Tales of the Euphrates: From AramcoWorld to AramcoExPats

In a conversation the other day with a retired high school librarian, I happened to mention Aramco. Much to my surprise, without any prompting from me, she launched into a long paean in praise of the company’s signature publication, AramcoWorld.

“Every couple months for as long as I can remember,” she raved, “they sent us free of charge this gorgeous magazine filled with beautiful pictures and wonderful articles. It was like one of those old Arizona Highways magazines you used to see once upon a time­­—that good, and maybe even better. Every page was shiny, every layout was striking and caught your eye.”

Readers of AramcoExPats needn’t be reminded of the glories of AramcoWorld. If you’re like me, you’ve been reading and admiring its printed handiwork for years and years. Few companies or organizations anywhere can claim a publication that matches it in quality and content. The Smithsonian in Washington, DC, of course, and probably MOMA in New York City and a few other iconic institutions of their ilk scattered here and there, but that’s about it. AramcoWorld keeps Impressive company, making it an admirable printed goodwill ambassador for the company and the Kingdom to reading audiences around the world and a wise Public Relations investment.

Every now and then, when preparing a new piece for publication in our newsletter and on our website, we stumble upon an article from AramcoWorld touching on a similar theme or topic. Often in such cases, we will quote directly from the AramcoWorld piece to amplify our arguments. Why mess with perfection? - a reasonable consideration we heeded while preparing a series of articles about an Aramcon adventure on the Euphrates River in eastern Anatolia.

AXP is fortunate to have a strong and beneficial working relationship with AramcoWorld, one that allows us to offer direct links to their publication as part of the Pipeline feature found on our website.

In 2018, in something of a reversal of the normal order of things, AXP published several feature articles whose subjects were visited later in the year by AramcoWorld. I’m thinking in particular about AXP articles on the dromedary camel (October), the Arabian horse (September), and Arab garb—specifically in our case the omnipresent ghutrah—(August).

In forthcoming 2019 issues, AXP will be running a series of articles telling the in-depth story of a group of Aramco ExPats who 40 years ago mounted a successful assault on the dangerous, rapids-infested upper reaches of the Euphrates River in eastern Anatolia straight through the heart of Kurdish Turkey. While doing background research for the piece, we discovered a number of outstanding articles from long-ago issues of—what else? AramcoWorld—touching on the subject of past attempts to conquer the Euphrates. Realizing that a topic we speculated might be interesting to our readers was considered worthy of being featured in AramcoWorld encouraged us all the more to pursue to completion our research and writing on this subject.

As for the two AramcoWorld articles in question, one, “Wreck Of The Tigris,” written by John Brinton and published in 1969, told of an unlikely assault on the lower reaches of the Euphrates in 1835 led by Francis Rawdon Chesney, an English officer in the Royal Artillery.

The other, “Down the Gorge,” written by adventure travel guru Richard Bangs and published in 1981, was his first-hand account of a successful assault led by him three years earlier on the same stretch of the Upper Euphrates as that confronted by the aforementioned Aramcons in 1979.

Both articles dramatically portray the dangers posed by the Euphrates to any adventurer daring enough to challenge her waters. A brief revisit here to the adventures of Chesney in 1835 and to those of Bangs in 1978, along with an account of two 1838 assaults on the Upper Euphrates led by a future Prussian field marshall, will give interested readers a foretaste of what is to come.

“[W]e cannot be surprised to find that the Euphrates at one time formed the principal link connecting Europe commercially with the East,” Chesney asserted with confidence as justification for his enterprise. “Its historical celebrity has excited in its favour an interest superior to that which has been felt for any other river; and it may be reasonably expected that when its advantages shall be fully known and truly appreciated, it will rise to a high degree of political and commercial importance.”

In the spring of 1835, with King William IV himself as his patron, Chesney mounted an epic quest to transport in pieces two paddle wheel steamships made of iron—one, named the Tigris, 70 feet long, the other, named the Euphrates, 103 feet long—from the mouth of the Orontes River on the Mediterranean coast of Syria overland 140 miles through mountains and swamps and deserts to Bicerek on the banks of the Euphrates in southern Turkey. To get there, they would have to carve their own road out of the harsh wilderness.

After ten months of brutal struggle, in late February 1836 the party reached the Euphrates. Eighteen days later, finished riveting their vessels back together, they set off downstream on a mission to map the river’s course. Two months into their southward journey, 300 miles downriver from their point of entry, they encountered a violent desert storm. With scant forewarning, the two boats found themselves entrapped in a powerful vortex, not of water but of wind. With startling fury and speed, the funnel of a fearsome tornado swept directly over them. Chesney described the scene:

“The sky assumed an appearance such as we had never before witnessed, and which was awful and terrific in the extreme. A dense black arch enveloped the whole horizon, and the space beneath the arch was filled up with a body of dust of brownish, orange color, whirling around, and at the same time advancing at us with fearful rapidity … At this moment the hurricane came on us—a warm, dry wind, laden with the fragrance of the aromatic plants of the wilderness, followed a few moments later by a tremendous blast of wind with some rain in large drops. The crash broke upon us like the boom of artillery, and the hurricane seemed as if bent upon hurling both steamers at once to the bottom of the foaming river.”

The tornado capsized and sank the Tigris, sending its captain and 20 of his crew to their watery graves. Chesney, who had been standing on the deck of the Tigris when the twister struck, was miraculously tossed unharmed onto shore. He rallied his fellow survivors, and they voted to complete the final 1,100 miles of their journey to the Arabian Gulf aboard the Euphrates despite receiving a dispatch from London calling for an end to the expedition. Thirty years passed before Chesney finally published his official report on the Euphrates expedition at the personal urging of Queen Victoria.

Three years after the Tigris tragedy, two attempts to conquer the Upper Euphrates River in eastern Anatolia were led by future field marshall Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke—then a captain in the Prussian army on loan to Sultan Mahmud II. Von Moltke’s dramatic accounts vividly portray the dangers that Richard Bangs would encounter in 1978 and 11 Aramco ExPats would likewise encounter one year later.

“The heat is terrible there,” von Moltke wrote of conditions in the northernmost reaches of the geo-cultural historical region known to history as Kurdistan, then a troublesome appendage of the Ottoman Empire. “Our poor horses were tied from dawn to dusk in the heat of the sun, protected only by their thick felt blankets. The vermin tortured them terribly and their only food was freshly cut hay. Water was brought in animal bladders. But we were not much better off in the tents. A lot of tarantulas crawled on the canvas, the snakes sought refuge under their shadows, and countless scorpions lived among the stones. … [T]he air was so oppressive that you only got up after sunset and walked around.”

The Ottoman governor of the province had previously sent two rafting expeditions down the Euphrates in an effort to gauge its suitability as a transportation corridor for shipping wood, iron, and grain south into Mesopotamia where they were in short supply. Both had failed, with loss of life, but the Pasha wanted to try again. He asked von Moltke if he would be willing to undertake an effort, and the answer was yes. The only reasonable option for traveling through the territory below was by water.

“No European observer has yet penetrated this pathless wilderness,” von Moltke wrote of the territory he planned to traverse, “which is inhabited by hostile Kurdish tribes. Along the shore there is no way to get through, but only on the river itself.”

Preparations for a difficult overland journey by horseback were quickly made. By the time von Moltke’s party reached Sivan-Maaden on the Murad, a tributary of the Euphrates, four days later, half their horses had died on the tortuous trek. The Pasha’s great Arabian mare, however, was spared.

Using a primitive-yet-effective watercraft known as a kellek fashioned from 60 inflated sheepskins, von Moltke and four companions embarked on the 10th of July, floating downriver “with extraordinary speed” to the confluence of the Murad with a second tributary branch of the Euphrates, the Firat. Together the two streams formed what we think of today as the Euphrates proper, known as the Firat to the Turks. From there they continued on to the plains of Malatya near Keban-Maaden, known for its silver and iron mines and marble quarry.

“The Euphrates narrows down below Keban-Maaden between rough mountains,” he continued. “High, wild mountain masses converge from both sides, and from now on the stream flows through deep, gruesome rock cliffs. Our carriage slid with extraordinary speed, and the stream-bed was scarcely half as wide as it had been above.”

Tales of the Euphrates: From AramcoWorld to AramcoExPats

A day’s journey past Keban-Maaden, von Moltke’s party came face to face with the most serious rapids of their journey. They heard a distant roar echoing off rugged cliffs and the river’s yard began to accelerate, announcing they were approaching a notorious stretch he referred to as “the Serpent’s Mill.” Faced with rapids sporting waves as high as 15 feet, they struggled. Starting there, similar rapids—“over 300 in number, one after another”—formed a continuous line almost 20 miles long. He cleverly dubbed them in Latin “the cataractae Euphratis.”

“The worst spots are at the town of Şiro,” he wrote, “and then three falls, one immediately after the other, just above Tilek, where steaming hot sulfur springs emerge from out of the rock. In a jagged crevice not far below this village, the 200- to 300-yard wide stream is narrowed by a landslide to 35 yards. This place is called ‘the Stag’s Leap.’ ”

Sensing danger, the party put in to shore, got out of their kellek, and climbed up on a nearby promontory, from which they surveyed the water ahead. Only then did they venture into the vortex.

“These rapids always lie at those points where the precipitous bed of a small side stream flows into the river,” he went on. “Out of the ravine a lot of bigger and smaller rocks have fallen down over time. At the mouth of the brook (which in itself is quite insignificant), they pricked a tongue which diminished the breadth of the stream, and eastward there are still immense blocks of stone rolled up into the bed itself, which protrude at a low level, but higher at flood, to which they put forth an invincible resistance. The torrential river, narrowed and, thrown from its direction, bashes against the protrusions, forming above them a high wall of water, and beyond that a vast foaming and swirling stream, as if you were pouring water from a wide vessel into a narrow funnel.

“At a much slower rate, the Euphrates now flows between high, temperate walls, but the mountains are on either side, and the side-valleys are narrowed by low, basaltic walls. The reddish rock, which falls true to the river, rises to a height of six hundred feet. It shows the grotesque forms of sandstone formation and many caves. Some of them contain the ruins of ancient monasteries, which can only be reached on a narrow, dizzying path along the rock wall, and strange towers cling to the cliffs.”

“I finished my water ride at Samsat,” he wrote in his conclusion to his account of this episode, “as I had previously followed the Euphrates on its route from there to Biresik or Birt (another name for Biresik) by land. Thus my reconnaissance will follow up on the report which Colonel [sic] Chesney has made from there.”

Von Moltke’s first trip down the Euphrates proved less than satisfactory, leaving him and Hafiz-Pasha eager to undertake another investigation into its possibilities as a transportation option in early April 1839. With the river running 15 feet higher than the previous July, Hafiz-Pasha asked von Moltke to make a second attempt to determine its feasibility as a passage for goods to Mesopotamia. The Prussian officer again accepted the commission, despite strong opposition from the men upon whom he would have to depend to carry out the task.

“The most experienced of the kelektschi Kurds declared it to be quite impossible to float down the rapids,” he wrote, “pointing out that even with favorable water levels for three earlier attempts, two had crashed. At supper the Pasha proposed to me the expedition. I therefore rode that same evening to Esebeh on the Murad, where my kellek or raft was quickly built by torchlight and was afloat soon after midnight. Towards sunrise I came to Kemer Khan where the difficult spots begin. That was certainly bad. What had once been rapids was now a waterfall, and before Serpent Mill I had to disassemble my ark into its integral parts, carry rods, tubes, and luggage over land, and reassemble it all below the cataract, which took three hours.

“Above Tilek, the raft had to be taken apart again. It was not possible to get through the waterfalls and the surf from there. At sunset we landed at Tilek, where we stayed the night. In six days, we had covered a distance for which I used four and twenty over land. Accompanying me was an engineer-colonel, Mehmet-Effendi, and his companion. They told me that they did not feel obligated to accompany me any further, that they had had enough, to which I had no objection.

“As soon as we set off from the shore,” von Moltke wrote, “the kellek was swept away with lightning speed. I could hardly believe that it would take us 10 or 15 minutes to cover an hour’s journey—but how? The Murad [Euphrates], which is over 250 yards wide, narrows to 100, to 80 and fewer yards. The whole mighty mass of water rushes down through this funnel and over boulders, giving rise to enormous whirlpools and waves, so that in some places water fountains five feet high or more rise upright, while on either side the tide shoots quickly against the cliffs and appears as if boiling. The billowing waters literally hit our heads, and the raft was at times completely under water.

“The biggest danger was capsizing while ascending or descending one of the steep, high waves. Rowing was out of the question. Two of the kelektschi fell overboard, but they were bound with safety lines and thus saved. Among the rest of the team there was the greatest consternation, and the kellek continued on for a third hour ‘at its discretion’ until Allah led us sideways into a whirlpool, turning us around a dozen times. …

“The oars were now used with great effort, but it seemed doubtful for some time whether we would reach the shore, or, taken by the stream, be led to a new waterfall. The poles, which were joined to the raft, are 1 ½ to 2 inches thick. Three of them were broken right in the middle, four of the tubes were flattened, and two of them had broken loose and floated away. But fortunately we managed to reach the shore.

At that point, Sergeant Suleiman, a devout Muslim, jumped out of the swaying kellek onto a protruding rock, fell to his knees, turned toward the Kaaba, and raised his hands in prayer. Another Muslim, named Ali-Aga, vowed to slaughter a lamb as a thank-you gift to Allah for having saved his life. After that harrowing episode, von Moltke was forced to revise his opinion of the Euphrates’ commercial possibilities:

“I had previously been convinced that one could probably make it through there,” he wrote, “for there is no tougher being than these kelleks. … But as soon as we initiated the attempt, I had a great interest in bringing it to an end. It could not have been any worse. … The question of navigability was completely answered, the impossibility of running down goods was revealed, and I found myself compelled to repent.”

The length of river described so vividly by von Moltke was precisely the same length of river attempted by the group of Aramcons whose Euphrates adventures will be detailed in future AXP articles. In 1978, Richard Bangs led a successful assault of those same waters, an account of which was published two years later in AramcoWorld. Like the nineteenth century Chesney and von Moltke expeditions, Bangs’ twentieth-century expedition encountered extreme dangers, as would the Aramcon expedition the following year.

As an adventure travel guru forever in search of new options he could promote to prospective customers, Bangs envisioned his effort as an exploratory rafting trip that would set the stage for future commercial expeditions.

In a 1981 article for AramcoWorld, Bangs recounted their experience:

“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.”

“Through this Grand Canyon of the Euphrates,” he 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.”

The Bangs Upper Euphrates expedition would serve as the model for a doughty band of ExPats from Aramco when they launched their own assault on those legendary waters one year later. Look for an account of their adventures in future newsletters.