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

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  • 0:02 Background of the Euphrates
  • 0:49 The Euphrates River of Today
  • 1:18 The Euphrates River of History
  • 2:45 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: 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.

Background of the Euphrates

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, is the main river valley that 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.

The Euphrates River of 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.E. Ancient irrigation canals began to be dug from the Euphrates to these agricultural settlements in the sixth millennium B.C.E. The success of these ancient agricultural settlements allowed for the growth of the first cities near the beginning of the fourth millennium B.C.E.

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.E. that we first have evidence of sustained religious organization, artwork, and urban development.

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