u-fra'-tez (perath; Euphrates, "the good and abounding river"):
The longest (1,780 miles) and most important stream of Western Asia, generally spoken of in the Old Testament as "the river" (Exodus 23:31; Deuteronomy 11:24).
Its description naturally falls into 3 divisions--the upper, middle and lower. The upper division traverses the mountainous plateau of Armenia, and is formed by the junction of 2 branches, the Frat and the Murad. The Frat rises 25 miles Northeast of Erzerum, and only 60 miles from the Black Sea. The Murad, which, though the shorter, is the larger of the two, rises in the vicinity of Mt. Ararat. After running respectively 400 and 270 miles in a westerly direction, they unite near Keban Maaden, whence in a tortuous channel of about 300 miles, bearing still in a southwesterly direction, the current descends in a succession of rapids and cataracts to the Syrian plain, some distance above the ancient city of Carchemish, where it is only about 200 miles from the Northeast corner of the Mediterranean. In its course through the Armenian plateau, the stream has gathered the sediment which gives fertility to the soil in the lower part of the valley. It is the melting snows from this region which produce the annual floods from April to June.
The middle division, extending for about 700 miles to the bitumen wells of Hit, runs Southeast "through a valley of a few miles in width, which it has eroded in the rocky surface, and which, being more or less covered with alluvial soil, is pretty generally cultivated by artificial irrigation. .... Beyond the rocky banks on both sides is the open desert, covered in spring with a luxuriant verdure, and dotted here and there with the black tent of the Bedouin" (Sir Henry Rawlinson). Throughout this portion the river formed the ancient boundary between the Assyrians and Hittites whose capital was at Carchemish, where there are the remains of an old bridge. The ruins of another ancient bridge occur 200 miles lower down at the ancient Thapsacus, where the Greeks forded it under Cyrus the younger. Throughout the middle section the stream is too rapid to permit of successful navigation except by small boats going downstream, and has few and insignificant tributaries. It here has, however, its greatest width (400 yds.) and depth. Lower down the water is drawn off by irrigating canals and into lagoons.
The fertile plain of Babylonia begins at Hit, about 100 miles above Babylon; 50 miles below Hit the Tigris and Euphrates approach to within 25 miles of each other, and together have in a late geological period deposited the plain of Shinar or of Chaldea, more definitely referred to as Babylonia. This plain is about 250 miles long, and in its broadest place 100 miles wide. From Hit an artificial canal conducts water along the western edge of the alluvial plain to the Persian Gulf, a distance of about 500 miles. But the main irrigating canals put off from the East side of the Euphrates, and can be traced all over the plain past the ruins of Accad, Babylon, Nippur, Bismya, Telloh, Erech, Ur and numerous other ancient cities. Originally the Euphrates and Tigris entered into the Persian Gulf by separate channels. At that time the Gulf extended up as far as Ur, the home of Abraham, and it was a seaport. The sediment from these rivers has filled up the head of the Persian Gulf for nearly 100 miles since the earliest monumental records. Loftus estimates that since the Christian era the encroachment has proceeded at the rate of 1 mile in 70 years. In early times Babylonia was rendered fertile by immense irrigating schemes which diverted the water from the Euphrates, which at Babylon is running at a higher level than the Tigris. A large canal left the Euphrates just above Babylon and ran due East to the Tigris, irrigating all the intervening region and sending a branch down as far South as Nippur. Lower down a canal crosses the plain in an opposite direction. This ancient system of irrigation can be traced along the lines of the principal canals "by the winding curves of layers of alluvium in the bed," while the lateral channels "are hedged in by high banks of mud, heaped up during centuries of dredging. Not a hundredth part of the old irrigation system is now in working order. A few of the mouths of the smaller canals are kept open so as to receive a limited supply of water at the rise of the river in May, which then distributes itself over the lower lying lands in the interior, almost without labor on the part of the cultivators, giving birth in such localities to the most abundant crops; but by far the larger portion of the region between the rivers is at present an arid, howling wilderness, strewed in the most part with broken pottery, the evidence of former human habitation, and bearing nothing but the camel thorn, the wild caper, the colocynth-apple, wormwood and the other weeds of the desert" (Rawlinson). According to Sir W. Willcocks, the eminent English engineer, the whole region is capable of being restored to its original productiveness by simply reproducing the ancient system of irrigation. There are, however, in the lower part of the region, vast marshes overgrown with reeds, which have continued since the time of Alexander who came near losing his army in passing through them. These areas are probably too much depressed to be capable of drainage. Below the junction of the Euphrates and the Tigris, the stream is called Shat el Arab, and is deep enough to float war vessels.
Fried. Delitzsch, Wo lag das Paradies? 169; Chesney, Narrative of the Euphrates Exped., I; Loftus, Travels, etc., in Chaldoea and Susiana; Layard, Nineveh and Babylon, chapters xxi, xxii; Rawlinson, Herodotus, I, essay ix; Ellsworth Huntington, "Valley of the Upper Euphrates River," Bull. Amer. Geog. Soc., XXXIV, 1902.
George Frederick Wright