The Guadalquivir is 657 km (408 mi) long and drains an area of about 58,000 km2 (22,000 sq mi). It begins at Cañada de las Fuentes (village of Quesada) in the Cazorla mountain range (Jaén), passes through Córdoba and Seville and ends at the fishing village of Bonanza, in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, flowing into the Gulf of Cádiz, in the Atlantic Ocean.
The marshy lowlands at the river's end are known as "Las Marismas". The river borders Doñana National Park reserve.
The modern name of Guadalquivir comes from the Arabic al-wādi al-kabīr (الوادي الكبير), 'great valley'. Classical Arabic Wadi is pronounced in present-day Maghrebi Arabic as Oued.
There were a variety of names for the Guadalquivir in Classical and pre-Classical times. Baetis was its name to the Romans, and Greek geographers sometimes called it the river of Tartessus. Before Phoenician, Greek, and Roman colonists arrived, two indigenous names for the river may have been Kertis/Certis and Rérkēs (Ρέρκης).
The Phoenicians established the first anchorage grounds and dealt in precious metals. The ancient city of Tartessos was said to have been located at the mouth of the Guadalquivir, although its site has not yet been found.
The Romans, whose name for the river was Betis Baetis, settled in Hispalis (Seville), in the 2nd century BC, making it into an important river port. By the 1st century BC Hispalis was a walled city with shipyards building longboats to carry wheat. In the 1st century AD the Hispalis was home to entire naval squadrons. Ships sailed to Rome with various products: minerals, salt, fish, etc. During Arab rule between 712 and 1248, the Moors left a stone dock and the Torre del Oro (Tower of Gold), to reinforce the port defences.
In the 13th century, Ferdinand III expanded the shipyards and from Seville's busy port, grain, oil, wine, wool, leather, cheese, honey, wax, nuts and dried fruit, salted fish, metal, silk, linen and dye were exported throughout Europe.
A reconstructed waterwheel is located at Córdoba on the Guadalquivir River. The Molino de la Albolafia waterwheel originally built by the Romans provided water for the nearby Alcázar gardens as well as being used to mill flour.
After the discovery of the Americas, Seville became the economic centre of the Spanish Empire as its port monopolised the trans-oceanic trade and the Casa de Contratación (House of Trade) wielded its power. As navigation of the Guadalquivir River became increasingly difficult Seville's trade monopoly was transferred to Cádiz. The construction of the artificial canal known as the Corta de Merlina in 1794 marked the beginning of the modernisation of the port of Seville.
In late November 2010 the new Seville lock began to function as a regulator of the tides after five years of work (2005–2010).
The Guadalquivir River Basin occupies an area of 63,085 km2 and has a long history of severe flooding.
During the winter of 2010 heavy rainfall caused severe flooding in rural and agricultural areas in the provinces of Seville, Córdoba and Jaén in the Andalusia region. The accumulated rainfall in the month of February was above 250 mm (10 in), double the precipitation for Spain for that month. In March 2010 several tributaries of the Guadalquivir flooded, causing over 1,500 people to flee their homes as a result of increased flow of the Guadalquivir, which on 6 March 2010 reached a volume of 2,000 m3/s (71,000 cu ft/s) in Córdoba and 2,700 m3/s (95,000 cu ft/s) in Seville. This was below that recorded in Seville in the flood of 1963 when a volume of 6,000 m3/s (210,000 cu ft/s). was reached. During August 2010 when flooding occurred in Jaén, Córdoba and Seville; three people died in Córdoba as a result.
The Doñana disaster, also known as the Aznalcóllar Disaster or Guadiamar Disaster was an industrial accident in Andalusia. In April 1998 a holding dam burst at the Los Frailes mine, near Aznalcóllar, Seville Province, releasing 4 to 5 million cubic metres (140 to 180 million cubic feet) of mine tailings. The Doñana National Park was also affected by this event.
Of the numerous bridges spanning the Guadalquivir, one of the oldest is the Roman bridge of Córdoba. Significant bridges at Seville include the Puente del Alamillo (1992), Puente de Isabel II or Puente de Triana (1852), and Puente del V Centenario (1972).
The El Tranco de Beas Dam at the head of the river was built between 1929 and 1944 as a hydroelectricity project of the Franco regime. Doña Aldonza Dam is located in the Guadalquivir riverbed, in the Andalusian municipalities of Úbeda, Peal de Becerro and Torreperogil in the province of Jaén.
The Port of Seville (es) is the primary port on the Guadalquivir River. The Port Authority of Seville is responsible for developing, managing, operating, and marketing the Port of Seville.
The entrance to the Port of Seville is protected by a lock that regulates the water level, making the port free of tidal influences. The Port of Seville contains over 2,700 m (8,900 ft) of berths for public use and 1,100 m (3,600 ft) of private berths. These docks and berths are used for solid and liquid bulk cargoes, roll-on/roll-off cargoes, containers, private vessels and cruise ships.
In 2001, the Port of Seville handled almost 4.9 million tonnes (5.4 million short tons) of cargo, including 3.0 million tonnes (3.3 million short tons) of solid bulk, 1.6 million tonnes (1.8 million short tons) of general cargo, and over 264,000 tonnes (291,000 short tons) of liquid bulk. Almost 1,500 vessels brought cargo into the port, including more than 101,000 TEUs of containerized cargo.