The Euphrates Project

The Euphrates River is one of Turkey’s most important natural and cultural assets. It informs us of the development of several ancient civilizations, and in fact the evolution of humanity itself. Being the setting for many historical events, it has become the topic of numerous narratives within Abrahamic religions, a myriad of epics as well as a multitude of love stories and requiems of ordinary people. It has shaped many civilizations that are the cultural legacy of the Turkish people. The documentary proposed in this project aims at tracking the geography of the Euphrates to record this rich cultural legacy and present it to the future generations in its entirety.

The Euphrates River is one of Turkey’s most important natural and cultural assets. It informs us of the development of several ancient civilizations, and in fact the evolution of humanity itself. Being the setting for many historical events, it has become the topic of numerous narratives within Abrahamic religions, a myriad of epics as well as a multitude of love stories and requiems of ordinary people. It has shaped many civilizations that are the cultural legacy of the Turkish people. The documentary proposed in this project aims at tracking the geography of the Euphrates to record this rich cultural legacy and present it to the future generations in its entirety.

The focal point of this cultural legacy is water which has enabled human life and culture. Waters of the Euphrates nourish humans and crops, are used to build their houses, fill their dams, provide cleanliness to the people, their belongings and animals, and finally connect people when they build bridges or separate them when the waves are fierce. In other words, in this area, water together with the land is the most significant element of life and cultural legacy.

With this in mind the filming crew will document the important cultural, social and religious elements around the waters of the Euphrates, starting from the source and proceeding to the point where it leaves Turkey. This recording will cover a wide range of images: the narratives of men and women who live in the Euphrates geography, elements of their daily life like food, art forms such as music and poetry, and the little-known samples of the archeological and cultural legacy that the Euphrates embraces. In other words, the goal of this documentary is to ethnographically document the people living in this geography with their own words and sights by properly placing them in the macro historical and cultural panorama.

The Text of the Euphrates Documentary

The Euphrates has been the subject of a myriad of epics and beliefs since ancient times. This river which has sheltered on its shores many groups of people such as the Hittites, Assyrians, Medians, Urartus and Romans was the first river deemed to be sacred by the ancient people. It has kept its strategic importance throughout history; it is surrounded by the ruins of hundreds of ancient cities. Although many novels and stories have been written and several films have been made in Turkey about the lives of the people living in this geography, not one comprehensive documentary has been directed on its natural, historical and cultural importance. The documentary proposed in this project aims at filling this gap.


The proposed documentary will focus on four main regions and their social, cultural, archeological and art-related benchmarks and themes. Academics with expertise in related fields will be consulted throughout the filming. In order to preserve and highlight the culture within the geography of the river and the human aspect of this project, local people, men and women, will be asked to contribute with their own narratives of the region. The protagonists of this documentary will naturally be the people living on either side of the river and the images of the river that appear in their music, narratives, beliefs and even food.

It is a well-known historical fact that water sources and emergence of civilizations are very strongly related. Throughout ancient times rivers have met some most vital needs of humans and other living beings. They continue to be essential for the well-being of humans today as well because of dams to produce energy, irrigation, agricultural and industrial production, various sports and tourism. Since ancient times rivers have shaped both the economic and social conditions and the culture of the inhabitants that live in their geography.

The 2,800 kilometers long Euphrates River which originates in Turkey and flows into the Persian Gulf is an excellent example. It is said to be one of the heavenly rivers mentioned in sacred books and it has shaped, together with its sister river the Tigris, the whole Mesopotamia region where the first settled communities have emerged. Providing humans the ease of transporting heavy loads, and the water for irrigation it has been one of the most influential factors in their lives as they have moved from nomadic life to living in settled communities. No wonder why this river gets its name from the Arabic word “ferahat” which means “comfortably spacious”.

The significance of the Euphrates has increased during our times. One third of its body lies within the borders of Turkey; it holds Turkey’s biggest dams and it has the biggest potential for productive waters.  In Turkey the Euphrates flows through the cities of Erzincan, Tunceli, Elazığ, Malatya, Diyarbakır, Adıyaman and Gaziantep, then heads first southeast and then southwest to enter the Syrian territory. After Culap and Habur join it, it continues head on to enter Iraq at Al Kayem. Completing a 350-kilometer route in Iraq, it reaches the Euphrates-Tigris delta at Ramadi where the two rivers fuse and flow into the Persian Gulf. Of its total basin area of the 444 thousand square kilometers, only 123 thousand squares are in Turkey and of its total length of 3 thousand kilometers, only 1,263 kilometers are in Turkey. Despite this, the majority of the waters of the Euphrates are derived from melting snow mostly from Turkey. Thus the Euphrates is of indisputable significance for Turkey. In addition to providing energy to the region it houses the GAP (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi- The Southeast Anatolia Project), one of world’s major agricultural projects that irrigates the Harran Plain. In recent years it has been gaining value as a tourism asset as well. Considering the importance of water sharing in the world and the Middle East in the coming years, it is clear that the future of Turkey cannot be separated from the future of this river. The proposed documentary will be highlighting this reality as well.


Narratives, songs and poetry about how the waters of Euphrates heal the ill,  how this river starts and ends love affairs, how prayers offered on its shores are always granted form a rich body of cultural material. The goal of the documentary is to investigate this rich source and pass it onto the next generations.

Stories of the Euphrates and religious rituals are closely knit with the everyday life of its inhabitants. The love stories that appear in many of the legends sometimes end happily and at times not. In stories with sad endings either one of the lovers or both of them get lost in the wild waters of the river. In that sense, the river is the site of many beginnings and endings. It can be both fertile and destructive. It can be the joyous space of happy beginnings promised in love stories as well as the sorrowful space of loss and death. This dual structure is why it harbors  such a rich culture of many different stories. It represents both worldly needs and ethereal sentiments, both love and separation, life and death and ultimately men and women and the fertility of women.

To give an example of the themes of the proposed documentary one introductory scene can be as following:

A group of men are performing ablution in the yard of a mosque on the shore of the Euphrates. The camera focuses on the hands and feet of the men who are washing/cleaning themselves. One of these men is Sedo Dadaş from Güngörmez, a village on the skirts of the Dumlu Mountain which is an important source of this river. When Sedo Dadaş returns home after the prayers he finds his wife baking the special tandouri bread that has been made in this region for more than 5 thousand years from a particular red wheat variety of this region. Sedo Dadaş and his wife would be just two of the characters that have lived and worked in the geography of the Euphrates from all eternity.

The following are the themes that will be used in the documentary:

  1. The Beginnings

The Euphrates has two major sources: One is the Murat River that is born in Diyadin in the city of Ağrı, and the other is Karasu born in the Dumlu Mountain in the city of Erzurum. According to legends, a tribe that moved out of Maverahünnehir under the leadership of a saint named Dumlu Baba (Father Dumlu) in the ninth century settled here and discovered this major source.  His name has been given to the nearby mountain which provides the water source. It is believed that Dumlu Baba has descended from heaven. This area is considered to be sacred and is still visited by people who come to pray at his tomb and fill their water jugs every season and especially in Ramadan.  There is a business preposition to bottle and market this very pure and cold water.

The Dumlu Mountain which is the source of the Aras, Çoruh and Euphrates rivers hosts the cattle breeding nomadic tribe called “Şavak”s. The oldest known type of wheat, the red wheat, is also grown here. Fossils of this wheat aged 5 thousand years have been found in this region, strengthening the belief that the Euphrates is the river which has hosted the oldest settled communities.

  1. Waters of the Sacred River

The Euphrates and its waters have been considered as sacred since ancient times. There are abundant indications that people of all monotheistic religions have resided alongside its coasts. The documentary will focus on the relationship of the river with the monotheistic religions in the two following ways: First, in the Elazığ-Bingöl-Tunceli region which will actually be the second point of filming, a local belief system and praying rituals will be recorded. People in this locality believe that Hızır and Munzur, two legendary saints, who had been cross with each other finally make peace at this locality called Gola Çetu; unite, turn into  water and flow into the sea. It is very probable that the Euphrates carried them to the sea. Gola Çetu is considered to be sacred by the Alevites who perform their prayer rituals at this site every Thursday. Secondly, the documentary will focus on the various temples of the region such as churches and mosques to highlight the religious and cultural significance of Gola Çetu.

  1. The Sounds of the Euphrates

The “Dengbej”s who are chanters of myths, epics and love stories have an important place in the southeast Anatolian Kurdish culture. They chant these stories without the help of an instrument, pouring their emotions into their voices. Their voices are a very important aspect of the Euphrates culture, folklore and natural sounds of the region. The proposed documentary has the goal of gathering and recording human and natural sounds by using an ethnomusicological approach. To this end, the sounds of the Euphrates will be recorded as well as its sights to create an archive of the sounds of this region.

  1. The Cradle of Civilizations

Halfeti and Zeugma are two places that symbolize how the Euphrates has created and destroyed civilizations throughout history. The Roman Empire first encountered the Euphrates in the first century A.D. and the name of the river was first written with the Latin alphabet using mosaics found in Zeugma. However, the history of the region dates back to centuries before that. The “old” Halfeti which was submerged under the water during the building of the Birecik Dam and the “new” Halfeti which was then built along the river is just one example that demonstrates how this river has been a transformer of civilizations throughout history. The documentary will focus on the living history of the region and carry out visual and oral recordings. The expertise of local archeologists and social scientists will be utilized here as well. However, as always, this global and academic perspective will be enriched with the narratives of the local people and the two perspectives will be enhanced with visual recordings.

  1. The Place Where It All Started

The discovery of the Göbeklitepe ruins is a major archeological achievement that will probably lead to the reconstruction of the history of humanity. Because of ongoing excavation it is not yet clear how far back these ruins date but a rough estimate is that the oldest pieces date to 13 thousand years from now. This cluster of the world’s oldest prayer ground is a clear testimony to the significance of the ancient cultures around Euphrates. Göbeklitepe is in close proximity to the Euphrates and considering that rivers change their beds over time, it is most likely that this prayer ground could have been initially built right on the coast of this river.

Göbeklitepe together with the Nevali Çöri Mound on the Kantara Stream, a tributary of the Euphrates excavated in 1983-1991, forms a striking example of civilizations that go far back than the written history of the world. The proposed documentary will record these archeological treasures and pass on their significance utilizing the expertise of academics and archeologists. Considering the future tourism implications of Göbeklitepe the importance of such a documentary is indisputable.

Project Directors

Student Assistants

Collection Development Team