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Euphrates River in History: Facts, Map & Role in Civilization

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Taught by

Christopher Sailus

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

In this lesson we explore the Middle East's largest river: the Euphrates. Surrounded by fertile agricultural land, the Euphrates help foster humankind's earliest urban and agricultural civilizations.

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Important Waters

Unless you live in the desert, chances are the rivers, lakes, and streams in your area are the lifeblood of your community without you even realizing it. For example, I had no idea that all of the water I drank and/or poured down the drain came from and returned to the very river that ran through my hometown!

While rivers are still very important to modern-day communities, they were absolutely integral to humankind's first agricultural societies. It comes as little surprise, then, that humanity's first great civilizations often rose alongside the banks of great rivers. In what is today the Middle East, the mighty Euphrates River, along with its sister channel the Tigris, fostered the development of the ancient civilizations of Sumer and Mesopotamia.

The Euphrates River of Today

The Euphrates River is the longest river in the Middle East. Its headwaters are in southeastern Turkey, from where it travels through central Syria and then the length of Iraq. About 150-200 miles northwest of the Persian Gulf, the Euphrates River joins with the Tigris, forming the Shatt al-Arab before emptying into the Gulf. Though it once was susceptible to regional flooding, numerous dams have been built along the Euphrates in the past fifty years which now regulate its water flow.

Map of Tigris-Euphrates River Delta
Map of Tigris-Euphrates River Delta

The Euphrates River in History

Most importantly, however, the Euphrates River allowed for the growth of some of humankind's earliest civilizations. The wealth of water supplied by the Euphrates and the corresponding fertile agricultural land surrounding it fostered the first agricultural settlements. Evidence of sedentary lifestyles, such as pottery and the ruins of ancient villages, date back to the seventh millennium B.C. Ancient irrigation canals began to be dug from the Euphrates to these agricultural settlements in the sixth millennium B.C. The success of these ancient agricultural settlements allowed for the growth of the first cities near the beginning of the fourth millennium B.C.

The growth of cities and the continued prosperity of ancient agriculture in the Tigris & Euphrates river basin (part of the fabled 'Fertile Crescent' of ancient history) fostered local cultural pursuits, and it is around 3000 B.C. that we first have evidence of sustained religious organization, artwork, and urban development.

The ancient region organized itself into city-states, composed of an urban center and surrounding agricultural land. This agricultural land was often fed with water from the Euphrates River by advanced irrigation techniques. The first civilization to unite the entire area was the Akkadian civilization, under Sargon I, though this empire was relatively short-lived. Biblical civilizations such as the Babylonians and Assyrians also once held ancient empires along the banks of the Euphrates as well.

Conclusions

Without the Euphrates River, it is likely western civilization would be centuries behind where it is today. As a plentiful water source, it created large swaths of fertile agricultural land utilized by our earliest ancestors, and later, provided a never-ending source of irrigation water. Without this land and the river which brought the land to life, the urban centers and the first ancient cultures and cities would not have been possible.

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