previous next


EUPHRATES ( Εὐφράτης, Εὐφρήτης), the river of Western Asia, which, with its twin-stream the Tigris, forms the third among the systems of double rivers, which are so peculiarly characteristic of the Asiatic continent, and have had such an important influence on its civilisation and political organisation.

1. The Name.

The Euphrates, as it was universally called by the Greek and Roman writers, obtained among the Hebrews the name of “The great river” which was to be the E. boundary of the land granted by Jehovah to the children of Abraham (Deut. 1.7), and did actually become the natural limit of the Hebrew monarchy under David. The Prophets when they use it to denote figuratively the Assyrian power, speak of it emphatically as “the river.” (Is. 8.5; Jer. 2.18.) The word which still survives in the modern Frat or Fŏrát, bore the signification of “fertility” (J. AJ 1.1.3; comp. Winer, Realwörterbuch, s. v.; Rosenmüller, Handbuch, vol. i. pt. i. p. 189.) According to Pliny (5.20) it did not assume the epithet of Euphrates till it had broken through the defile formed by the E. extremity of Mons Amanus. In the earlier part of its course, as far as Elegia, it was called PYXIRATES, and, afterwards, while working its circuitous course through Taurus, OMIRAS Of its two great sources in the mountains of Armenia, the W. is now called Kará--Sû, the E. Murád-cháï, which rises on the S. slope of Aiá Tágh, a mountain about 9000 feet high, and from its size, ought, perhaps, to be considered as the principal stream. The confluence of these two streams, after forming with the Tigris one tidal channel, receives the appellation of Shatt-el-‘Arab.

2. Comparative Geography.

In comparing the statements of the ancients with modern researches and inquiry, it is important to bear in mind that none of the maps describing the course of the river, previous to the publication of the results obtained by Colonel Chesney's expedition, are to be trusted. We are indebted to his work (Exped. Eusphrat., London, 1850) for the first accurate and complete survey of the geography of this river-basin. Before entering upon the more precise details which have been supplied by Strabo, Pliny, Ptolemy, and others, it may be serviceable to cast a glance at the history of the progress of discovery of the banks of this mighty stream, which is connected in the earliest and most venerable records with the origin and cradle of the human race,--is linked with the most important events in the history of mankind, as forming the dividing-line for great empires, races, and tongues,--and is, probably, destined in after ages to become again one among the chief of the thoroughfares of the world.

According to Herodotus (1.180) the Euphrates flowed from Armenia, being large, deep, and swift, discharging itself into the Erythraean sea. The river was navigable from Babylon upwards for those willow boats (1.194), the counterparts of which, the modern Kúfah or basket boats, now float upon the Tigris and Lower Euphrates.

The expedition of the Ten Thousand, which brought the Greeks into contact with the Persian Empire, considerably enlarged the circle of their ideas respecting the Euphrates; and several modern travellers have borne testimony, from personal observation, to the accuracy of Xenophon's description, even at the present day. The army crossed the Euphrates at the ford of Thapsacus, which appears to have been the best known and most frequented passage down to B.C. 100. The breadth of the river here was 4 stadia. (Anab. 1.4.11.) After crossing the Euphrates, Cyrus proceeded for nine days' march along its left bank till he came to its affluent, the river Araxes or Chaboras, which divided Syria from Arabia. Still advancing along the banks of the river, he entered the Desert where there was no cultivation or even any tree, nothing but wormwood and various aromatic shrubs. (Anab. 1.5.1.) The country along the left bank of the river, as far as Pylae, being full of hills and narrow valleys, presented many difficulties to the movements of an army. Pylae, it would seem, marked the spot where the desert country N. of Babylonia, with its undulations of land and steep river banks, was exchanged for the fat and fertile alluvial soil of Babylonia Proper. After Cunaxa, the Greeks quitted the Euphrates, nor did they come within sight of it till they reached the E. branch (Murád-Chaï), at a point where the water was not higher than the navel, and as they were told, not far from its sources. (Anab. 4.5.2.) Koch (Zug der Zehn Tausend, pp. 88--93) is at issue with Colonel Chesney and Mr. Ainsworth as to the point where a ford could be found in mid-winter with snow on the ground. Colonel Chesney (vol. ii. p. 229) asserts that no passage could take place till they reached 39° 10′ N. lat. Koch, whose opinion is preferred by Mr. Grote (Hist. of Greece, vol. ix. p. 159), holds that the river would be fordable a little above its confluence with the Tscharbahur about lat. 39° 3′. [p. 1.876]

The third period of history which throws light upon the Euphrates system is the Macedonian Expedition into Asia, B.C. 331. Alexander marched through Phoenicia and Syria to the Euphrates, and following the footsteps of Cyrus, crossed the river at the Zeugma of Thapsacus, which derived its name from the bridge originally constructed for the transport of Alexander's army. (Arrian, Arr. Anab. 3.8; Q. Curt. 4.9; comp. D. C. 11.17; Kinneir, Geog. Mem. p. 316). Local tradition has transmitted the fact of the passage of Iskender Acbár, and there is the additional fact, that, tempted by the advantages of the situation, he ordered the city of Nicephorium (Rhakkah) to be built. In pursuance of his great plan of fusing the West with the East by the promotion, through Greek influence, of a union between different nations from the Nile to the Euphrates, the Jaxartes, and the Indus, the ancient city of Babylon in the East was intended by Alexander to be one of the metropolitan cities of the Macedonian universal empire. To carry out this design, as the course of the Lower Euphrates was hitherto unknown, Nearchus and other followers of Alexander, were despatched to collect materials: and the narrative preserved by Arrian, of the daring voyage of Nearchus to the estuary of the Euphrates, is the most valuable record of antiquity, by which an idea can be formed of the former condition of the Delta of that river and of Susiana. The fleet finished its course at Diridotes (Teredon), a port which was not unknown, as it was frequented by the Arabian merchants, who brought hither their frankincense and other spices for sale. Teredon or Diridotes, the foundation of which has been assigned to Nebuchadnezzar (comp. Abyd. ap. Scal. Emend. Temp. p. 13), was a village at the mouth of the Euphrates, at a distance, according to the reckoning of the Macedonian navigator, of 3300 stadia from Babylon (Arrian, Ind. xii.). The position of this place has been fixed at Jebel Sanám. a gigantic mound near the Pallacopas branch of the Euphrates, considerably to the N. of the embouchure of the present Euphrates. The fleet, in following the windings of the channel, might be carried much beyond the Shatt el ‘Arab, which is easily missed, and thus might have reached the supposed mouth of the Pallacopas, opposite to the island of Boobian (comp. Chesney, Exped. Euphrat. vol. ii. p. 355; Ainsworth, pp. 185--195).

At the dissolution of the Macedonian empire considerable inland intercourse and traffic was encouraged by the Seleucidae; nor can it be doubted but that the marks of population and industry which have been found on the banks of the Euphrates should be referred to the two centuries of their dominion, when the course of the river would be better protected than when it became the boundary-line between Rome and the Parthians. The great highway from Asia Minor to the cities of Persia, which crossed the Zeugma of the Euphrates, and which in later times bore the imposing name of the “road of peace” ( “Zeugma Latinae Pacis iter,” Stat. Silv. 3.2. 137), though improved and strengthened by the Romans when their power was established through the whole of Mesopotamia, was probably laid down on the lines which were in use at the time of the Seleucid princes. (Comp. Merivale, Hist. of the Romans under the Empire, vol. i. p. 517.) The Roman soldiers first crossed the Euphrates under Lucullus, when the passage, in consequence of an accidental drought, was rendered much easier (Plut, Lucull. 24); and in the fatal expedition of Crassus seven legions and 4000 horse took the passage of Thapsacus. (Plut. Crass. 20.) Augustus was contented to make the Euphrates the E. boundary of the Roman empire; nor was that frontier advanced, except during the short interval of the Eastern conquests of Trajan. Under Hadrian the Roman boundaries again receded within the Euphrates. The campaigns of Trajan, Severus, Julian, Belisarius, Chosroes, and Heraclius, illustrate in a very interesting manner many points in the geography of the banks of this river; but the consideration of them does not fall within the scope of the present article. It may, however, be observed, that Napoleon, when foiled before the walls of ‘Akká of his projected march upon India, had conceived the plan of pursuing the steps of Trajan and Julian.

3. Physical Geography.

Strabo (xi. p.527) and Pliny (5.20), among the ancients, have given a general view of the course of the Euphrates, while, as has been observed above, the narrative of the voyage of Nearchus gives the best account of the then state of the embouchure of the river. It must, however, be recollected that considerable changes have, even in the historic period, taken place in the configuration of the soil of the lower districts, in consequence of the great amount of alluvial matter brought down by the Euphrates to the Delta of the Persian Gulf. Nor is this the only circumstance which makes it difficult, in any satisfactory manner, to reconcile thee positions of the ancients with modern investigations,--as changes have also been effected by art. The great extent of the plain of Babylonia is everywhere altered by artificial works: mounds arise upon the otherwise uniform level; walls, and mud ramparts and dykes, intersect each other; elevated masses of friable soil and pottery are succeeded by low plains, inundated during the greater part of the year; and the old beds of canals are to be seen in every direction. Further researches may throw great light on the comparative geography of the course of the Lower Euphrates: till then, it may be better to hold our judgment in suspense. It is, however, probable, both from the statements of the ancients and the physical indications of the soil, that the united waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris at no very remote period emptied themselves into the gulf by several distinct mouths; one of which was at Teredon, according to Nearchus,--the mouth of the Euphrates; the other the Pasitigris of Pliny, probably the Shatt-el-‘Arab.

The extent of the basin of the Euphrates, notwithstanding the great length of the river (1780 English miles), has been estimated at not more than 108,000 geographical miles. (Ainsworth, Researches, p. 109.) The ancients correctly placed the sources of this river in Taurus, on the W. slopes of the elevated plateau of I'rán. At Kebban Ma'den the two branches unite, and the Euphrates assumes an imposing character, struggling to make good its original course towards the Mediterranean ( “Ni obstet Taurus in nostra maria venturus,” Pomp. Mela, 3.5), but still pressing against the Tauric chain at the elbow made by Malatíyah (Melitene), till it finally forces a passage through Taurus. After precipitating itself through this gap, the Euphrates winds through chalk hills of a moderate elevation; while its waters and those of the Tigris converge and surround Mesopotamia. It was in this district that the fords of the river were made, and the passages of Sumeïsát, Rúm Kala'h, Bír, and Hammán, have [p. 1.877]been identified with the ancient Zeugmas of Samosata, Commagene, Birtha, and Thapsacus, respectively. In the line of the river Euphrates the limits of the upper district terminate to the W. at the hills of Mesjíd Sandabíyah, and to the E. at the hilly district N. of Felujah, including the Pylae of Xenophon. Here the Euphrates ( “rapidus Euphrates,” Stat. Silv. ii. 3. 136) plunges into the lowlying level plains of Babylonia, with the force of its current much diminished; as in the alluvial depressions it is often not a mile an hour, while in its upper course it averages from three to four miles. The current of the Tigris, notwithstanding its traditionary fame for swiftness, does not average more than a mile and a half an hour. After passing the ruins of Babylon, the river appears to become smaller than in its upper course, and was eventually supposed to lose itself in the marshes of Lamlúm (comp. Plb. 9.43), but, extricating itself from them, unites its waters with those of the Tigris at Kurnáh; and the two streams, forming one channel by the name of Shatt-el-‘Arab, discharge themselves into the sea by the town of Basrah. Below the Shatt-el-‘Arab, Pliny (6.29) notices 1. the point at which the mouth of the Euphrates had issued formerly into the gulf, “locus ubi Euphratis ostium fuit,” D'Anville's “ancien lit de l'Euphrate;” 2. FLUMEN SALSUM the narrow salt-water channel which separates the low-lying island of Boobian off the mouth of the old bed of the Euphrates from the mainland; 3. PROMONTORIUM CHALDONE, the great headland at the entrance of the bay of Dooat-el-Knzma, from the S. opposite Pheleche island; and 4. a tract along a sea broken into gulfs, “voragini similius quam mari,” extending for 50 M. P. as far as the river ACHANA (comp. Forster, Hist. Geog. of Arabia, vol. ii. p. 212).

The permanent flooding of the Euphrates is caused by the melting of the snow on the mountains along the-upper part of its course. This takes place about March, and increases till the end of May, when it is usually at its greatest height. (Colonel Chesney, Exped. Euphrat.; Ainsworth, Researches; Bitter, Erdkunde, vols. x. xi.; Layard, Nineveh and Babylon.) [E.B.J]

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: