National Gallery: Tigris and Euphrates

The two rivers where civilisation began.

Sigmund Freud dated the origin of civilisation to ‘the first time an angry person cast a word instead of a rock’. Whether that particular incident occurred in the fertile plain surrounding the Euphrates and Tigris rivers is likely to remain unclear, but histories of the world have traditionally seen Mesopotamia – from the Ancient Greek for ‘land between rivers’ and mostly contained in modern Iraq – as the area in which cities, law and agriculture first developed. Accordingly, this series ends at the beginning – of civilisation, that is, and does so by exploring the two arteries that, with the Nile, created the Fertile Crescent and sustained the ancient cultures, dynasties and empires of Sumer, Ur, Akkad, Babylonia, Assyria and Persia, perhaps watering the Hanging Gardens, possibly originating in Eden, but certainly supporting myriad settlements and peoples whose names were, to some extent, writ in water.


Statuette of Gudea, from the temple of Ningizzida in Girsu, c.2150 BC.

This icon of Gudea,  ruler of the ancient city  of Lagash which lies between the rivers,  is a product of Sumer,  the oldest known civilisation of southern Mesopotamia. By the time this likeness of Gudea (r.2144-2124 BC) was made, Sumer, which first developed in the fourth millennium BC, had flourished culturally and commercially for millennia and was resurgent following conquest by the Semitic-speaking Akkadian Empire. The statuette is made  of expensive diorite, probably sourced from Magan (Oman).


The Tigris and the Euphrates, al-Istakhri, 10th century.

The rivers are seen here in a 10th-century map of northern Mesopotamia by the Persian geographer al-Istakhri. The eastern Tigris, on the left, is faster and shorter, at 1,850 km. Its name comes from the Sumerian word Idigna, meaning ‘swift river’.  The Euphrates is 2,800 km long and its name possibly means ‘wide flowing water’ or ‘good to cross over’. Ending at the Persian Gulf, both originate in Turkey. 


Clay cuneiform tablet, Iraq, c.605-562 BC.

Two visions of Babylon show the Euphrates’ importance to the city. This clay tablet maps the Tuba suburb with a branch of the river and two gates. On the reverse is cuneiform, a writing system invented by the Sumerians. Babylon was originally an Akkadian town; it grew to become the world’s largest city, arguably reaching its height in the sixth century BC under Nebuchadnezzar II, during whose rule this tablet was made. Herodotus described Babylon’s reliance on the rivers: ‘The whole Babylonian territory is cut up into channels, and the largest is navigable for ships and runs from the Euphrates to another river, namely the Tigris.’  


Spanish Beatus manuscript page, c.1180.

The Euphrates and Tigris are first mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Genesis: ‘A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers.’ After the Pishon and Gihon, ‘the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.’  In the Book of Revelation, the sixth angel demands the release of ‘the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates’ – a scene depicted in this manuscript – after which the river is ‘dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared’. 


View of Ancient Babylon, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, 1721.

As William Wordsworth wrote: ‘Babylon/ Learned and wise,/ Hath perished utterly,/ Nor leaves  her Speech one word  to aid the sigh/ That would lament her.’  This 18th-century print imagines the city’s  most famous landmark, the Hanging Gardens, supposedly built by Nebuchadnezzar for his wife, Amytis of Media. The gardens differ from the other Seven Wonders of the Ancient World because their exact location has never been established and, as the poet says, no Babylonian text mentions them. 


The Malwiya, Samarra, 19th century.

On the eastern bank of the Tigris, the Great Mosque of Samarra was completed during the rule of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil in 851, when Samarra was the Abbasid capital. Seen here is its sandstone minaret which, unlike the mosque itself, was spared by Hulegu Khan’s invading forces in the 13th century. The spiral design (known as the Malwiya, ‘snail shell’) is unique and allowed pilgrims to ascend most of its 52 metres, a height that makes it impractical for use in the call to prayer – but very effective as a far-reaching symbol of Islamic presence.  


Boats on the Tigris, Baghdad, c.1900.

Sailors paddle away  from a steamboat that has reached Baghdad  on the Tigris. The rise to prominence of the Iraqi capital after it was founded in the eighth century by the Abbasid Caliphate – it was probably the world’s largest city at the beginning of the 10th century – was significantly helped by its abundant water supply. This kuphar is a type of round boat common to the Tigris and Euphrates. Herodotus was impressed by the boats that were ‘round like a shield’ and considered them ‘the greatest marvel of all the things in the land after the city [Babylon] itself’. 


Floods in Baghdad, Shirwan, 1468.

An abundant water supply also carries dangers; this Persian miniature shows Baghdad suffering from flooding. A citizen attempts to climb onto dry land at the top of the illustration; others struggle in the water. The city was sacked by Hulegu Khan in 1258, destroying the city’s canals, dykes and irrigation system. Though rebuilt, the city remains vulnerable;  in 2015 flooding caused  a state of emergency. 


Hasankeyf, Turkey, Gertrude Bell, 1911.

The Tigris flows through 12,000-year-old Hasankeyf, a town that once hosted legionaries at Rome’s frontier with the Sassanian Empire. This photo was taken by the English traveller and diplomat Gertrude Bell, whose knowledge of Mesopotamia informed British policy in the region following the First World War and the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. Today, majority Kurdish Hasankeyf is part of the modern Turkish state – though it may not exist  for much longer.


‘Design on Each Side for  a Waterwheel Worked by Donkey Power’, from The Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, al-Jazari, 1206.

In his Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices of 1206, the Persian polymath Ismail al-Jazari – whose name, translated from Arabic as ‘the island’, refers to his hometown’s position surrounded by the Tigris – described around 100 inventive machines. Many of them were related to water, including a supply system using hydropower and gears. Implemented in Damascus, it was the first such water system  in the world. Al-Jazari used hydropower to create automatic gates and animal automata – though the donkey in this design is real.