Rhine, (German: Rhein, French: Rhin, Dutch: Rijn ), a major river of western Europe. At 820 miles (1,320 km), the Rhine is the longest of western European rivers. It passes through or borders parts of six countries.
Beginning in the Swiss Alps at the junction of two headstreams, the Vorderrhein and Hinterrhein, the river flows north and then west, forming part of the Swiss border with Liechtenstein, Austria, and Germany. At Basel, Switzerland, the Rhine flows northward through a broad valley between the Vosges range and Black Forest, serving as much of the French-German border. West of Frankfurt am Main, Germany, it cuts a narrow passage through a plateau and then meanders across lowlands to the Netherlands. There the river splits into several channels that flow to the North Sea through a wide delta—part of which is reclaimed land below sea level.
The Rhine's chief tributaries are the Aare, Neckar, Main, Moselle, Ruhr, and Meuse rivers. Its drainage basin covers an area of 86,000 square miles (223,000 km 2 ).
The Rhine, navigable upstream as far as Basel, is one of the world's busiest commercial waterways and an invaluable economic asset. A cheap, efficient means of transportation, the river aided the development of numerous cities along its banks. These include Basel, Switzerland's only port; Strasbourg in France; Mannheim, Mainz, Koblenz, Cologne, Düsseldorf, and Duisburg in Germany; and Rotterdam, one of the world's busiest ports, in the Netherlands. In its upper course the Rhine is a source of hydroelectric power. Since 1800 several major canals, linking the Rhine system to the Ems, Rhone, and Marne rivers, have been built.
With the completion of a canal connecting the Main and Danube rivers in 1992, the Rhine River system was linked to the Danube River. This established an inland waterway stretching from the North Sea to the Black Sea.
The fertile soils along its banks, and particularly at its mouths, are important to agriculture. To protect the valuable delta lowland from being flooded by the North Sea, without hindering navigation, the Dutch have constructed an elaborate system of dams and dikes across the Rhine's mouths.
The importance of the Rhine is more than economic, however. In music and literature the river is strongly tied to the German people. It is the subject of several songs, including a national song, Die Wacht am Rhein, "The Watch on the Rhine." A collection of stories about the river became the themes of Richard Wagner's opera series, The Ring of the Nibelung. Numerous myths surround the castles and cliffs that line the Rhine between Bingen and Koblenz, such as the rock of the Lorelei, where a Rhine nymph lured ships to destruction.
Its legends and natural beauty combine to make the Rhine a notable tourist attraction. Of special interest are Rheinfall, a 60-foot (18-m) waterfall west of Lake Constance, and the fabled "Romantic Rhine" between Bingen and Koblenz, with its medieval castles, rocky bluffs, and vineyards. Also of note are Lake Constance, a popular summer resort, and the headwaters of the Rhine that tumble between Alpine ranges.
Since ancient times the river has been of historic importance, both as a defensive frontier and as a chief inland trading route. The Romans, and later the Franks, fortified its banks and used it to hold back the barbaric Germanic peoples to the east. In the Middle Ages the Rhine was a major communications route between northern and southern Europe. From 1800 into the 20th century, the river played an important role as a frontier between France and the German states. The breakdown of defenses along its eastern banks marked the beginning of Germany's collapse in World War II.