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The Rhine canyon (Ruinaulta) in the Grisons in Switzerland
The Rhine canyon (Ruinaulta) in the Grisons in Switzerland
Origin Grisons, Switzerland
Mouth North Sea
Basin Countries Switzerland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Netherlands
Length 1,320 km (820 mi)
Source Elevation Vorderrhein: approx. 2,600 m (8,500 ft)
Hinterrhein: approx. 2,500 m (8,200 ft)
Avg. Discharge Basel: 1,060 m³/s (37,440 ft³/s)
Strasbourg: 1,080 m³/s (38,150 ft³/s)
Cologne: 2,090 m³/s (73,820 ft³/s)
Dutch border: 2,260 m³/s (79,823 ft³/s)
Watershed Area 185,000 km² (71,430 mi²)

At 1,320 kilometres (820 miles) and an average discharge of more than 2,000 cubic meters per second, the Rhine (German Rhein, French Rhin, Dutch Rijn, Romansch: Rein, Italian: Reno) is one of the longest and most important rivers in Europe. The name of the Rhine in all these languages comes from Celtic Renos, literally "that which flows", from the Proto-Indo-European root *rei- ("to flow, run"), which also gave the word "to run" in English.

The Rhine and the Danube formed most of the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, and since those days the Rhine has been a vital navigable waterway, carrying trade and goods deep inland. The many castles and prehistoric fortifications along the Rhine testify to its importance as a waterway. A castle identifies a location where traffic was stopped, usually for the purpose of collecting tolls, by the state controlling that portion of the river.



The Rhine shortly after the Lake Constance
The Rhine shortly after the Lake Constance


The Rhine's origins are in the Swiss Alps in the canton of Graubünden, where its two main initial tributaries are called Vorderrhein and Hinterrhein. The Vorderrhein (anterior Rhine) springs from Lake Tuma near the Oberalp Pass and passes the impressive Ruinaulta (the Swiss Grand Canyon). The Hinterrhein (posterior Rhine) starts from the Paradies glacier near the Rheinquellhorn at the southern border of Switzerland. Both tributaries meet near Reichenau, still in Graubünden.

Germany and France

When leaving Graubünden, the Rhine flows north to form the frontier with Liechtenstein and then Austria, and then empties into Lake Constance. The Rhine then re-emerges, flows west, mainly on the border between Switzerland and Germany, falls over the Rhine Falls, is joined by the Aare river which more than doubles its water discharge to an average of nearly 1,000 cubic meters per second already, and then turns north at the so-called Rhine knee in Basel and forms the southern part of the border between Germany and France in a wide valley, before entering Germany exclusively.

At over 1000 kilometres in length, the Rhine is the longest river primarily within Germany. It is here that the Rhine encounters some of its main tributaries, such as the Neckar, the Main and later the Moselle, which contributes an average discharge of over 300 cubic meters per second.

Between Bingen and Bonn, the Rhine flows through the Rhine Gorge, a formation created by erosion, which happened at about the same rate as an uplift in the region, leaving the river at about its original level, and the surrounding lands raised. This gorge is quite deep, and is the stretch of the river known for its many castles and vineyards. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (2002) and known as "the romantic Rhine".

Though many industries can be found along the Rhine up into Switzerland, it is in the Ruhr area that the bulk of them are concentrated. The Ruhr river, a surprisingly clean river used for drinking water production, adds another 70 cubic meters per second to the Rhine here; however other rivers from the Ruhr area, above all the Emscher, still cause a considerable degree of pollution. Approaching the Dutch border, the Rhine now has an average discharge of 2,290 cubic metres per second and an average width of more than 1,000 feet.

the Netherlands

The Rhine then turns west into the Netherlands, where together with the Meuse it forms an extensive delta. Crossing the border into the Netherlands at Spijk, the Rhine is at its widest, but the river then splits into three main distributaries: the IJssel, the Waal and the Nederrijn (Lower Rhine). From here the situation becomes more complicated, as the name "Rhine" no longer coincides with the main flow of water. Most of the Rhine water (two thirds) flows further west through the Waal and then via the Nieuwe Waterweg and, merging with the Meuse, through the Hollands Diep and Haringvliet estuaries into the North Sea. The other third portion of the water flows through the Pannerdens kanaal and redistributes in the IJssel and Nederrijn. The IJssel branch carries one third of the water north into the IJsselmeer while the Nederrijn flows west parallel to the Waal and carries approximately two ninths of the flow.

However, beyond Wijk bij Duurstede the Nederrijn changes its name and becomes the Lek. It flows further west to rejoin the main flow into the Nieuwe Waterweg. The name "Rhine" from here on is used only for smaller streams further to the north which together once formed the main river Rhine in Roman times. Though they retained the name, these streams do not carry water from the Rhine anymore, but are used for draining the surrounding land and polders. From Wijk bij Duurstede, the old north branch of the Rhine is called Kromme Rijn ("Crooked Rhine") and past Utrecht, first Leidse Rijn ("Leiden Rhine") and then Oude Rijn ("Old Rhine"). In Leiden, the river splits into Oude Rijn and Nieuwe Rijn. After the castle, the Burcht, the Rhine merges into the Rijn, or Rhine. The latter flows west into a sluice at Katwijk, where its waters can be discharged into the North Sea. This branch once formed the line along which the Upper Germanic limes were built.

Railway bridges

Railway bridges (with nearest train station on the left and right bank):

  • Switzerland
    • Tens of bridges in Graubünden, too numerous to list
Bridge at Karlsruhe
Bridge at Karlsruhe


Map of the Rhine
Map of the Rhine

Tributaries from source to mouth:


Canals include

Geologic History

Alpine Orogeny

Since the Rhine flows from the Alps, a precondition of its existence is the uplifting of the Alps, which began in the Alpine Orogeny. The stage was set in the Triassic Period of the Mesozoic Era, with the opening of Tethys Sea between the Eurasian and the African plates, between about 240 MBP and 220 MBP. The Mediterranean descends from this somewhat larger Tethys sea.

At about 180 MBP, in the Jurassic Period, the two plates reversed direction and began to compress Tethys floor, causing it to be subducted under Eurasia and pushing up the edge of the latter plate in the Alpine Orogeny of the Oligocene and Miocene Periods. Several microplates were caught in the squeeze and rotated or were pushed laterally, generating the individual features of Mediterranean geography: Iberia pushed up the Pyrenees; Italy the Alps, and Anatolia, moving west, the mountains of Greece and the islands. The compression and the orogeny continue today, as the ongoing raising of the mountains a small amount each year and the active volcanoes signify.

Just to the north of the Alpine Orogeny were highlands resulting from an earlier orogeny (Variscan) along similar lines. These highlands helped to divert the Rhine to the west; however, the Rhine's course is set by the Rhine graben, a rift that opened in the Eocene and Oligocene periods between the western Alps and the central Alps, caused by their moving in slightly different directions. The rift does not seem to be active now.

Stream Capture

The watershed of the Rhine reaches into the Alps today, but it did not start out that way (Berendsen & Stouthamer, 2001; Fig. 2.2). In the Miocene period, the watershed of the Rhine reached south only to the Eifel and Westerwald hills, about 450 km north of the Alps. The Rhine then had the Sieg as a tributary, but not yet the Mosel. The northern Alps were drained by the Donau then.

Through stream capture, the Rhine extended its watershed southward. By the Pliocene period, the Rhine had captured streams down to the Vosges mountains, including the Mosel, the Main, and the Neckar. The northern Alps were drained by the Rhône then.

By the early Pleistocene period, the Rhine had captured most of its current Alpine watershed from the Rhône, including the Aare. Since that time, the Rhine has added the watershed above Lake Constance (Vorderrhein, Hinterrhein, Alpenrhein; captured from the Rhône), the upper reaches of the Main (beyond Schweinfurt), and the Vosges mountains (captured from the Meuse) to its watershed.

Ice Age

The Pleistocene (~2.5 million years ago - 10,000 years ago) was the geological period of the Ice Ages. Since approximately 600,000 years ago six major Ice Ages occurred, in which sealevel dropped 120 m, and much of the continental margins became exposed. In the Early Pleistocene, the Rhine followed a course to the NW, through the present North Sea. During the so-called Elsterien glaciation (~420,000 yr BP, marine oxygen isotope stage 12) the northern part of the present North Sea was blocked by the ice, and a large lake developed, that overflowed through the English Channel. This caused the Rhine course to be diverted through the English Channel. Since then, during glacial times, the river mouth was located near Brest(France), and rivers like the Thames, and Seine became tributaries to the Rhine. During interglacials, when sealevel rose to approximately the present level, the Rhine built a delta in what is now called The Netherlands.

During the last Ice Age (~70,000-10,000 yr BP= Before Present), at the end of the Pleistocene, the lower Rhine flowed roughly west through the Netherlands and then to the southwest, through the English Channel, and finally to the Atlantic Ocean. The English and Irish Channels, the Baltic Sea and the North Sea were still dry land, mainly because sea level was approximately 120 m lower than today. At about 5000 BC, flooding and erosion began to open the English Channel. Most of the Rhine's current course was not under the ice during the last Ice Age, although its source must then have been a glacier. A tundra with Ice Age flora and fauna stretched across middle Europe from Asia to the Atlantic Ocean. Such was the case during the Last Glacial Maximum, ca. 22,000-14,000 yr BP, when ice covered Scandinavia and the Baltic, Britain and the Alps, but left the space between as open tundra. The loess, or wind-blown dust over that tundra settled in and around the Rhine Valley, contributing to its current agricultural usefulness.

These events were well within the residence of man. Melt water adding to the ocean and land subsidence drowned the former coasts of Europe. The water is still rising, at the rate of about 1-3 mm per year. Further drowning is to come.

Rapid warming and change of vegetation to open forest began about 13,000 BP. By 9000 BP, Europe was fully forested. About 7000-5000 BP a general warming encouraged migration up the Danube and down the Rhine by peoples to the east, who may also have been encouraged by the sudden massive expansion of the Black Sea as the Mediterranean burst into it through the Bosphorus at about 7500 BP. At least one unsuccessful search for remains of villages on the floor of the Black Sea has been conducted.


The Palaeolithic

Lower Palaeolithic

Middle Palaeolithic

During the Middle Palaeolithic, ca 100,000-30,000 BP (the dates vary a geat deal) western Europe, including the Rhine and Danube Valleys, was occupied by Neanderthal Man, to which belonged the Mousterian culture of stone tools. Mousterian sites are not considered intrusive. It is believed that the Neanderthals may have evolved from the preceding Homo erectus in the vicinity of the glaciers, but the question has by no means been settled definitively.

Neanderthal sites are denser to the south, where open forest prevailed and the limestone terrain offered more caves as dwelling. The Rhine ran through an open tundra, where Neanderthals hunted big game, such as the woolly rhinoceros and the mammoth. Accordingly, open air Mousterian sites have been discovered in and around the Rhine valley.

Upper Palaeolithic

The Mesolithic

Prior to about 5600 BC, the Rhine Valley, along with most of Europe, was occupied by Cro-magnon man in the Mesolithic stage of cultural development; that is, they hunted and gathered, but owned a larger and more specialized tool kit than the Palaeolithic people, knew more about the plants and animals, and even may have kept a few animals.

The Neolithic

Linear Pottery culture

Michelsberg Culture

Globular Amphora Culture


Corded Culture

The Bronze Age

The Iron Age

During the early Iron Age, both banks of the Rhine were inhabited by Celtic tribes. However, in the beginning of the Pre-Roman Iron Age, ca 600 BC, the Proto-Germanic tribes crossed the Weser River and the Aller River, and expanded the whole distance to the banks of the Rhine. This expansion is shown archaeologically in the form of the Jastorf culture. From ca 500 BC and onwards, the lower Rhine and not the Weser and the Aller would increasingly mark the border between the Celtic tribes and the Germanic tribes.

Historic and Military Relevance

The human history of the Rhine begins with the writers of the late Roman Republic and early Roman Empire. Nearly all the classical sources mention the Rhine, and the name is always the same: Rhenus in Latin, Greek Rhenos. The Romans viewed the Rhine as the outermost border of civilization and reason, beyond which were mythical creatures and the wild Germans, not far themselves from being beasts of the wilderness they inhabited. As it was a wilderness, the Romans were eager to explore it. This view is typified by Res Gestae Divi Augusti, a long public inscription of Augustus in which he (or his ghost writer) boasts of his exploits, including sending an expeditionary fleet north of the Rhinemouth to Jutland, which no Roman had ever done (he says).

Throughout the long history of Rome, the Rhine was considered the border between Gaul or the Celts and the Germans, even though the border often was violated, as when the Germanics crossed it and joined with the Celts to form the Belgae (descending to Belgium). Typical of this point of view is a quote from Maurus Servius Honoratus, Commentary on the Aeneid of Vergil (On Book 8 Line 727):

"(Rhenus) fluvius Galliae, qui Germanos a Gallia dividit"
"(The Rhine is a) river of Gaul, which divides the Germans from Gaul."

The Rhine in the earlier sources was always a Gallic river.

As the conflict between Rome and the Germanics grew, the Romans found it necessary to station troops along the Rhine. They kept two army groups there (exercitus), the inferior, or "lower", and the superior, or "upper", which is the first distinction between upper Germany and lower Germany. It originally probably only meant upstream and downstream, the Niederrhein and Oberrhein regions of the map included with this article.

The Romans kept eight legions in five bases along the Rhine. The actual number of legions present at any base or in all depended on whether a state or threat of war existed. Between about 14 AD and 180 AD the assignment of legions was as follows.

For the army of Germania Inferior, two legions at Vetera (Xanten): I Germanica and XX Valeria (Pannonian troops); two legions at oppidum Ubiorum ("town of the Ubii"), which was renamed to Colonia Agrippina, descending to Cologne. The legions were V Alaudae, a Celtic legion recruited from Gallia Transalpina, and XXI, possibly a Galatian legion from the other side of the empire.

For the army of Germania superior, one legion, II Augusta, at Argentoratum (Strasbourg), and one, XIII Gemina, at Vindonissa (Windisch). Vespasian had commanded II Augusta before his promotion to imperator. In addition were a double legion, XIV and XVI, at Moguntiacum (Mainz).

The two originally military districts of Germania Inferior and Germania Superior came to influence the surrounding tribes, who later respected the distinction in their alliances and confederations. For example, the upper Germans combined into the Alemanni. For a time the Rhine ceased to be a border when a union of all the west Germanics, the Franks, crossed the river and occupied Roman-dominated Celtic Gaul as far as Paris.

Subsequently language changes began to play a major political role. West Germanic dissimilated into Low German and High German roughly along the old lines. Perhaps it had been doing so all along. Charlemagne united all the Franks in the Holy Roman Empire, but he did not rule over a people of uniform language. After his death the empire split more or less along language lines, with the Low German being spoken in the Netherlands and the High German in what became Germany. The Romanized Franks became the French. The Rhine once again became a political border.

The Rhine as border has been and is a mystical and political symbol. German authors and composers have written reams about it. During World War II, it was still considered the sacred border of Germany, and was still a defensive barrier. The Germans fought especially hard to defend it. The Rhine is closely linked to many important historical events — particularly military ones — in the adjacent states. For example:

  • It was a historic object of frontier trouble between France and Germany. Establishing France's "natural borders" on the Rhine was a long term goal of French foreign policy since the middle ages. French leaders such as Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte tried with varying degrees of success to annex lands west of the Rhine. In 1840 the Rhine crisis evolved, because the French prime minister Adolphe Thiers started to talk about the Rhine border. In response, the nationalistic song The Watch on the Rhine (Die Wacht am Rhein) was composed at that time and during the Franco-Prussian War it rose to the status of an national anthem in Germany. The song calls for defending the Rhine against France. The song remained popular in World War I.
  • At the end of WWI the Rhineland was subject to the Treaty of Versailles, which created lots of bitterness in Germany, and was one of the many reasons for World War II. The reoccupation of the Rhineland by Nazi Germany increased Hitler's popularity in Germany.
  • The Rhine bridge of Remagen became famous in World War II when the Germans failed to demolish the bridge in time and the allied troops were able to establish a bridgehead - much to their own surprise.
  • Mainz Cathedral - Over 1,000-year-old cathedral is seat to the Bishop of Mainz. Holds significant historic value as seat to the once politically powerful secular prince-archbishop within the Holy Roman Empire. Houses historical funerary monuments and religious artifacts.
  • Das Rheingold - The Rhine is one of the settings for the first opera of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle. The action of the epic opens and ends underneath the Rhine, where three Rhinemaidens swim and protect a hoard of gold.
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  • H.J.A. Berendsen & E. Stouthamer (2001): Palaeogeographic development of the Rhine-Meuse delta, The Netherlands; Koninklijke van Gorcum, Assen; ISBN 9023236955

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