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Rhine River and waterway of western Europe is culturally and historically one of the great rivers of the continent and among the most important arteries of industrial transport in the world. It flows from two small headways in the Alps of east-central Switzerland north and west to the North Sea, into which it drains through the Netherlands. The length of the Rhine was long given as 820 miles, but in 2010 a shorter distance of about 765 miles was proposed. An international waterway since the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, it is navigable overall for some 540 miles, as far as Rheinfelden on the Swiss-German border. Its catchment area, including the delta area, exceeds 85,000 square miles.
The Rhine has been a classic example of the alternating roles of great rivers as arteries of political and cultural unification and as political and cultural boundary lines. The river also has been enshrined in the literature of its lands, especially of Germany, as in the famous epic Nibelungenlied. Since the time when the Rhine valley became incorporated into the Roman Empire, the river has been one of Europe’s leading transport routes. Until the 19th century the goods transported were of high value but relatively small in volume, but since the second half of the 19th century the volume of goods conveyed on the river has increased greatly. The fact that cheap water transport on the river helped to keep prices of raw materials down was the main reason the river became a major axis of industrial production: one-fifth of the world’s chemical industries are now manufacturing along the Rhine.
No other river in the world has so many old and famous cities on its banks – Basel, Switzerland; Strasbourg, France; and Worms, Mainz, and Cologne, Germany, to name a few – but there are also such industrial cities as Ludwigshafen and Leverkusen in Germany that pollute the waters and mark the scenic attraction of the riverbanks.
Nonetheless, the middle Rhine (the section between the German cities of Bingen and Bonn), with such steep rock precipices as the Lorelei crag and numerous castles, still presents breathtaking vistas and attracts tourists. This is the Rhine of legend and myth, where the medieval Mouse Tower (Mausturm) lies at water level near Bingen and the castle of Kaub stands on an island in the river. The Alpine section of the Rhine lies in Switzerland, and below Basel the river forms the boundary between western Germany and France, as far downstream as the Lauter River. It then flows through German territory as far as Emmerich.