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H - 21 : Where are Anatolia's Salt Pans?

Natural Salt Pan in Delice (Kirikkale) in Central Anatolia

My recent blog about the high salinity of the eastern Mediterranean made me wonder whether there are large salters like in the Rhone delta. Elevated levels of salinity and air temperature would make the perfect environment for salt production by evaporation

Salt Pan in the Camargue (France) near Aigues-Mortes. The Salt turns the Water red.

A high degree of urbanization in the Middle East also created the necessary demand. As long as we lived as hunter gatherers, we did not need to consume extra salt. A diet of red meat and fish provides enough salt. The moment human beings adopted a sedentary, plant-based lifestyle, this changed. Now salt becomes essential. Our body ships nutritients and other essential ingredients by osmosis to our cells. The differential in salt levels inside and outside a cell powers the flow. No salt, no osmosis - no osmosis, no life. The salt level in our blood and fluids is the same as in the oceans. As a matter of fact, we are biologically still "fish" even though amphibians conquered the lands 400 million years ago. Without salt in our diet, Hyponatremia sets in and leads to muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting and dizziness. eventually we die. There is no metabolism without salt.

The Density of Cities in the First Millenia BC in the Near East was exceptionally high

When our ancestors built their first permanent settlements in today's eastern Türkiye a bit more than 12’000 years ago, they choose places with fresh water and access to salt. An individual needs 10 grams of salt a day or 3.6 kg per year. Salt is not only essential for our diet, it was also people’s only preservative. Cold storage, freezing or sugar-based preservation (jams) did not exist yet. With brine (salt water) one can preserve meat (prosciutto di Parma comes to my mind), make cheese (no salt - no Emmental), sausages (salami to stay with the Italians) and pickles – the most famous is Sauerkraut from the Alsace. Also, our live stock needs salt. Our ancestors kept cows and sheep for milk, oxen for pulling the plough and horses and mules for transportation.

Preparation and Preservation of Egyptian Food required a significant Amount of Salt

Despite a high degree of urbanization and perfect weather conditions, there are no salt pans in the eastern Med. Or more precisely, I never came across any. Since people always need salt, regardless of rulers or governments, salt producing sites are seldom abandoned. Salt deposits do not move. They stay in place. So where are the salt pans? Have to admit that the topic is not well researched. Whilst there is a lot of literature on ancient salt trading in France and Italy, I found very little on the Near East.

This Chart shows Spring Saltpans and Rock Salt Mines east of Ankara in Anatolia

But as ever so often, geologist research papers come to the rescue. By looking in Research Gate and Academia, I found interesting materials. Turns out that Anatolia has very rich salt deposits and that salt was mined since the beginning of the agricultural revolution 12’000 years ago. Of course! Anatolia was folded from the Tethys Sea floor. The Tethys Sea was quite shallow and occasionally dried out. When it did, mighty salt deposits were laid down. Sometimes more than 1’000 meters thick. As a result, there are many salt lakes in central Anatolia. Salt does not need to be produced. It just can be collected.

One of the last Salt Caravans in the Sahara - a Camal carries max 200 kg of Salt Tablets

Would it be possible to supply the cities in the Near East with salt from these salt lakes or rock salt from the mountains? Since there are almost no sources on this ancient salt trade, I have to rely on my own calculations. Will take just one town to illustrate my case. In Roman time, there were 300’000 people living in Tarsus, the town where Paul the Apostle was born. Their salt consumption came to 1’080 tons per year. Since a camel can carry 400 kilos on its back (half is water and food), it would take 5’400 camels to carry the annual salt requirements to Taurus. Or 15 camels a day. The number seems plausible. But such a trade would have left traces in written records. There is always a trade bill or a letter that survives. But there are none. Or none found yet. Maybe Tarsus had its own salt source?

Salt Production Sites in today's Türkiye - all in central Anatolia or on the Aegean

As of today, there are no salterns on Anatolia’s southern coast. Türkiye’s salt is mined on the central plateau or gained from the Camalti saltworks on the Aegean. The abundance of salt in Anatolia could explain why there was no salt monopoly until Ataturk. Sure, salt in ancient times was more expensive than today. But we know that salt prices in this part of the world never reached levels as in the Sub-Saharan Sahel. In Timbuktu, salt was exchanged for gold 1:1. At such price levels, a salt tax was a most lucrative revenue stream for a state.

Under Ottoman Rule, Salt Trading was a private Business - here

A Scene from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

Until the Ottoman Empire, the management of salt production remained decentralized. There was a salt tax levied on the producers. In the 19th century, these revenues were pledged by the Sultans as collateral for international loans. Türkiye’s salt monopoly was only created under Ataturk. The young republic was so short in funds it had to develop salt as a major export businesses. Salt pans were built north of Izmir (Camalti) to increase production. They are the biggest solar powered saltwork in the Near East (73 sqkm) today.

The very large Salt Pans in Camalti near Izmir in the Gezir River Delta

Maybe we find the answer to the question of missing saltpans when we visit Caria’s and Lydia’s ancient coastal town this summer. Will definitely ask, where they got their salt from.     

Modern Salt "Production" in Central Anatolia on Lake Tuz. Salt can literally just be harvested.

Lake Tuz is also the Home of thousands of Flamengos



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