Lake Van is the largest lake in Turkey and the second largest in the Middle East, situated in the Eastern part of the country in the Van district, close to the border with Iran. It is also one of the largest endorheic lakes in the World.
Geography and Hydrology
Lake Van, the biggest sodium water lake in the World, occupies the lowest area of an extensive basin bordered by high mountain ranges in the South, plateaus and peaks in the East and volcanic cones on the West. The lake has two main sections: the main body of water in the Southern part is separated from the shallower Northern part by a narrow passage.
The coastline is steep and lines with cliffs, with the exception of the Southern part, which is extremely sinuous and eroded. A number of islands can be found on the lake of which the largest, Gadir, is situated on the North, Carpanak is located on the East, while AkDamar and Atrek lay on the Southern part of the saline lake. The latter is known for its well-preserved Armenian churches.
The saline soda lake receives its waters from a few smaller streams, which pour into the lake from the surrounding mountains. Some of the lake’s main inflows are the Karasu, Hosap, Güzelsu, Bendimahi and Zilan streams. The lake’s Western parts are deeper, whilst its Eastern waters are much shallower. The water is strongly alkaline with pH levels of 9.7-9.8. The most abundant salts are sodium carbonate and sodium sulfate. Its brackish waters aren’t suitable for drinking and irrigation.
The original outlet of the lake was blocked in the Pleistocene by lava flows from the nearby Nemrut volcano, located on its Western shore. The volcano is now dormant, similarly to Suphan Dagi, on the North, which is the second highest volcano in the country.
According to scientists the lake’s water levels have changed many times through history. The tallest water levels are said to have been 72 meters above today’s levels, and happened 18,000 years ago. 9,500 years ago a dramatic drop of 300 meters occurred in the water levels. Some 3,000 years later, about the same amount dramatically risen.
The lack of an outflow also means that an accumulation of sediment has gathered at the bottom of the lake, originating from the surrounding plains and valleys, as well as volcanic ash. The layer of sediment is more than 400 meters thick, attracting renowned researchers from around the World.
In 1990 a team of scientists led by a German geologist, Dr. Stephan Kempe, drilled down 446 meters into the lake bottom, receiving climate data for up to 14,570 years BP. During a test drilling in 2004 evidence of 15 volcanic eruptions in the last 20,000 years has been discovered.
Since the saline lake is situated in the largest region of Turkey, it has a harsh continental climate. The average summer temperatures range between 22 and 2O degrees Celsius, whilst January averages range from -3 to -12 degrees Celsius. The average annual rainfall in the basin is 400-700 mm. Although the winters are harsh, the lake never actually freezes due to its high concentration of salinity.
Plant and Animal Life
Lake Van is home to 103 species of phytoplankton (including green and brown algae) and 36 species of zooplankton. The only known fish that has adapted to live in the lake’s salty waters is the Pearl mullet, a fish related to chub and dace, caught mainly during the floods in the spring months. In May and June the fish tend to migrate from the lake to a less alkaline environment, near the mouths or into the rivers.
The lake’s coast is also home to a rare breed of cat, the Van cat, noted for its unusual attraction to water. In 1991 researchers discovered a 40 centimeters tall microbialites, which is a solid aragonite and calcite tower, rising from the lakebed, created by a type of bacteria.
The area is well-known among archaeologists as the birthplace of the Mitanni and Urartu Kingdoms.
In the Iron Age the capital city of the Kingdom of Ararat, Tushpa, was located on the shores of Lake Van. The lake area was the center of the Armenian Kingdom for a long period of time, even in the era of the Kingdom of Greater Armenia and the Armenian Kingdom of Vaspurakan. Together with Lake Urmia and Lake Sevan, Van was one of the three great lakes of the Armenian Kingdom, oftentimes referred to as “the seas of Armenia”. During these times, the lake was known by various names, including “Sea of Arces”, Sea of Bznunik”, “Sea of Van” and now Lake Van.
In the 11th century the precinct served as a border between the Byzantine Empire (with the capital Constantinople) and the Seljuk Turkish Empire (with Isfahan as its capital). In the second half of the century the Byzantine emperor named Romanus IV Diogenes initiated a campaign to reconquer Armenia, but was defeated, so the Lake Van area still belonged to Seljuk. Alp Arslan, the second Sultam of the Seljuk Empire, divided his conquered regions among his Turcoman generals and gave the Lake Van area to Sokmen el Kutbi commander. He set up his capital in Ahlat, located in the Western shore of the lake. The Ahlatshahs ruled the area between 1085 and 1192.
Human Impact and Threats
There is a 10th century church located on Akdamar Island, which served as the royal religious center to the Armenian Vaspurakan Kingdom. The Church of the Holy Cross is a popular tourist attraction today. The other side of the lake also houses plenty of old Armenian heritages, such as the churches of Lim, Arter and Ktuts. The Ahlatshahs left a great number of tombstones in and around Ahlat. Locals are trying to include them on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.
There is a railway built in the ‘70s leading from Turkey to Iran that doesn’t actually pass the lake’s rugged shoreline. The passengers all get on a ferry at one end of the lake and traverse by water transport from Tatvan to the city of Van, only to get back on the train and continue their journey towards the neighboring country.
The city of Van has its own airport, so flying in might be the easiest way to get to the lake. The city is known for its abundance in historic sites, hotels and transportation links. Tatvan is located in the Western area and serves as the starting point for treks to Mount Nemrut.
The main threat of Lake Van is the pollution caused by the irregular and unsupervised irrigation system of the surrounding cities and land erosion.
In 1995 an urban myth started circulating about the Van Lake Monster, a large creature that appeared in the waters and was captured on camera by eyewitnesses. Biologists affirm that such a large creature cannot survive in the high salinity of the lake and that the myth is just an attempt to boost local tourism.