Of the tens of thousands of rivers that cross the Earth’s surface, a select few determined the course of human history. From the very first advanced civilizations to the powerhouses of the industrial era, waterways have been an integral part of the story. This list looks at the narratives behind history's most important rivers.
- 1156 VOTES
The Nile Was The Key To Ancient Egypt
Flows Through: Burundi, Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, and South Sudan.
Significance: The key to the success of ancient Egypt lay with the Nile. Lands around the river were first settled as long ago as 6000 BCE, as the incredibly fertile soil and regular seasonal flooding made for an abundance of food. Reportedly, early farmers had to do little more than toss seeds into the ground. Over time, the Egyptians became highly efficient farmers and cultivated just about every square foot of arable land along the river.
The Nile also offered great advantages in communication and trade. Word and goods could travel easily along the waterway, and its fortuitous position gave Egypt access to trade in both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The Nile was also integral to the construction of the pyramids, as great blocks of limestone were transported along the river and then through canals to the construction sites.
- 297 VOTES
The Euphrates And The Tigris Are Where It All Began
Location: Western Asia
Flows Through: Iraq, Syria, and Turkey
Significance: Mesopotamia (“between rivers”) refers to the lands between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers that run through modern-day Iraq, Syria, and into Turkey. Advanced civilization first began to emerge in the fertile lands between these two rivers. Humans gradually shifted away from smaller hunter-gatherer tribes to much larger agricultural communities around 12,000 years ago. In the appropriately named fertile crescent, humans learned to produce stable sources of food and settle in the same place year-round.
These settlements in turn grew into cities, with the Sumerian settlement of Uruk representing one of humankind’s first cities. Among the many innovations stemming from this region was the first form of writing, cuneiform, which was used to keep detailed clerical records on clay tablets. The tablets were later etched with the first piece of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and later with the tenets of Babylonian King Hammurabi’s laws. While the cities of the region rose and fell over the centuries, the impact of Mesopotamia upon history can scarcely be overstated.
- 389 VOTES
The Indus Supported An Advanced And Mysterious Civilization
Location: Indian Subcontinent
Flows Through: China (Tibet Autonomous Region), India, and Pakistan
Significance: The Indus River’s course stretches from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea, a distance of just under 2,000 miles. Its history is similarly lengthy, stretching all the way back to c. 7000 BCE. Along the river’s fertile plains in what is now India and Pakistan were a series of highly developed city-states known as the Indus Valley Civilization. The two most prominent cities were Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, both of which emerged around the 26th century BCE.
What we know of these great early cities is limited; the Indus developed a form of writing, but unlike Egyptian hieroglyphics or Sumerian cuneiform, the mysteries of the script have yet to be uncovered. The ruins of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro reveal evidence of efficient urban planning, construction, indoor plumbing, and even a form of air conditioning. Sumerian artifacts reveal the Indus also conducted trade with Mesopotamia.
One thing the Indus Valley Civilization didn’t appear to show much interest in was warfare. Aside from defensive walls, a distinct lack of weapons has been uncovered. Around 600 BCE the civilization disappeared without a trace. One plausible theory is that climate change caused crop failures and sparked a wave of migrations.
Location: The United States
Flows Through: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana
Significance: Long before the arrival of Europeans, a network of native cities was established along the Mississippi. Among the most prominent was Cahokia, situated on the opposite side of the river where St. Louis now stands. By the time Europeans set foot on the continent, the once-great Mississippian civilization was long gone. Theories range from climate change to warfare to explain the disappearance.
For the US, control of the Mississippi was one of the key factors in the young nation’s rise from a fledgling band of colonies to a superpower in the making. Rather than fighting for the prize, the US bought the surrounding territory from Napoleonic France - via the Louisiana Purchase - for the bargain price of $15 million in 1803. This gave the US control of the most comprehensive water transport in the world for a pittance. In the assessment of American historian Henry Adams, "Never did the United States get so much for so little."
The river’s significance was also clear during the Civil War. The Union’s capture of New Orleans in 1862 and Vicksburg the following year severed the Confederacy in two and greatly damaged supply lines.
- 570 VOTES
Alexander's Men Met Their Match At The Jhelum River
Location: Indian subcontinent
Flows Through: Jammu and Kashmir
Significance: The Jhelum River was known as the Hydaspes during the time of Alexander the Great. It was along the banks of this river that Alexander faced his toughest challenge - an army led by Porus, an ancient Indian king. Alexander's ranks were bolstered by Persian recruits and Scythian mercenaries but still outnumbered. At the head of Porus's army were as many as 1,000 war elephants.
Alexander managed to force a crossing, and after an exceptionally tough battle, emerged the victor. The Macedonian king was gracious in victory and made Porus a client king with an expanded realm. The encounter proved to be a turning point in Alexander's conquest. The difficulty of the fight, the terrain, and the promise of even more powerful enemies ahead convinced Alexander's exhausted men to halt.
Despite his best efforts to cajole them onward, the troops wouldn't budge, and Alexander's expedition finally came to an end. He founded a city in honor of his fallen horse Bucephalus and reluctantly turned back.
- 661 VOTES
The Rubicon Is A Little River With A Big History
Location: Northern Italy
Significance: The Rubicon is a pretty modest river situated in northern Italy. It has likely been crossed millions of times over the years - and one such crossing changed the course of history. On January 10, 49 BCE, Julius Caesar led the XIII Legion across the shallow river, and in doing so began a devastating civil war. The Rubicon had long stood as a natural boundary of the Roman Republic, so taking an armed force across the river was a declaration of war upon the republic.
Roman historian Suetonius alleged that Caesar came up with a fitting remark for the occasion: “Alea iacta est” (“the die is cast”). The move was the ultimate gamble by Caesar, as nothing short of complete victory would suffice. "Crossing the Rubicon" is used today in memory of Caesar’s choice and refers to going past the point of no return.