Aramcons Challenge the Euphrates – Part I: Setting the Stage

In April 1979, in pursuit of spring break thrills, a largely untested band of young American ExPats living in Saudi Arabia and working for Aramco launched an unlikely assault on the treacherous upper reaches of the Euphrates River in eastern Turkey. While the Euphrates’ allure had inflamed imaginations for thousands of years, no one had dared challenge the most dangerous length of its upper reaches in any form of watercraft prior to the 1830s owing to the extreme danger the tempestuous cataracts said to be lurking there posed.

Hoary legend held that somewhere within one of its deep, impenetrable canyons, the river simply disappeared into a giant hole in the earth. A competing legend maintained on the contrary that it flowed instead over a giant waterfall. In either case, both legends warned, the Euphrates offered certain death to anyone who dared challenge its might. Such were the popular beliefs surrounding the river held by locals for centuries upon centuries upon centuries.

Two formal attempts early in the 1830s to conquer the river sponsored by the local Ottoman potentate failed spectacularly with loss of life, and only three parties had floated that stretch of river successfully since those tragedies and lived to tell about it. Of those three, two managed to make it through to the end only by portaging around the more dangerous rapids, forcing asterisks to be placed alongside their records.

That doughty 1979 mustering of Aramcons would be the fourth and last group in history to accomplish the feat. Fresh-faced innocents through to the core, they added their names to a centuries-long continuum of humanity drawn to the Euphrates’ waters by the river’s powerful spell. Their adventure was one part Mark Twain’s 1867 travelogue, The Innocents Abroad, one part Edgar Allen Poe’s 1841 short story, Descent Into the Maelström, one part John Boorman’s 1972 movie, Deliverance, and one hundred percent amazing, with a dash of Homer’s 8th Century BCE epic poem Odyssey thrown in for added flavor. They continued a tradition of exploration dating back thousands of years to the glory days of the Silk and Spice roads and even earlier. In the process, those ExPat adventurers matched or surpassed the accomplishments of their forerunners.

***

Measured in terms of historical significance, the Euphrates River and its sister stream to the east, the Tigris, are two of the foremost rivers of the world. Springing to life a short distance apart in far northeastern Turkey within view of Mount Ararat—thought by some to be the final resting place of Noah’s Ark—they wend their way south-southeast from there on meandering, roughly parallel courses through southern Turkey, across Syria, and on into the heart of Iraq before merging below Baghdad to form the Shatt al-Arab estuary, emptying 120 miles later into the Arabian Gulf due east of Kuwait.

The land between the lower reaches of the two rivers—known to history as Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq)—is often referred to as “The Cradle of Civilization.” There, in ancient times, over the course of five millennia, a progression of bygone city-states and empires rose and fell. There, too, scholars maintain, the wheel and writing were invented, the earliest city-states took shape, the first book appeared, and the oldest codified set of laws was promulgated. There, in short, key early chapters in the history of civilization were written.

Hundreds of miles upstream from the Cradle in eastern Anatolia (present-day Turkey)—the Euphrates formed the natural frontier in early antiquity between Armenia to the east and Cappadocia to the west, two regions rich in their own histories and traditions and cultures. At the height of the Classical Age, when the river marked the eastern border of the Roman Empire, this land was home to dozens of prosperous cities, most of which disappeared ages ago beneath the sands of time, others of which have been layered over in the ensuing centuries time and again by a succession of new settlements. Some even argue that this land was the historical home of the Garden of Eden, described in the Book of Genesis as lying between the confluence of four rivers. According to this thesis, the writer—long-presumed to be Moses—was referring to the headwaters of the Turkish rivers known today as the Pison, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates. Every stone, every clod of earth, every hill and valley along their lengths has a story to tell, if only they could speak and we would listen.

Turkey has been called “the Crossroads of Civilizations” with good reason. It sits athwart the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Hellespont, considered together as the dividing line between Europe and Asia ever since the 5th century BCE when the Greek term “Ασία” first appeared in the writings of Herodotus. For thousands of years, traders and explorers, armies and adventurers, the curious and brave and driven have passed through Anatolia on their way to and fro’ between Asia and Europe. Among the paths they followed were branches of the fabled Silk Road. With origins predating recorded history, what we think of today as the Silk Road spanned the vast Eurasian landmass from the Yellow River Valley of China in the east to the Mediterranean basin in the west along a string-like array of intertwining corridors defined by geography and the whims and vagaries of human history.

Further south, the Spice and Incense routes of yore tied together a broad swath of lands stretching across the underbelly of the Eastern Hemisphere—by ship via the Indian Ocean, Arabian Gulf, and Red Sea, by caravan across India, Afghanistan, Persia, Arabia, and the Levant. A partial listing of the goods funneled through those sprawling trade networks evokes visions of far-away, exotic places, of crucibles where myths and legends were forged: cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and pepper; frankincense and myrrh; diamonds and rubies; emeralds and sapphires; ebony and ivory; pearls, silver, and gold; silk and tea and porcelain; carpets and tapestries and furs; horses and camels; lions and leopards; and so much more.

Divergent, less-trodden byways intersected with the primary east-west trunk lines at key junctures, drawing into a common web the far-flung hinterlands of Asia. Via the Silk Road and the Spice and Incense routes, eastern Anatolia and the Euphrates were connected with much of the known world throughout history. Culture, art, language, religion, scientific knowledge, philosophy—civilization in all of its manifold forms—had long been commodities exchanged by way of these routes. As modernity took hold, the interplay of distant cultures accelerated, growing more complex. Throughout the centuries, the Euphrates River had served as a primary conduit for such exchanges.

***

In the early summer of 1978, noted adventure travel guru Richard Bangs, in search of a new option he could promote to prospective customers, led an exploratory rafting trip down the Upper Euphrates River in eastern Turkey. In a 1981 article for Saudi Aramco World, Bangs recounted their run.[1]

“I wanted to test the Euphrates as a potential rafting run,” he wrote. “And information of that sort, I found, was less than simple to uncover. I began with tedious visits to libraries that smelled like the interior of Byzantine tombs, but didn’t have an artifact of a practical reference; proceeded to Readers’ Guides, in eight different languages; and thence to the map room, where I found the first morsel of meaning on a one-to-one million scale map: a faint tracing of the river’s course.

“The Euphrates springs from central Turkey. Its largest affluent, the Murat, leaps to life in the perennial snows of Mt. Ararat, Turkey’s highest peak at 16,946 feet. After that, though, it turns into a flat, fat serpent slithering toward its merger with the Tigris and its exit into the Gulf. But for some 300 miles through the escarpment of the Anatolian Plateau, the Euphrates drops like a steep, twisting staircase, kicking whitewater spray up against sheer canyon walls and darting down narrow gorges. Midway, the feisty flow has been arrested by the Keban Dam, a power project completed five years ago, but below the reservoir runs the longest, deepest canyon of the 1,800-mile-long river. This canyon had to be our target.

“But we still needed practical information. What was the river like in various parts of its course? Where could we launch our rafts and where haul them ashore? What supplies could be found locally? And what sort of authorizations would we need? Above all, where could we get maps—really good, large-scale topographic survey maps of the river area? Though good maps of Turkey do exist, they’re virtually impossible to examine; as in many countries, serious maps are classified for military use.

“For a while, it looked as if the trip was over before it had begun. We tried the U.S. State Department. We wrote the Turkish Tourist Board in New York for the official tourist map. We explored the Library of Congress. But all we drew was blanks. On the tourist map, for example, the end of Turkey that includes the Euphrates was simply left off, and even the one-to-five hundred thousand Tactical Pilotage Charts were still listed as ‘classified’ at the Library of Congress.

“Still, we had to have detailed information about the river, so I ventured to Washington, D.C.—to visit the Turkish embassy—went on to the consulate in San Francisco, ferreted out some people who had passed through eastern Turkey and finally, hungry for anything, wrote to the authors of guidebooks to Turkey, especially Fodor’s and the seminal Turkey on $5 and $10 a Day. Fodor never answered, but Tom Brosnahan, author of $5 and $10, sent back an encyclopedia of contacts and information garnered from his years in Turkey as a Peace Corps volunteer and academic. We were on our way at last.”

After a hair-raising descent from the furthest upper reaches of the Euphrates, Bangs and his group re-entered the river below the recently completed Keban Dam and floated down from there to the river’s most dangerous stretch.

“Through this Grand Canyon of the Euphrates,” Bangs went on, “the river cuts its most imposing course, scything around a lava mass erupted from the Karajali volcano, and stabbing across anticlines of the Taurus Mountains. Here, too, are the river’s biggest rapids. Lulled by days of flat water, we’re taken by surprise when we plummet into the first cataract. Our boat is tossed like a tiny cork, and as it slaps on end I’m washed overboard, Micki loses her paddle, and our sense of anticlimax evaporates. This is not a complacent river after all; we have to listen to it, reckon with it.

“As, all afternoon, we do—in a series of Arizona-size rolling rapids that lash us with some honest thrills. Beyond the oblique canyon we can sometimes see snow-capped mountains and, at tributary mouths, we occasionally spot Kurdish women fetching water in long-necked clay jugs.

“Late on the sixth day, we enter a travertine gorge pocked with shallow caves. High on the west bank, fitted into a limestone alcove, sits a remarkable sight—a masterfully constructed, ancient, abandoned Byzantine monastery, one with no written history that we’re aware of, but as impressive as any in Turkey. Honeycombed with dank passageways, festooned with swallow nests, graced with Roman-arched doors, filled with bats and with no easy access to the world beyond the river gorge, the place is a hidden wonder. We can’t help but feel we’ve stumbled across something significant. It’s like finding gold while stranded on a desert isle: we can do little with the discovery, but feel richer nonetheless.”

***

The following year, the Bangs Upper Euphrates expedition would serve as the model for those ExPats from Aramco when they launched their own challenge to those legendary waters. Here follows a personal account of their adventure prepared and written by AramcoExPats in the first person voice based on in-depth research and an extensive series of interviews conducted with Vicci Turner–owner of AramcoExPats.com, an Aramco annuitant privileged to have lived and worked in the Kingdom for 25 years, and a member of that 1979 expedition.

Aramcons Challenge the Euphrates – Part I: Setting the Stage

***

There’s a dog-eared copy sitting on the bookshelf to my right of The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain’s waggish travelogue chronicling a trip he took with a group of American naifs as they traipsed about Europe, the Mediterranean, and environs in 1867.

Among the cities they visited in their peregrinations was Constantinople—today’s Istanbul—capital of what was then the Ottoman Empire. Twain paints a fanciful picture of Turkey as “the mysterious land where the giants and genii of the Arabian Nights once dwelt—where winged horses and hydra-headed dragons guarded enchanted castles—where Princes and Princesses flew through the air on carpets that obeyed a mystic talisman—where cities whose houses were made of precious stones sprang up in a night under the hand of the magician.”[2]

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness,” Twain declares, “and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

In 1979 I was part of a hardy band of modern-day innocents abroad, the lot of us American ExPats living in Saudi Arabia and working for Aramco that one day decided on impulse to seek thrills and adventure in Turkey. Not being the vegetating type Twain warned against, we escaped to Istanbul that spring and proceeded thence to eastern Anatolia to challenge a wild, untamed stretch of the Upper Euphrates River, adding a tiny new sliver of history to the stream’s age-old saga. We encountered no giants or genii along the way, no winged horses or hydra-headed dragons. What we witnessed instead was not imaginary but real, and for that very reason was far more exciting than any fantasy could ever hope to be.

Over the course of my 16 (and counting) years spent guiding AramcoExPats, I’ve had the honor of publishing hundreds of stories penned by fellow members of the Aramco family. The gold standard for me on that count was, is, and always will be the writings of the late Tim Barger, son of former Aramco President and CEO Thomas Barger. Tim’s gentle humor and deft storytelling never failed to connect with readers. Tim, we miss you.

I thought of Tim when preparing this story for AXP readers. The first time I shared it with him in the early days of the website, he insisted I must someday have it published. Thanks to the support and participation of the staff here at AXP, that day has finally come. My tale concerns an improbable rafting trip down the Grand Canyon of the Euphrates River in Turkey—located between the present-day sites of the Keban and Atatürk dams—undertaken by an adventurous band of American ExPat fledglings from Aramco. For us, the world was still young then, a wondrous place full of exciting opportunities just waiting to be seized by the daring and brave. The oldest of us was only 32. We were just learning to spread our wings, and I was by any measure the least worldly-wise among us. We were the fourth and last party in recorded history—and the one and only commercial expedition—to ever accomplish that feat. That alone made our achievement notable.

Our adventure will never be repeated in precisely the same way again—in scattered small pieces, perhaps, but never again in its entirety. It’s impossible. Miles and miles of what was in 1979 still largely an unharnessed, free-flowing stream disappeared years ago beneath the calm faces of man-made lakes and placid aqua ribbons formed behind a series of modern dams. Those barriers stemmed river flooding, churned out millions upon millions of kilowatts of electricity fed via transmission lines to the distant power-hungry provinces of western Turkey, and provided water for irrigation, boosting agriculture and driving modernization—all at a cost immeasurable in US dollars or Turkish lira as they laid waste to large swathes of priceless history and impossible-to-replicate indigenous culture.

While the distinctive, tradition-rich, river-centric world we coursed through for four unforgettable days and nights that spring has long since been washed away, the memories of what I witnessed are timeless. Scenes from that journey shimmer as vividly in my mind today as though it all happened only yesterday.

***

One morning in late 1978, several of us ExPat teachers were gathered in the Abqaiq Teachers Lounge busily chatting away in our usual earnest fashion when Charlie Franck burst in the room and asked excitedly, “Who wants to float down the Euphrates River over the April intersession?”

On the spot, with no hesitation, I decided I was in, that it would be a fun thing to do. Others soon signed on, and Charlie went to work making it happen. We were motivated in equal measure by the callowness of youth reinforced by an unquenchable thirst for adventure. Little did we realize what we were getting ourselves into, unburnished innocents that we were. While locals employing animal skin floats, log rafts, coracles, and other primitive types of watercraft had been plying stretches of the river for thousands of years, only three parties were known to have successfully rafted the length of the Upper Euphrates we’d targeted previously.

In 1838–39, future Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, then a captain in the Prussian army on assignment to Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II, made it down the Upper Euphrates, and in 1901, noted Yale geologist Ellsworth Huntington mounted a 190-mile expedition of his own which he later described in a pair of scholarly articles, one of them including a detailed topographical map of the river, its tributaries, and surrounding lands for many miles around.[3] Most recently, the afore-mentioned Richard Bangs, in search of a new option he could promote to prospective customers, led an exploratory rafting trip in 1978.

Confronted by similar challenges, Charlie turned to Bangs. Having learned of the Bangs party’s conquest, Charlie wrote directly to him at Sobek Expeditions in Angels Camp, California. Bangs and his partners named their company after Sobeck, an ancient Egyptian deity traditionally depicted with the head of a crocodile. Egyptians living in the days of the Old Kingdom invoked the name of Sobek, the god of crocodiles, when seeking protection from the dangers of the Nile. Four-and-a-half thousand years later, we would invoke the name of Sobek, the adventure travel company, for protection from the dangers of the Euphrates.

With Bangs’ assistance, Charlie enlisted the services of three skilled boatmen to serve as our guides—Mike Ghiglieri, a Ph.D. candidate at the time in the Department of Anthropology at UC Davis working as a river guide to pay his way through graduate school, Dan Dierker, and Dave Hinshaw. Bangs and his cohorts from the ’78 expedition stayed home. In their place came this trio of seasoned whitewater pros from America, none of whom had ever set foot in eastern Anatolia before, let alone rafted the Euphrates. For our assault on the river, the blind would be leading the blind down an unfamiliar path.

In the end, Charlie and his wife Tricia, Betty and Ed Staples, Jeff and Carol Reppun, George and Sandy Robinson, Bob Hart, and Ken Swayne and I decided to take the plunge. Our 11 plus three from Sobek made 14. The 15th member of our party—and the only non-Aramcon to join us save for our guides—was an American working for the Army Corps of Engineers in Turkey named Victor Dewey. Married to a Turkish woman, Vic spoke fluent Turkish and we needed an interpreter. Welcome aboard, Vic.

I need to correct those numbers. Actually, 16 of us made the trip, including an even dozen of us representing Aramco. Tricia was five months pregnant at the time.

A week before our scheduled departure, Ken and I moved from Abqaiq 70 miles south to Udhailiyah—the size of a postage stamp back then compared with today—with sons Rusty, 7, and Brad, 6. With no time to finish unpacking, we left behind a sea of half-empty boxes scattered around every corner of our new home, dropped the boys off with friends, and hastened to Dhahran just in time to catch our flight to Jeddah, with Turkey, Mark Twain’s “mysterious land where the giants and genii of the Arabian Nights once dwelt” as our final destination.

[to be continued]


Endnotes

1 Bangs, Richard, “Down the Gorge,” Saudi Aramco World, Volume 32, No. 1 (January/February 1981), 27-32.

2 Twain, Mark, The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrim’s Progress (Signet: 1966), p. 168.

3 For von Moltke’s personal account of his Euphrates experiences, see Moltke, H. von, Briefe über Zustande und Begobenheiten in der Tiirkei au den Jahren 1835 bis 1839 (Berlin, 1876), pp. 289–291, 360–363. For Huntington’s personal accounts of his Euphrates experiences, see Huntington, Ellsworth, “Through the Great Canyon of the Euphrates River,” Geographical Journal XXII (London, 1902), 181. See also Huntington, Ellsworth, “Valley of the Upper Euphrates River and Its People,” Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, XXXIV, No. 4 (1902): 301–310 and XXXIV, No. 5 (1902): 384–393.