The founding Greek Oerthodox myth of the salt lake goes thus. The risen Bishop Lazarus (his tomb is in St Lazarus' church in nearby Larnaka) asked a woman for a bunch of grapes from her vines.
When she refused he turned her vineyard into a salty lagoon (Rough Guide, p.96).
In the Late Bronze Age the area around Larnaka Bay - sometimes known as the Fertile Crescent - was one of the most heavily populated areas of the island on account of its productive agricultural land, its position vis a vis the Levant and at that time the existence of one of the largest natural harbours in the East Mediterranean - what is now the complex of salt lakes behind and in front of the international airport.
Beneath the rolling corn-fields that extend behind the mosque are the remains of a Bronze Age harbour [1750-1150 BC] settlement. During the later second millennium BC, this town was a bustling trading and industrial centre with a cosmopolitan community drawn from around the eastern Mediterranean world.
(See Hala Sultan Tekke entry at British Museum online Cyprus
A 1968 excavation of one of the tombs of the settlement carried out by the Cyprus Department of Antiquities discovered the following:
120 grave offerings, including masses of imported Mycenaean and Minoan pottery, [...] Luxury goods comprised faience vessels from Egypt and the Levant, gold and silver jewellery, ivory items and the remains of ostrich eggs (considered a very prestigious luxury at the time).
Swedish archaelogists who have been leading annual excavations on the site of Dromolaxia Vizatzia now hypothsise that the city,
was partly destroyed in the 14th or the 13th century BC by a natural catastrophe, a tsunami which was caused by an earthquake in the sea south-east of the shore of Cyprus, and that the washed-up layer of gravel was deposited by the wave’ (see P Fischer here).
Strangely or not, Larnaka's major festival in the summer is the Kataklysmos or the Festival of the Flood which relates to the Aphrodite Cult (see my page on the island's cult here). If the theory of the tsunami is correct maybe it also relates to this as some distance echo of the catastrophe.
The 'lake' is actually a network of four salt lakes, three of which interconnected. The lakes vary in size from Aliki , Orphani, Soros and Spiro. They comprise 2.2 km² and are smaller in area than Akrotiri salt lake. The lakes are a vital wetland and migratory bird site.
The lakes vary in depth and extent between winter and summer.
In January 2013 we saw thousands of Greater Flamingos on Aliki, the largest of the salt lakes. They were a long way out from the shore and dramatically lit against a dark sky. We drove around to try and close the distance and joined twenty or so other watchers. To leeward the squabbling calls of the birds were clearly audible and a drift of pink feathers had been washed in by the wavelets.
The salt lake is an important site for overwintering Greater Flamingos, Cranes and Glossy Ibis. Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) numbers vary between 3,000 and 5,000 and spend the winter months on the lakes feeding on brine shrimp (Artemia salina). Other important species are Common Cranes, Stone Curlews, Kentish Plover, Black-Winged Stilts, Spur-Winged Lapwings and Shellduck (See BirdLifeInternational).
There is a short film from National Geographic on the Larnaka flamingos below.
The quote below explains a bit more about the food chains in Aliki lake.
Alyki, the main Salt Lake, has a very high salinity regime, hence its use in the past, for salt collection. The alga that forms the basis of the food chain here is Dunaliella salina, a brick red unicellular alga, which is a very salt-tolerant species. On this alga feeds Artemia salina, the Brine shrimp. This shrimp can withstand very large salinity fluctuations (from 15%-280%) but usually thrives at salinities of about 100%,that is to say about 2.5 times higher than that of the sea. Branchinella spinosa, the Fairy shrimp, a close relative of Artemia salina, lives in the other Larnaca lakes, which are less salty, as well as in the Akrotiri Salt Lake, which also has a lower salinity regime (see MOA Cyprus).
The environment of Aliki is incredibly hostile, particularly in the summer as the salinity and water temperatures increase. The Brine shrimp lays eggs (cysts) that can survive this environment and are triggered to hatch as the water salinity decreases with the winter rains. However, in 1991 the eggs did not hatch, an algal bloom developed on the lake, and there was no food for the Flamingos. In such cases they either go to Akrotiri salt lake near Limassol (see my Akrotiri page) or move on to Africa.
As the above leaflet points out,
It is obvious that any interference in the lakes that could upset the intricate hydrological balance of the lakes, could cause irreparable damage to the sensitive ecological equilibrium of this unique wetland.
On a previous visit in May 2012 we had seen pairs of Black-Winged Stilts in the reed islands along the causeway to Hala Sultan Tekke. There are only 5-10 breeding pairs on the lakes.
An audit of Larnaca's socio-economic, health and environmental status and assets found considerable contradictions between the declared importance of the salt lakes and the island's need for water,
The Government recently declared the Lakes the first Cypriot Specially Protected Zone and intends to ratify the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention). Soon after the declaration, a separate Government department, apparently without any consultation with the Municipality or residents, decided that the Zone should be the site of a new de-salination plant (see Medicities Audit).
Bird Life International (above) reports that the lakes are under threat from development, pollution from the airport, the runway of which bisects one of the lakes, desalination plants and a sewage works.
In the past the salt lakes and their environs were considered murderously feverish and a virulent source of malaria – which was eradicated on the island in the 1950s through the massive use of DDT. Plagues of locusts (see my locust page) swept the nearby plains and as late as the middle of the 19th century peasants collected over half a million pounds of locust eggs each summer to, 'bring them to the pasha in Nicosia who would pay for their destruction' (Thubron p.194).
When we picked up our car rental from the compound of the old Larnaca airport - relocated there due to the exhorbitant fees charged by the new airport - the staff were incandescent with rage due to the heat and the plague of mosquitoes from the salt lakes nearby which, due to budgetary cuts, had not been sprayed.
Later returning to the airport in the shuttle from the rental place passengers are dropped 250m from the terminal to schlep with their cases through the blaze of the sun because the airport will not allow the shuttle to deposit passengers at the Departures drop-off.