3 ban of barley shall the persons of … take away. One woman’s headband, and one sila (1 l.) of princely fragrance shall the eresh-dingir priestess take away. 420 loaves of bread that have sat are the bread duty, 40 loaves of hot bread are for eating, and 10 loaves of hot bread are the bread of the table. 5 loaves of bread are for the persons of the levy, 2 mud vessels and 1 sadug vessel of beer are for the lamentation singers of Girsu. 490 loaves of bread, 2 mud vessels and 1 sadug vessel of beer are for the lamentation singers of Lagash. 406 loaves of bread, 2 mud vessels, and 1 sadug vessel of beer are for the other lamentation singers. 250 loaves of bread and one mud vessel of beer are for the old wailing women. 180 loaves of bread and 1 mud vessel of beer are for the men of Nigin.
  • The blind one who stands in …, his bread for eating is one loaf, 5 loaves of bread are his at midnight, one loaf is his bread at midday, and 6 loaves are his bread in the evening.
  • 60 loaves of bread, 1 mud vessel of beer, and 3 ban of barley are for the person who is to perform as the sagbur priest, king, or god.
  • Cone fragment inscribed with part of the text of the reforms of Uruinimgina (Urukagina) – Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago
  • Reform cone of Urukagina
    Louvre Museum
    AO 3149
  • Transcription of cone AO3149. Urkagina appears as “King of Lagash”.
  • The Reforms of Urukagina. 20th century reconstitution.
  • Reform text of Urukagina, king of Lagash. From Girsu, Iraq. 24th century BCE. Ancient Orient Museum, Istanbul

Praise poem of Urukagina

An account of barley rations issued monthly to adults and children written in Cuneiform on clay tablet, written in year 4 of King Urukagina (circa 2350 BC). From Girsu, Iraq. British Museum, London.

Some insight into Sumerian values can be gained from praise poems written for kings. While the kings may not always live up to this praise they show the type of achievements that they wished to be remembered by. Extracts below praise Urukagina who appears as a social reformer, getting rid of gross abuses of power that had taken hold in Lagash.

  1. Since time immemorial, since life began, in those days, the head boatman appropriated boats, the livestock official appropriated asses, the livestock official appropriated sheep, and the fisheries inspector appropriated…. The shepherds of wool sheep paid a duty in silver on account of white sheep, and the surveyor, chief lamentation-singer, supervisor, brewer and foremen paid a duty in silver on account of young lambs. . . These were the conventions of former times!
  2. When Ningirsu, warrior of Enlil, granted the kingship of Lagash to Urukagina, selecting him from among the myriad people, he replaced the customs of former times, carrying out the command that Ningirsu, his master, had given him.
  3. He removed the head boatman from control over the boats, he removed the livestock official from control over asses and sheep, he removed the fisheries inspector from control….
  4. He removed the silo supervisor from control over the grain taxes of the guda-priests, he removed the bureaucrat responsible for the paying of duties in silver on account of white sheep and young lambs, and he removed the bureaucrat responsible for the delivery of duties by the temple administrators to the palace.
  5. The… administrators no longer plunder the orchards of the poor. When a high quality ass is born to a shublugal, and his foreman says to him, “I want to buy it from you”; whether he lets him buy it from him and says to him “Pay me the price I want!,” or whether he does not let him buy it from him, the foreman must not strike at him in anger.
  6. When the house of an aristocrat adjoins the house of a shublugal, and the aristocrat says to him, “I want to buy it from you”; whether he lets him buy it from him, having said to him, “Pay me the price I want! My house is a large container—fill it with barley for me!,” or whether he does not let him buy it from him, that aristocrat must not strike at him in anger.
  7. He cleared and cancelled obligations for those indentured families, citizens of Lagash living as debtors because of grain taxes, barley payments, theft or murder.
  8. Urukagina solemnly promised Ningirsu that he would never subjugate the waif and the widow to the powerful.

Lament about the fall of Lagash to Umma

Lamentation about the fall of Lagash

Lamentation about the fall of Lagash to Lugalzagesi, Urukagina period, circa 2350 BCE Tello, ancient Girsu.

Transcription of the lamentation about the fall of Lagash: “The man of Umma set fire to the Ekisurra…”. Here Urukagina appears as “King of Girsu”

Urukagina participated in several conflicts, notably a losing border conflict with Uruk. In the seventh year of his reign, Uruk fell under the leadership of Lugal-Zage-Si, énsi of Umma, who ultimately annexed most of the territory of Lagash and established the first reliably documented kingdom to encompass all of Sumer. The destruction of Lagash was described in a lament (possibly the earliest recorded example of what would become a prolific Sumerian literary genre), which stressed that:

“the man of Umma (Lugalzagesi) … committed a sin against Ningirsu. … Offence there was none in Urukagina, king of Girsu, but as for Lugal-Zage-Si, governor of Umma, may his goddess Nisaba make him carry his sin upon his neck” (alternatively – “may she carry his sin upon her neck”).

Lugal-Zage-Si himself was soon defeated and his kingdom was annexed by Sargon of Akkad.

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