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In Sumerian the name of the Euphrates River is BURANUN; in Akkadian, ÍD.KIB.NUN.KI (lit., “Sippar River”); in Assyro-Babylonian, Purattu; in Old Persian, Ufratu; and in Greek, Eufrates. The river originates in eastern Turkey and flows into the Arab-Persian Gulf, a distance of almost 2,700 km (1,674 mi.), making it the longest river in western Asia. It currently traverses three modern Near Eastern states and a tiny part of a fourth. The total area of the Euphrates basin is 444,000 sq km (275,280 sq. mi.), of which 27 percent (125,000) is found in Turkey, 18 percent (76,000 sq km) in Syria, 40 percent (177,000 sq km) in Iraq, and 15 percent (66,000 sq km) in Saudi Arabia (Wakil, 1993, p. 67); 84 percent of its waters originates in Turkey, 13 percent in Syria, and 3 percent in Iraq. South of the Balikh and Khabur Rivers, rainfall ceases to be an important contributing factor to the Euphrates flow. The annual rate of flow fluctuates, depending on the climatic conditions affecting runoff and recharge. During the flood stage (March–June), when meltwater from eastern Anatolia Taurus ranges and spring rains are at their peak, 70 percent of the annual flow is generated. The summer low (July–October) generates only 10 percent of the annual flow, and the rainy season (November–February) creates the remainder: 20 percent of annual flow. The rate of flow fluctuates correspondingly. Within the Middle Euphrates area, reports of rate flow vary from 840 to more than 1,000 cu m per second) (Hardan, 1993, pp. 75–78; Tomanbay, 1993, p. 60; Akkermans, 1990a, p. 123; Sanlaville, 1985, p. 24). The annual rate also varies from year to year, with a typical average for several years reported at 2,600 million cu m per year (Sanlaville, 1985, p. 24).

The river can be divided into a number of distinct geographic units, depending on geomorphological conditions. First, the Upper Euphrates is found in eastern Anatolia, Turkey (from the Turkish perspective, the Lower Euphrates). There, two separate branches can be considered the source of the river. The western branch, the Kara Su, begins in a small lake north of Erzurum and flows west. The eastern branch, the Murat Su, also begins as a small lake east of Erzurum and flows west, paralleling the Kara Su. The two branches join north of Malatya to form the Euphrates (Tk., Firat) proper. Crossing the Taurus and the front range, the river then flows several hundred kilometers in a southerly direction, until it enters the Syrian plain at ancient Carchemish. There, the Middle Euphrates (sometimes called the Upper Jezireh) receives its Syrian tributaries; first, the Sadjur (100 million cu m per year), then the Balikh (190 million cu m per year), just below ar-Raqqa, draining a large area to the north, and finally the Khabur at Bouqras (1,575 cu m per year). The river crosses into Iraq at Abu Kemal, near the site of ancient Mari. [See Carchemish; Raqqa, ar-; Bouqras; Mari.]

From the Khabur south, until Ramadi, the Middle Euphrates area is often called the Lower Jezireh (steppe), and the river is entrenched between this landform to the east and the Arabian plateau to the west. It does not enter the Mesopotamian floodplain until well south of Hit, 160 km (99 mi.) from the Iraqi-Syrian border (Sanlaville, 1985, p. 19). The current 250-millimeter isohyet in this region of the Jezireh determines the difference between dry farming, irrigation, and the development of pastoral nomadism (Zarins, 1990, fig. 3; Sanlaville, 1985, p. 20). [See Agriculture; Irrigation; Pastoral Nomadism.] The Lower Euphrates consists of a series of subgeomorphological units:

Alluvial plain. A typical alluvial plain of braiding streams creates natural levees, or river embankments, characterized by seasonal inundation and alluvial flats. Siltation and salt become problems as transported silts in the water (from repeated evaporation in alluvial basins or irrigated flats) cause channel closing and salinization. The river reaches its closest point to the Tigris River near ancient Sippar and modern Baghdad. [See Sippar; Baghdad.] There, it enters the delta plain and divides into two branches.

Delta plain. The main branch in the delta plain, the Hindiyah, flows to Samawa; the minor branch, the Hilla, continues past ancient Babylon and Kish to Diwaniya, joining the Hindiyah past Samawa. [See Babylon; Kish.]

Marsh/lake. The river creates a marsh/lake environment as it flows past Nasiriyyah, skirting north of Lake Hammar, then joining the Tigris at Qurmat Ali. The combined streams form the Shatt al-Arab in the estuarine zone.

Estuarine zone. The single stream of the Shatt al-Arab flows past Basra, where it is joined by the Karun and Karkheh Rivers from Iran. All four flow past Abadan and create a delta near Fao as they empty into the Arab-Persian Gulf. In this area, the pinching Batin and Karun and Karkheh River deltas constrict the modern Shatt al-Arab (Buringh, 1957; Sanlaville, 1989).

Ten existing dams are currently operating on the river system. The Hindiyah barrage is the oldest, having been built In 1911–1914. (The others are the Keban, Karakaya, Atatürk, Tabqa, Haditha, Baghdadi, Ramadi, Falluja, and Hilla.) The latest dams, such as the Ataturk in Turkey, were completed In 1990. On-line (i.e., functioning) dams such as the Keban in Turkey, the Tabqa in Syria, and Haditha in Iraq have created unique archaeological opportunities in areas otherwise poorly known (see below). Additional dams are in various stages of construction or planning on the river or its tributaries—particularly in Turkey and Syria (Khata, Bireçik, Carchemish, Saab, Shouher, Taaf). As a result of modernization plans, annual usage will be increased dramatically both for agricultural and industrial use. Because the river flows through three countries, future regulation of the Euphrates's waters is essential—a situation exacerbated by increasing competition for its waters and an incomplete understanding of the amount of water available annually.

Geological examination of the river's history has been spotty. Little is known from the source areas and the upper region; the Lower Euphrates has been more intensively examined. Initial work in the Middle Euphrates area suggests that the entire system originated in the Miocene graben, or depression, with subsequent Pliocene-Pleistocene depressions leading to the creation of a modern Euphrates. Tectonic movement during those two periods largely determined the course of fossil and present-day streams (Akkermans, 1990a, p. 122; 1990b, pp. 15–17). In Syria, terrace remains are attributed to multiple periods, from the Lower through the Upper Pleistocene. At Mari, Paul Sanlaville suggests that a four-terrace system (T4-T1) can be recognized, with the highest at +40 m. The middle terrace (+20–30 m) belongs to the Lower Paleolithic (c. 250,000 BP), and the +5–8-meter terrace has been identified as belonging to the Würm (Sanlaville, 1985, p. 22, fig. 4).

In Iraq, researchers have suggested that three or more terrace systems may belong to the Middle Pleistocene (Paepe, 1971). Perhaps as far back as 500,000 years ago, and as recently as 10,000 years ago, the Euphrates on the central Iraqi alluvial plain was part of a single river system emanating from Wadi Tharthar. Alluviation and tectonic activity not only created terraces but the current Euphrates River valley. (Paepe, 1971). Bifaces found on several of the highest terraces suggest a clear-cut Lower–Middle Paleolithic affiliation.

The Wadi Rimah/Wadi al-Batin complex, draining some 70,000 sq km (43,400 sq. mi.) in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, also follows a graben system and was a tributary system to an ancient Euphrates basin in the Late Pliocene and Pleistocene. [See Kuwait.] While ephemeral flow has been noted only for the last five thousand years, the latest water data suggest that 32 million cu m per year flow past stations in the Wadi Rimah basin (Sowayan and Allayla, 1989, p. 482). At least two or three terraces of fluvial/eolian origin are noted of Quaternary date (Sanlaville, 1989, fig. 3, p. 10). Aquifer water studies confirm the Pleistocene nature of the stream flow.

By Early Holocene times, the Middle Euphrates river was in its present form. Western tributaries in Iraq and Syria traversing the desert are almost always associated with Early Holocene industries, suggesting active river systems. These flowed into either the current Euphrates or playa lakes west of the modern river (Khor Habbaniya, Abu Dibbis/Baḥr al-Milḥ; Zarins, 1990, p. 50). One of the main Early Holocene channels then passed Ramadi to Kerbala-Najaf. According to J. Boerma, the Upper Euphrates channelization has been entrenched since 8000 BCE (Boerma, 1983, p. 362). Archaeologists have also suggested that the Tigris-Euphrates emanated south of Baghdad as one stream, out of which numerous branches emerged (Crawford, 1991, p. 8; Adams, 1972, maps 2–3; Adams 1981, figs. 9, 27). By the sixth millennium, only the main channel remained in the middle of the alluvium. Even as late as the third and second millennia BCE, branches of the Euphrates continued to dominate the Sippar area (Gasche, 1985, p. 581). Subsequently, in the late first millennium BCE, the river began its migration westward, to its present position. In the marsh/lake region, prior to 5000 BCE, the Euphrates ran across what is today the southern Khor al-Hammar to Zubair and then to Umm Qaṣr, forming two channels past Bubiyan Island (Zarins, 1992, fig. 1). The Wadi Batin river and delta near Zubair may have been reactivated in this period as well. The effects of the Flandrian Transgression affected the Euphrates Delta, and the marine shoreline was considerably inland in historical times (c. 5000–2500 BCE). By 2000 BCE, the more modern conditions were reached (Sanlaville, 1989; Zarins, 1992, fig. 1).

Archaeological associations with the river are numerous (for a recent summary, see Wright, 1992). The most recent detailed work has taken place in the Upper Euphrates region. Sites threatened by flooding brought archaeologists to examine the Altinova plain associated with the Keban dam—and more recently sites associated with the Atatürk dam. A rich association of tell sites stretching from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (Çafer Höyük, Hayaz Höyük) through the Ceramic Neolithic/Chalcolithic (Tepeçik, Norsuntepe, Koruçutepe) to the late third millennium BCE (Hassek Höyük, Kurban Höyük, Lidar Höyük) suggests that the archaeology of the region has close ties to the Middle Syrian Euphrates region to the south (Mellink, 1992, pp. 208–214). These and other sites (e.g., Samosata, Zeugma-Apamea, Tille) also cast light on later historical groups—Hittites and Neo-Hittites, Assyrians/Urartians, Arameans, and Partho-Romans—and on the Islamic period (Ward, 1990). [See Hittites; Assyrians; Urartu; Arameans.]

In the Middle Euphrates region, archaeological sites are to be found associated directly with the river, with the Balikh tributary, the Khabur triangle, and areas to the west, such as Jebel Bishri and the el-Kowm region. Archaeological work in the region has increased considerably as a result of now-completed or ongoing dam construction. Sites in the Taqba dam reservoir have, in particular, changed the perception of the region. Especially important are the sequences from Mureybet and Abu Hureyra, which shed light on the agricultural revolution from the tenth to sixth millennia (Sanlaville, 1985, p. 18). [See Mureybet.] From the Late Uruk period, sites such as Habuba Kabira, Jebel ῾Aruda, and other have shown direct connections with the Late Uruk of southern Mesopotamia, suggesting the establishment of Late Uruk “colonies” from the south. [See Habuba Kabira; Colonization.] In addition to well-known tributary sites such as Tell Ḥalaf and Chaghar Bazar, recent work has considerably advanced what is known of the prehistoric to historical periods. Tell Leilan, identified with Shubat-Enlil, in the Khabur triangle, may be the most important recent discovery. [See Ḥalaf, Tell; Leilan, Tell.] The site of Mari, known from the French excavations begun in the 1930s, has yielded not only tremendous second-millennium BCE textual and artifactual data, but recently data stretching back to the Early Dynastic I period (Schwartz and Weiss, 1992, pp. 221–243). North of Mari, ongoing work at Dura-Europos will also elucidate the problems of the classical period both within the Euphrates valley and in such desert centers as Palmyra. [See Dura-Europos; Palmyra.]

From the Middle Euphrates Haditha dam reservoir in Iraq the sites of the Early Dynastic–Ur III periods are particularly important, painting a picture of Sumerian civilization on the Middle Euphrates hitherto only vaguely known (Roaf and Postgate, 1981, pp. 192–198; Killick and Roaf, 1983; Abdul-Amir, 1988; Porada et al., 1992). [See Sumerians.] The Euphrates entered the Mesopotamian alluvial plain south of Ramadi; survey work in the region, principally by Adams (1972), has shown that few sites are to be found there. Rather, civilization got its start on the delta plain beginning at ancient Sippar. This area is divided archaeologically and historically into two parts: Akkad, covering the northern portion, and Sumer, to the south. The main channel(s) of the Euphrates in Akkad in the fifth–third millennia lay well to the east of the present Euphrates course and, upon reaching Sumer, it (they) became extremely diffuse, or braided (Adams, 1981, fig. 9). Hans J. Nissen has suggested that with the lowering sea level in the fourth millennium, Sumer required less natural irrigation, population became consolidated in towns, and social stratification became more extreme (Nissen, 1988, pp. 65–71, 74, 129–132). City states were created, which led to buffer zones and more constant warfare. Lack of raw materials heightened long-distance trade and the subsequent empire building became characteristic (Wright, 1992, p. 723). Akkad relied less on such changes and became a distinct entity, based in part on the Euphrates channelization and the active tributaries to the western plateau (Steinkeller, 1992; Zarins, 1990). The Euphrates's principal channels and offtake canals had been creating silt and salt for the region at least since the third millennium (Jacobsen and Adams, 1958). These factors, plus the shifting of the Euphrates westward, eventually brought about the dissolution of Mesopotamian civilization.

The Euphrates as the dominant source of water for Akkad and Sumer, and later for Babylonia, played an integral role in agriculture, communications, and the creation of political structures in the region. The occupation of Eridu and later of the other Sumerian towns of the delta alluvium as the primary centers of Sumerian political and religious focus left its imprint on biblical studies as well (especially Gn. 1–11)—in the Flood stories, Creation accounts, and the explanation for the origin of cities (Kramer, 1963, pp. 269–299).


  • Abdul-Amir, Sabah J. “Archaeological Survey of Ancient Settlements and Irrigation Systems in the Middle Euphrates Region of Mesopotamia.” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1988.
  • Adams, Robert McC. “Settlement and Irrigation Patterns in Ancient Akkad.” Appendix 5 in McGuire Gibson's The City and Area of Kish, pp. 182–208. Miami, 1972.
  • Adams, Robert McC. Heartland of Cities: Surveys of Ancient Settlement and Land Use on the Central Floodplain of the Euphrates. Chicago, 1981.
  • Akkermans, P.M.M.G. “The Neolithic of the Balikh Valley, Northern Syria: A First Assessment.” In Préhistoire du Levant: Processus du changements culturels, vol. 2, edited by Olivier Aurenche et al., pp. 122–134. Paris, 1990.
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  • Buringh, P. “Living Conditions in the Lower Mesopotamian Plain in Ancient Times.” Sumer 13 (1957): 30–46.
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  • Gibson, McGuire. City and Area of Kish. Miami, 1972.
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  • Jacobsen, Thorkild, and Robert McC. Adams. “Salt and Silt in Ancient Mesopotamian Agriculture.” Science 128 (1958): 1251–1258.
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  • Kramer, Samuel Noah. The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. Chicago, 1963.
  • Lloyd, Seton. The Archaeology of Mesopotamia: From the Old Stone Age to the Persian Conquest. London, 1978.
  • Mellink, Machteld J. “Anatolian Chronology.” In Chronologies in Old World Archaeology, edited by Robert W. Ehrich, vol. 1, pp. 207–220, vol. 2, 171–184. 3d ed. Chicago, 1992.
  • Nissen, Hans J. The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 9000–2000 B.C. Chicago, 1988.
  • Paepe, Roland. “Geological Approach of the Tell ed-Dēr Area.” In Tell ed-Dēr I, edited by Leon De Meyer et al., pp. 9–27. Louvain, 1971.
  • Porada, Edith, et al. “The Chronology of Mesopotamia, ca. 7000–1600 B.C.” In Chronologies in Old World Archaeology, edited by Robert W. Ehrich, vol. 1, pp. 77–121, vol. 2, 90–124. 3d ed. Chicago, 1992.
  • Roaf, Michael, and J. N. Postgate. “Excavations in Iraq, 1979–80.” Iraq 43 (1981): 167–198.
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  • Sanlaville, Paul. “Considérations sur l'évolution de la Basse Mésopotamie au cours des derniers millénaires.” Paléorient 15 (1989): 5–27.
  • Schwartz, Glenn M., and Harvey Weiss. “Syria, ca. 10,000–2000 B.C.” In Chronologies in Old World Archaeology, vols. 1–2, edited by Robert W. Ehrich, pp. 221–243, 185–202. 3d ed. Chicago, 1992.
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Juris Zarins

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