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Map of the Tigris - Euphrates watershed.

The Euphrates (juːˈfreɪtiːz) (Arabic: نهر الفرات, Nahr ul-Furāt; Turkish: Fırat; Syriac: ܦܪܬ, Prāṯ; Hebrew: פרת, Pĕrāṯ) is the western of the two great rivers that define Mesopotamia (the other being the Tigris) which flows from Anatolia.


Modern names for the Euphrates may have been derived by popular etymology from the Sumerian and Akkadian names, respectively Buranun and Pu-rat-tu. The former appears in an inscription from the 22nd century BCE associated with King Gudea.

Etymologically, the name "Euphrates" is the Greek form of the original name, Phrat, which means "fertilizing" or "fruitful".

Alternatively, the second half of the word Euphrates may also derive from either the Persian Ferat or the Greek φέρω (pronounced [fero]), both of which mean "to carry" or "to bring forward".

Language Name for Euphrates
Akkadian Pu-rat-tu
Arabic الفرات Al-Furāt
Aramaic ܦܪܬ Prāṯ, Froṯ
Armenian Եփրատ Yeṗrat
Greek Ευφράτης Euphrátēs
Hebrew פְּרָת Pĕrāṯ
Kurdish فرهات Firat, Ferat
Persian فرات Ferat
Sumerian Buranun
Turkish Fırat

Course of the Euphrates

The river is approximately 2,781 kilometers (1,730 mi) long. It is formed by the union of two branches: the Kara Su rises about 30 km (19 mi) northeast of Erzurum, in the Kargapazari Mountains; and the Murat rises 70 km (43 mi) northeast of Lake Van. The upper reaches of the Euphrates flow through steep canyons and gorges, southeast across Syria, and through Iraq. The Khabur and the Balikh River join the Euphrates in eastern Syria.

A man and woman make their way up the Shatt-al-Arab in Basra, Iraq.

Both rivers have their origins in Turkey. Downstream, through its whole length, the Euphrates has no other notable tributaries. North of Basra, in southern Iraq, the river merges with the Tigris to form the Shatt al-Arab, this in turn empties into the Persian Gulf.

The river used to divide into many channels at Basra, forming an extensive marshland, but the marshes were largely drained by the Saddam Hussein government in the 1990s as a means of driving out the rebellious Marsh Arabs. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the drainage policy has been reversed, but it remains to be seen whether the marshes will recover.

The Euphrates is only navigable by very shallow-draft boats, which can reach as far as the Iraqi city of Hit, located 1,930 kilometers (1,200 mi) upstream and only 60 meters (200 ft) above sea level. Above Hit, however, shoals and rapids make the river commercially unnavigable. Its annual inundation, caused by snow melt in the mountains of northeastern Turkey, has been partly checked by new dams and reservoirs in the upper reaches. An 885-kilometer (550 mi) canal links the Euphrates to the Tigris to serve as a route for river barges.:-

The Euphrates River near Ar Raqqah, Syria.

Euphrates in the Bible

A river named Perath (Hebrew for Euphrates) is one of the four rivers that flow from the Garden of Eden according to Genesis 2:14. This Hebrew word, derived from either the word "stream" or "to break forth", has been translated as Euphrates . It is the fourth river, after the Pishon, the Gihon, and the Tigris, (Hebrew name is Hiddekel) to form from the river flowing out of the garden. The river of the same name marked one of the boundaries of the land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants (Isaac, Jacob, etc). In the Hebrew Bible, it is often referred to simply as "The River" (ha-nahar). ( Genesis 15:18).

  • God creates the Euphrates: "The name of the third river is Tigris, the one that flows east of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates" ( Genesis 2:14).
  • The Euphrates marks the north-eastern border of the land God promises to Abram: "To your descendants I give this land from the wadi of Egypt to the Great River, the river Euphrates" (Genesis 15:18 in the Jerusalem Bible)
  • God tells the Israelites to go to the Promised Land: "Start out and make your way to the hill country of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the Arabah, the hill country, the Shephelah, the Negeb, the seacoast, the land of the Canaanites, and the Lebanon, as far as the Great River, the river Euphrates" ( Deuteronomy 1:7).
  • God (through Moses) promises the Israelites the Promised Land: "Every place where you set the soles of your feet shall be yours. Your borders shall run from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the western sea" (Deuteronomy 11:24).
  • In Revelation 16:12, it is prophesied that the Euphrates will dry up in preparation for the Battle of Armageddon: "And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared."

Islamic prophecies

Euphrates River in Iraq.

In Islam, some of the hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad, suggest that the Euphrates will dry up, revealing unknown treasures that will be the cause of strife and war.

  • Soon the river Euphrates will disclose the treasure [the mountain] of gold. So, whoever will be present at that time should not take anything of it. Sahih Bukhari.
  • The Prophet Muhammad said: "The Hour will not come to pass before the river Euphrates dries up to unveil the mountain of gold, for which people will fight. Ninety-nine out of one hundred will die [in the fighting], and every man among them will say: 'Perhaps I may be the only one to remain alive'." Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim.
  • The Prophet Muhammad said: "The Euphrates reveals the treasures within itself. Whoever sees it should not take anything from it". — Al-Muttaqi al-Hindi, Al-Burhan fi `Alamat al-Mahdi Akhir az-Zaman, p. 28.
  • It [the Euphrates] will uncover a mountain of gold [under it]. Sunan Abi Da'ud.

Euphrates in history

The Euphrates provided the water that led to the first flowering of civilization in Sumer, dating from about the 4th millennium BCE. Many important ancient cities were located on or near the riverside, including Mari, Sippar, Nippur, Shuruppak, Uruk, Ur and Eridu. The river valley formed the heartlands of the later empires of Babylonia and Assyria. For several centuries, the river formed the eastern limit of effective Egyptian and Roman control and western regions of the Persian Empire. Also, the Battle of Karbala occurred at the banks of Euphrates river, where Imam Hussain, along with his family and friends, were martyred.

Controversial issues

An Iraqi city by the Euphrates river.

As with the Tigris there is much controversy over rights and use of the river. The Southeastern Anatolia Project in Turkey involves the construction of 22 dams and 19 power plants by 2005, the biggest development project ever undertaken by Turkey. The first of the dams was completed in 1990, but attacks of the PKK terrorist organization has slowed down the project and caused significant delays. Southeast Turkey is still struggling economically, adding fuel to the discontent expressed by Turkey's Kurdish minority centered there. The Turkish authorities hope that the project will provide a boost to the region's economy, but domestic and foreign critics have disputed its benefits as well as attacking the social and environmental costs of the scheme.

In Syria the Tabaqah Dam (completed in 1973 and sometimes known simply as the Euphrates Dam) forms a reservoir, Lake Assad that is used for irrigating cotton. Syria has dammed its two tributaries and is in the process of constructing another dam. Iraq has seven dams in operation, but water control lost priority during Saddam Hussein's regime. Since the collapse of Ba'ath Iraq in 2003, water use has come once again to the fore. The scarcity of water in the Middle East leaves Iraq in constant fear that Syria and Turkey will use up most of the water before it reaches Iraq. As it is, irrigation in southern Iraq leaves little water to join the Tigris at the Shatt-al-Arab. The potential for war over these waters is the subject of much diplomacy.

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