The Euphrates (the traditional Greek name for the river, which is in Old Persian Ufrat, Aramaic Prāth/Frot, in Arabic الفرات, in Turkish Fırat and in ancient Assyrian language Pu-rat-tu) is the westernmost of the two great rivers that define Mesopotamia (Bethnahrin in Aramaic), the other being the Tigris. Its name originates from Old Persian and Avestan (Old-Iranian) huperethuua "good to cross over," from hu- "good" + peretu- "ford."  (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=euphrates&searchmode=none)
Course of the Euphrates
The river is approximately 2,780 km (1,700 miles) long. It is formed by the union of two branches, the Kara (the western Euphrates), which rises in the highlands of eastern Turkey north of Erzerum and the Murat (the eastern Euphrates), which issues from Lake Van. The upper reaches of the Euphrates flow through steep canyons and gorges then southwest across Syria and then through Iraq. The Khabur and the Balikh River join the Euphrates in eastern Syria. They both have their origins in Turkey. Downstream, through its whole length, the Euphrates receives no further water flow. North of Basra, in southern Iraq, the river merges with the Tigris to form the Shatt al-Arab, which 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 1,200 miles upstream and which is only 53 meters above sea level. Above Hit, however, shoals and rapids make the river commercially unnavigable. Its annual inundation, caused by snowmelt in the mountains of Armenia, has been partly checked by new dams and reservoirs in the upper reaches. A 550-mile canal links the Euphrates to the Tigris to serve as a route for river barges.
Euphrates in the Bible
The river Euphrates is one of the four rivers that flow from the Garden of Eden according to Book of Genesis 2:14. It is the fourth river, after Pishon, Gihon, and Tigris, to form from the river flowing out of the garden. The river also marked one of the boundaries of the land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants. In the Hebrew Bible it is often referred to simply as "The River" (ha-nahar).
In the Book of Revelation attributed to John, it is prophesied that in the "end times" the river will dry up in preparation for the Battle of Armageddon.
Euphrates in history
The Euphrates provided the water that led to the first flowering of civilisation in Sumeria, dating from about the 4th millennium BC. Many important ancient cities were located on or near the riverside, including Mari, Sippar, Nippur, Shurrupak, 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.
As with the Tigris there is much controversy over rights and use of the river. The Southeast Anatolia Development 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. 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 Tabqa Dam (completed in 1973) forms a reservoir, Lake Assad, that is used for irrigating cotton. Syria has dammed its two tributaries and is 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.
- Jewish Encyclopedia: (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=518&letter=E) Euphrates; discusses the Old Testament references to the river
- Tigris-Euphrates River dispute, details of conflict and cooperation (http://gurukul.ucc.american.edu/ted/ice/tigris.htm)
- Turkish presentation of the Euphrates project (http://www.mfa.gov.tr/grupa/ac/aci/default.htm)