The Salt Lake

Turkey’s Salt Lake, which supplies most of the country’s salt, is also one of the world’s most important natural habitats.

Most Turks remember the Salt Lake from primary school geography class. Perhaps we have also driven past it frequently, this lake about which we know so little other than that it is Turkey’s second largest after Lake Van. But we never dreamed that boats could float, or people walk easily, on its surface. Endowed with a spellbinding beauty, the Salt Lake is so white as to inspire notions of cleanliness and purity, like the enchanting realms described in fairy tales, disappearing at will only to reappear at the most unexpected moments. A short trip to Central Anatolia is sufficient for seeing this storybook phenomenon up closer.

On your way from southeast of Ankara to the town of Şereflikoçhisar, a glint of white will strike your eye on the west, announcing that you are approaching the ‘white lake’. Its sheer size and blinding whiteness will dazzle your eyes. So vast an expanse does this whiteness cover that for an instant you’ll think it has snowed. It conjures up a feeling of cold even in the stultifying heat of summer. Exciting too is walking on this boundless expanse of white. Inevitably one is cautious at first, fearing its delicate surface, so fragile-looking, might suddenly crack open and swallow one up at the first step. Completely contrary to expectation, however, a solid layer of salt awaits us on the lake bottom. Anyway, after the first step the rest is easy. We realize immediately that all this whiteness is down to salt and nothing but salt. We are stepping confidently now. There’s nothing for it but to embark on a long walk across the lake. When you start your walk, head directly for the middle. You will soon feel you are all alone in the center of a salt white sea. If the weather is overcast and rainy, the pools on the lake’s surface will reflect the clouds in the sky and you won’t know if you are walking on lake or sky. At that moment, when earth and sky meet, everything becomes simple. You won’t be able to get your fill of the vastness and the colors or, most of all, of the sense of peace exuded by the silence.

The whiteness of the salt crystals sparkling in the sun brings to mind ice water. The low rainfall of Central Anatolia means that the region is also poor in rivers. This vast expanse of white therefore represents the lake’s yearning for water. Forced to feed the Melendiz River with a host of tiny streams and subterranean salt water springs, the Salt Lake covers an area of 1500 square kilometers. Even in spring when its waters are most plentiful the surface area does not exceed 130,000 hectares. And with excessive evaporation in summer, the whole Salt Lake comes to resemble a desert. A layer of salt up to thirty centimeters thick forms in the dried up areas and the salt level of the water climbs to 32.4%. Due to the high concentration of salt, you’ll encounter no aquatic plants when you explore this lake. But you will see a sparse cover of
salt-resistant vegetation around the edge of the lake in the areas fed by the rivers. And I cannot refrain from mentioning that the melons grown near the shores of this lake, whose sole product is salt, are delicious. The Salt Lake is among Turkey’s richest too in terms of its bird population, especially in view of the sparseness of the plant cover. It is also regarded as one of the world’s most important natural habitats. The wetland that forms on the lake in winter makes an important wintering ground for water birds. And the islands and marshes that form in spring allow collared pratincole, shelduck, ruddy shelduck, teal, avocet, stone curlew and various species of gulls to hatch their eggs here. The Salt Lake is also one of Turkey’s most important hatching grounds for flamingos, so it’s a good idea to bring along a pair of binoculars when you take your lake walk.

Production capacity on the Salt Lake, which meets sixty-five percent of Turkey’s total need for salt, is around a million tons a year. Salt production here goes back a long time. In the Ottoman period, the salt blocks that formed naturally around the lake were broken up and sold to merchants, then loaded onto camels and distributed. Salt production is more efficient now with the help of 21st century technology.
The salt-saturated water is allowed to flow into the salt pans at Kaldıran, Kayacık and Yavşan. After the salt precipitates, the water is pumped back out. The salt obtained in this way is transported to local storage areas using both old and new technology. Under the old system, a narrow gauge railroad was laid in the lake. Thanks to this miniature railroad every year salt from various parts of the lake is pulled in wagons to the nearby storage depots. Since this system, which is also a pretty sight to behold, is slower and more expensive than the more modern technologies, it has been superseded today by heavy machinery. The extracted salt is transferred to the storage areas more quickly by truck. Washed, dried and packaged at special salt processing plants in Şereflikoçhisar, the salt is distributed all over Turkey.
Konya Plain is a closed basin with no flow of water in or out. The excess waters that accumulate on the plain and then turn salty are rerouted into the Salt Lake by a drainage canal. Industrial waste from factories large and small is also being carried to the lake through this canal. If appropriate measures are not taken soon, the lake’s white is going to give way to other, mostly quite unappetizing, colors. If you happen to be passing through Central Anatolia one day, be sure to stop at this enchanting lake, where you won’t be able to swim or fish but on which you can stroll for hours to your heart’s content.