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Above: two satellite images taken from Google Earth, showing the location of the Balikh valley.

Northern Syria beyond the Euphrates is an expanse of steppic landscape, bisected by small water streams, such as the Balikh. The basin of this minor perennial tributary of the Euphrates has a barren appearance today but it was characterized in antiquity by a highly diffuse river pattern dividing the river water into numerous channels, creating riverine forests and marshy areas. The archaeologist Max Mallowan, working in the valley in the late 1930s, described it as a swampy and unhealthy, malaria-ridden backwater.


The primary source of the Balikh river is the karstic spring of 'Ain al-'Arous, just 4 km south of the Syro-Turkish border. It receives its water from subterranean streams and periodical wadis that drain the fertile plain between Urfa and Harran in Turkey, below which the plain narrows as the river enters Syria, where it flows through more open but drier terrain. Several sidestreams such as Nahr Qaramokh and Nahr Julab contribute to the Balikh but for the larger part of the year these streams are dry.



The source of the Balikh at ‘Ain al-Arous in the 1920s, according to a contemporary picture on a postcard made by the French abbot and photographer G. Bretocq.



The Balikh flood plain, with in the distance Tell Hammam et-Turkman


The German explorer Eduard Sachau traveled through the Balikh region in 1879, on his way from Harran to Raqqa. In his book Reise in Syrien und Mesopotamien, published a few years later, he lyrically describes the main spring at `Ain al-`Arous: 


"Wir standen vor einem Teich in der Form eines Oblongums, etwa 100 Fuss breit und 500 Fuss lang, eingefasst von hohen und niedrigen, Schatten spendenden Bäumen, der Heimath eines reichen animalischen Lebens. Da sind Wasservögel aller Art ohne Zahl, Fische so zahlreich wie im heiligen Teich zu Edessa, dass man sie mit den Händen greifen könnte, und auf den Baumstümpfen, welche über der Wasserfläche hervorragen, liegen Schildkröten, einzeln und haufenweis (...). Der stille Teich mitten in der unfruchtbaren, sonnenverbrannten Steppe mit seinem glänzenden Wasserspiegel, mit seinen Bäumen und seinem Thierleben ist ein landschaftliches Bild von unwiderstehlichem Reiz, das den Reisenden mächtig bestrickt."




The Balikh river in the early 1990s, due south of the large mound of Tell Hammam et-Turkman

From its spring at 'Ain al-'Arous, the river runs from north to south for about 100 km, until it joins the Euphrates at the modern town of Raqqa. The valley is between 1 and 12 km wide, bounded by steep gravel terraces, and drops almost 100 metres between its main source near the Syro-Turkish border and its debouchement into the Euphrates near Raqqa.


The river itself is a small stream, with an average width of only about 6 metres. Only near its main spring at `Ain al-`Arous is the river considerably wider but it soon narrows, thereby meandering heavily. The average flow of the Balikh is about 6 m3/sec., which is very low when compared with the Euphrates or the Khabur which have an average flow of about 840 m3/sec. and 50 m3/sec. respectively. After the winter rains the flow of the Balikh may increase to a maximum of about 12 m3/sec., now commonly overflowing parts of its immediate surroundings.



The Balikh river today, due north of the large mound of  Tell Hammam et-Turkman. Large parts of this important local source of water have recently been subjected to canalization for irrigation purposes.


In the 1960s there were still many seasonally inundated fresh and saline marshes in the Balikh valley, such at Ali Bajiliyah, about 90 km north of Raqqa. There were extensive reedbeds along the Balikh and some open water at the village of Zkero, and about 10 km north along the road from Zkero on the western side was the pond of Shrakrak, about one hectare in extent. In the early 1980s there was an area of small permanent lakes (altogether about 50 ha) called Waz Göl (“Lake of the Geese”), fed by the spring at ‘Ain al-‘Arous.

  Wetland near the mound of Tell Sahlan, about 12 km to the north of Tell Sabi Abyad

Vegetation here, and probably elsewhere in the valley, predominantly consisted of Salix trees/bushes and stands of Phragmites, Lythrum, Carex and Luzula. However by the early 1990s the lakes, springs, and river itself were all dry due to major and unsustainable water abstraction from the Balikh river for irrigation in Turkey and Syria. The former wetlands have largely disappeared. The majority of the plain is cultivated with cereals and cotton and otherwise very heavily grazed by livestock.


Extensive fields of cotton dominate the plain of the Balikh nowadays. Ancient mounds rise above the fields: in the front, to the right, we see the low, Neolithic site of Tell Sabi Abyad II, while in the distance, to the left, we see the huge Bronze Age mound of Tell Hammam et-Turkman.


The climate of the Balikh valley is of an arid, steppe-like nature and is defined by a low annual precipitation and a very high evaporation exceeding precipitation many times. Of crucial importance is the 250 mm isohyet, transversally running through the valley and dividing the region into two zones of strongly differing land use. The lower Balikh area requires irrigation agriculture, while the upper Balikh region is suitable for dry farming.




Nevertheless, even in the northern rain-fed area, farming is a hazardous enterprise, since statistically a crop failure can be expected every second year. Near Raqqa on the Euphrates the average annual rainfall is 183 mm, whereas at Hazimeh, about 25 km north of Raqqa, rainfall is even less, with a yearly average of only 170 mm. At the town of Tell Abyad on the Syro-Turkish border the average annual precipitation is 275 mm.



The west bank of the Balikh in mid-summer 


The rainy season in the Balikh area starts at the end of October and lasts until April. Most rainfall occurs in January-February. A large part of the precipitation comes from heavy rain storms and cloudbursts; it is very well possible that most of the rain per month falls within 24 hours.



The gravel terraces of the Balikh. Many places are littered with flint nodules


Summers in the Balikh valley are dry and hot. July is the hottest month, when temperature may easily reach 45 °C in the shadow but may occasionally be considerably higher. Temperatures rise rapidly from May onwards, and fall in September. At Raqqa January is the coldest month, with an average temperature of 6.6°C, and an average minimum of 1.8 °C, but temperatures may drop below zero in winter.



Pastoralists with their sheep and goats in the extensive, flat plain of the Balikh


Due to the high temperatures and the related high evaporation, air humidity is very low in summer, resulting in very hot sunshine, relatively cold shadow and considerable differences between day and night temperatures. Differences in air pressure in summer cause winds of sometimes considerable velocity, regularly giving rise to dust storms and whirlwinds.



The modern village of Hammam et-Turkman, where the excavation team is living


The Balikh valley is wholly cultivated at present. Its northern parts, including the region around Tell Sabi Abyad, are suitable for dry farming but in the south agriculture necessitates irrigation. In the northern, rain-fed part wheat and barley are the main crops, supplemented by cotton, vegetables and occasionally apricots from irrigated fields, whereas in the south particularly cotton is grown on a very large scale. In addition to agriculture, animal husbandry – sheep and goats, to a lesser extent cattle – characterizes the modern land use.



Mud-brick houses in the village of Hammam et-Turkman



More pictures of the Balikh valley: