Lagash in Mesopotamia: Gudea & Explanation

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the ancient Mesopotamian city-state of Lagash. Though relatively undistinguished as a force in the region, the city-state of Lagash was a cultural and artistic center of the ancient world.

Hidden Gems

Have you ever gotten something positive from the last place you expected? Perhaps that one lazy, unemployed friend actually bought the pizza one Friday night, or maybe the IRS gave you more than you expected on your tax return? Regardless of the situation, the occurrence - however rare - was surely a pleasant surprise for you.

For historians and anthropologists, the ancient Sumerian city-state of Lagash is just one of those pleasant surprises. Though the city-state itself had a relatively brief history as a major political player in the ancient Fertile Crescent region, the wealth of artifacts left behind by its culturally vibrant society - especially under King Gudea - has given historians a huge helping hand in understanding the politics, culture, and everyday life of ancient Mesopotamia.

Early Lagash

The ancient city-state of Lagash was situated along the banks of the Tigris in what is today Iraq, to the northwest of the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. Historians do not know exactly when the city-state of Lagash was founded, but it was a large enough force in the region that by 2550 B.C. a third party was required to draw Lagash's border with its contentious neighbor to the west, Umma. Umma and Lagash had numerous conflicts over the fertile agricultural land that lay between them in the third millennium B.C.

Rough map of Mesopotamian cities in the 3rd millennium, B.C.
Rough map of Mesopotamian cities in the 3rd millennium, B.C.

According to the records found during numerous excavations, the city-state of Lagash was culturally vibrant, though it was controlled by several other states and rulers during its history. From its founding up until approximately 2500 B.C., Lagash was ruled by rotating priest-kings.

At about 2500 B.C., a king independent from religious duties, Ur-Nanshe, began a dynasty that ruled Lagash for nearly three centuries. From approximately 2300-2200 B.C., Lagash slowly lost its independence as it was conquered by the Akkadians from the west, eventually submitting control of the city to Sargon I, who reinstalled the priests as his vassals and the city-state's governors.

Lagash at its Height: King Gudea

When the Akkadian Empire itself was destroyed by the Gutians, Lagash experienced a cultural and political revival, reaching its apex under King Gudea, who ruled Lagash from 2144 - 2124 B.C. An outsider who married into the royal family, Gudea fostered the city's cultural and economic growth. He built more irrigation canals to be used in times of drought and commissioned the building of many temples, statues, and other artistic enterprises. We even have some idea of what Gudea looked like, as he commissioned many statues of himself to be placed at important points in Lagash, and several survive to this day.

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