The Orontes: The Backwards River of the Levant

Fertile farming region along the Orontes River Valley in Syria.
Fertile farming region along the Orontes River Valley in Syria.

5. Description

The Orontes River's waters run northward, which is the exact opposite direction of most other rivers in the region around Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon. Many other unique characteristics have arisen in this river due to its well-known reverse flow from south to north. The Orontes has long served as a boundary that separated Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon. However, the Egyptians called it Araunti, the Assyrians called it Arantu while the Macedonians named it Axius. The river arises up from underground springs in Lebanon in the eastern Beqaa Valley and flows to Syria, then to continue on its journey into Turkey. It runs for about 355 miles from start to finish at the port of Samandagi where it plunges into the Mediterranean Sea.

4. Historical Role

According to legend, the river was originally named Typhon, after a dragon who was hit by a lightning bolt and flew to hide under the earth. Later, a distinguished man named Orontes gave the river his name. In its long history, the Orontes was witness to many battles and altercations. In ancient times, Pharaoh Ramesses II of Egypt won the Battle of Kadesh along this river. The same river where the battle between Assyria and Damascus took place in 853 BC. The Battle of Iron Bridge in 637 AD also happened close to the bridge built by the Romans. The river was never navigable and its importance was due to the road that was along its banks. The river runs along the route from Antioch into Homs and, finally, into Damascus.

3. Modern Significance

Today, the Orontes gives much of its water to three countries as irrigation water. It waters 6% of land in Lebanon, 36% in Turkey, and 58% in Syria. That's a total of about 350,000 hectares of land. In the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, the irrigation nourishes field crops, fruits, and vegetables. The Mohafazat of Idleb and Al Ghab valley in Syria gets the most irrigation from the river. In Turkey, the Yarseli Dam and the Karamnali Dam benefit from the Orontes. Turkey and Syria have made an agreement to build another dam between their borders in 2009. Most of the Orontes River water is used by Syria and then Lebanon before a small amount gets to Turkey.

2. Habitat and Biodiversity

The Orontes River has many habitats, from the mountains of Lebanon where it flows out of many underground springs, to the mountains and valleys along its banks into Syria, and then on to its final journey along the Coast of Turkey towards the Mediterranean Sea. The river flows past plains, meadows, hills, valleys, gorges, and mountains of three countries. Cedar, grape vines, olive trees, and Aleppo pine all dominate the landscape of Lebanon while birds, fowls, ungulates, and reptiles roam its forests and plains. Syria has steppes, deserts, and forests with oaks, Aleppo pines, and conifers. Fauna range from ungulates, reptiles, songbirds, cats, wolf, and bear. Turkey has Balkan mixed forests, lakes, oak forests, and salt steppes. Fauna of the region include fowls, songbirds, predatory birds, ungulates, and wildcats.

1. Environmental Threats and Territorial Disputes

Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey alike have their own endangered flora and fauna found in their respective territories. However, because of civil unrest, the efforts put in by local and international conservation organizations are intermittent. In time of peace, Turkey and Syria have cooperated on dam construction along the Orontes River which should deliver more water to Turkey in the near future. Lebanon has made priority of rehabilitating old habitats for its fauna. Birds are also being monitored for their changing habits as to global warming effects. The poaching and killing of thousands of birds are also being assessed in Lebanon. Syria has been taking effective steps in supporting wildlife conservation efforts. Turkey has been busy lately with the great influx of Syrian refugees as a result of the ongoing civil strife in Syria. It has nature conservation laws that needs to be improved to international standards as with Syria and Lebanon.


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