Crossing the Euphrates

The Euphrates River runs 2700 km through the cradle of middle eastern and western civilization. Its slow course and green fertile banks have nurtured some of the first urban cultures and the famous city of Babylon. The Euphrates rises in Turkey, flows across the arid portion of central and eastern Syria and then enters Iraq near the site of the ancient city of Mari. We traveled to the Ar Raqqah province of Syria to see the ancient river and the water works and agriculture along its course. We also wanted to cross it so that we would be in Mesopotamia – the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

One thing we wanted to see along the Euphrates was the dam at Al Thawra and the 640 sq km Assad Reservoir. The dam was built with Soviet assistance and is one of the largest earth-fill dams in the world. Assad reservoir is the largest in Syria and critical for water resource management and hydroelectricity.

Water withdrawal and management of the Euphrates has been at times flash point in relations between Syria and Turkey and Iraq. The salinity content of the water doubles between the Turkish and Iraqi borders. As we approached the dam to cross the Euphrates at Al Thawra we were stopped by Syrian army troops with AK-47’s and after much inspection of our papers we were allowed to cross the Euphrates to the eastern shore. However, we were strictly forbidden to stop on the dam or to photograph at all.  We followed these rules to the letter – but it was unfortunate not to have been able to film. The dam is huge, with modern and purposeful looks. On one side extends the blue waters of the huge Assad Reservoir. Far below on the other side there spreads a shallow and green river valley – lush with reeds and small fields and dotted with tiny abode huts formed from the mud of the river. It was a view from the 21st century deep back millennia to the dawn of agriculture and civilization. A fitting place to cross the Euphrates.

Euphrates River and water diversion pumps above Ar Raqqah
Euphrates River and water diversion pumps above Ar Raqqah

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