Sunday, May 19, 2013

Antioch and its Lake

An important feature (and economic engine) of Ancient Antioch was its lake. The Lake of Antioch (Turkish: Amik Gölü) was a large freshwater lake in the basin of the Orontes River, located to the north-east of the ancient city. The lake was drained during a period from the 1940s-1970s and now is the site of cotton farms and Hatay's airport.

The water body was located in the centre of Amuq Plain on the northernmost part of the Dead Sea Transform and historically covered an area of some 300-350 square kilometres, increasing during flood periods. It was surrounded by extensive marshland. The 14th century Arab geographer Abu al-Fida described the lake as having sweet water and being twenty miles (32 km) long and seven miles wide.

Sedimentary analysis has suggested that the lake was formed, in its final state, in the past 3000 years by episodic floods and silting up of the outlet to the Orontes. This dramatic increase in the lake's area had displaced many settlements during the classical period; the lake became an important source of fish and shellfish for the surrounding area and the city of Antioch.

As Scott Redford notes in his paper, Trade and Economy in Antioch and Cilicia in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks: "The extensive canal system in the Amuq Plain that had contributed so much to the wealth of Roman Antioch declined in the early Byzantine era, although some canals seem to have been in use through the early Islamic period. But the lush riverine environments of the medieval Amuq contributed to a thriving pisciculture. Several freshwater bodies of water were used to farm eels - indeed the export of dried eels from Antioch under the principality was so profitable that their sale was given as a gift to monasteries".   

Once again we have a story of disaster brought about by Turkey's mistaken grasp of modernisation. Draining and reclamation of areas around the lake commenced in 1940, in order to free land for growing cotton and to eliminate malaria. A major drainage project, channeling the lake's tributary rivers (the Karasu, the ancient Labotas, and the 'Afrin, the ancient Arceuthus/Arxeuthas) directly to the Orontes was undertaken from 1966 by the State Hydraulic Works, with further works completed by the early 1970s; by this time the lake had been completely drained, and its bed reclaimed for farmland with the Hatay Airport having been constructed in the centre of the lakebed.

There have increasingly been reports that the draining has caused severe environmental damage. Reclaimed and irrigated land has been affected by increasing soil salinity, and productivity has fallen. Despite the drainage works, many areas still regularly flood, requiring constant maintenance of drainage canals and further decreasing the productivity of the reclaimed farmland, while the water table has fallen dramatically. The fall in underground water levels has been implicated in causing an increasing amount of subsidence and serious damage to buildings.

Changing the environment and bringing about unexpected side-effects is not only a modern problem. As Redford notes: "In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, expansion of olive and wine cultivation into the foothills of the Jabal Aqra, and to a  lesser extent the Amanos, had led to massive deforestation around Antioch. As the population declined in the late fifth to sixth centuries, settlement retreated to the Amuq plain, where increased alluviation caused by the deforestation had earlier encouraged the development of a large new lake in the middle of the Amuq. This deforestation also resulted in the landslides and floods that have led some to misperceive Antioch as a "lost city" buried under the alluvium". 

However, we would be amongst those that perceive Antioch as a "lost city" as the depth of overburden and accumulated layers in the centre of the old city is 11 metres at least and material descending from the mountains clearly has played a part in entombing the ancient city so deep as to be well-nigh inaccessible.  

The loss of the lake had bigger effects than just subsidence though as it destroyed significant bird breeding grounds and a migratory stop-over/destination. If it hadn't been for the airport being sited there the best thing would have been to let the lake reappear and submerge the cotton farms.  

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