Romance, myths, conquests, commerce - the world's longest rivers all of have something in common; they capture our imaginations. Indeed, rivers are a lifeline for much of the world's population. The major rivers especially seem to be able to entrench themselves into our culture and psyche. All of the longest rivers, on each continent, have this power. Whether it is the Nile, Amazon, Yangtze, Mississippi or Danube, they each have a place in our hearts and our history.
So what is the longest river in the world? There are two candidates, the Nile and the Amazon. Traditionally, the Nile has been given the title, but a recent expedition along the Amazon in 2007 reported that it was actually more than 200 miles longer than its officially-listed length. That would make it the longest. This is probably what geologists debate after hours at the bar!
Whether it is the longest river in the world or not, at 4,160 miles, the Nile is undoubtedly one of the most impressive rivers in the world. It also has the distinction of being one of the few major rivers in the northern hemisphere that flows north. It became the cradle to one of the greatest civilizations of all time - the Egyptians. In modern times, the Nile has been further entrenched in our culture by novels and books, perhaps the most popular of which is Agatha Christie's "Death on the Nile."
At 4,000 miles, or at 4,225 miles (depending on who you believe), the Amazon in South America is another behemoth. The first westerners to describe the Amazon seemed as though they were telling stories about another world. It is a world where dolphins swim in fresh water, where thousands of schooling fish devour any flesh in sight and snakes grow to unimaginable lengths. Chances are, if there is a story set on a river with the theme of man versus nature, the Amazon is the setting of choice.
Though western cultures do not hear much about the Yangtze (3,964 miles), it is as important to China as any river is to its home region. Ocean vessels are able to navigate upstream on the river an amazing 1,000 miles. It helps deliver food and goods to a fifth of the world's population. The river is also home to Three Gorges Dam, which has the distinction of being the largest hydroelectric power generator in the world, distributing electricity to a significant portion of the Chinese population.
At 2,350 miles long, the Mississippi is the quintessential American river. Theme parks have been built using it, at least in part, as inspiration. The great American novelist Mark Twain relived the glory of his youth alongside the river in some of the world's most beloved novels "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn." Today, it carries much of the nation's agricultural exports from the Midwest down to the Gulf of Mexico, where they are then transported to feed the world.
Through mountains and flatlands, the Danube, at 1,776 miles long, flows through some of Europe's most historic cities including Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade. It provides a watery highway between the North Sea and the Black Sea, via the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal and serves as both a transportation vehicle and an economic one. The Iron Gate, a gorge between Serbia and Romania that the Danube flows through, makes for some of the most scenic river photography in the world.
It is true there are longer rivers than some listed here, but these are the longest when listed by continent (with Australia and Anartica excluded, because those have no major rivers. As such, the each play a pivotal role in the development of their regions. But while they are amazing systems, they are not indestructable. Those who live in these regions will need to continually evaluate whether their uses and treatment of these rivers are sustainable in the long term. Even great rivers can die.