Down here in Olympos on the Mediterranean shore of Turkey the plateau of Elmali is always described as a cool heaven in summer. Going by the stories I’d heard I had a mental picture of forests full of tall, ancient trees, their canopies forming a dense roof which the sweltering sun could not penetrate. So I was keen to pay a visit during this latest heat wave. On the internet we found a little hotel in Akçainis, a village some 10 km from Elmali town, that goes by the irresistable name of ‘The Three Angels’. When I called up the manager, Serdar, asked me what we wanted to eat that night. ‘We have to prepare, you see, this is not a normal hotel, but more like a house.’ With the prospect of trout for dinneroff we went. ‘You’ll find lots of things to do,’ Serdar had promised. ‘Here, time flows by like a gentle stream of water.’
From Finike (ancient Phoenix) onward the road lead us through stunning landscapes. No significant forests yet, but the beauty of the heartland of ancient Lycia made up for that. Approaching Elmali the land became flatter and flatter, until we finally drove through what seemed like the dry bottom of a lake. Serdar confirmed it was Avlan, a lake which I knew was drained in the 1970s. It is a lake with a history.
Since Ottoman times the land around the lake has been owned by two feudal families: the Subasi and Baysarilar families. Legend has it that they were so mean that from a look-out on top of their traditional, cedar-wood grain-stores they would watch with binoculars the villagers working the land in the big plain. In the evening they would flog those whom they decided hadn’t worked hard enough. And they would deny the villagers access to the forest to chop fire wood, unless they paid for it. Then, somewhere in the 1960’s the feudal lords thought up the plan to drain the whole lake and claim all the emerging land. The villagers rebelled. If the lake was going to become agricultural land, they wanted their share.
It was a time of great turmoil in Turkey. The poor masses demanded an end to their slave-like exploitation. They were encouraged by leftist intellectuals, mainly university students who were organised under Dev-Genç, Revolutionary Youth. Throughout the country groups of students would treck from village to village to preach the socialist gospel, or help workers occupy their factories.
The legendary leader of Dev-Genç, Deniz Gezmis, who was later hanged after the 1980 military coup, threw in his weight behind the villagers of Avlan. For 6 months 500 students came to stay and fight the feudal system, personified in the militia of the ruling conservative party, of which the two lords of Avlan were members. The farmers hadn’t been allowed to sow their land for two years and were on the brink of starvation, but the students brought in supplies and saved them.
A leftist government put off the drainage plan, but when the conservatives came to power again finally in 1978 a long tunnel was built and Lake Avlan, and Lake Karagöl further north were drained. Whoever wanted to work the emerged 10.000.000m2 of land, had to pay a fee to the state and the fields remained state-owned. So far so good. Or not?
Well, the land turned out to be lousy for agricultural purposes, so the yield wasn’t great. And after a while the apple growers (Elmali means ‘land of apples’) elsewhere in the plain found their crops diminishing too, and their trees dying. Then, some years later, people noticed the age-old and evergreen Lebanese Cedar forests high on the mountain slopes that ring the Elmali plain had started to turn yellow.
The Taurus mountains around Elmali are the only ones in the world still covered in proper forests of Lebanese Cedar, and even these are small compared to the past. Roman Emperor Hadrian was the first one to protect the Cedar forests all over his empire which were being chopped down rapidly for temple and ship building. That has continued ever since his death in 138 A.D. up to World War I. And now the Cedars in Elmali region were threatened again.
This time local groups started campaigning to bring back the water to Lake Avlan. They were strong enough to actually push through a decision in Ankara to close the tunnel in 1997. When the farmers gave up their resistance and guerilla tactics to secretly unblock the tunnel, it was finally blocked in 2000. So all ends well?
Yes, the forest is green again, as we saw with our own eyes when our hotel manager Serdar got permission from the Forestry Department and took us up the mountains to hug the oldest Cedar tree. It is impressive, and more than 2000 years old. But we also saw that after 9 years still only a quarter of the lake seems to have filled up. How come?
When they drained the lake, the road between Finike and Elmali was diverted to run straight through the former lake. It still is there, which means the lake is never allowed to fully fill up again, in order not to flood the road. An official decision to lift it and restore the old road along the shore has never been implemented. In fact, when we drove over it, the road throught the bottom of the lake had newly been paved.
And a stone quarry is beingaccused by the Turkish Association to Protect Nature (TTKD) to have caused leaks in the porous bedrock with its dynamite, that continue to drain the lake. Their use of explosives also resulted in massive death of fish and birds who had started to return. Nevertheless the quarry has managed to extend its licence. The quarry is slowly levelling one of the hills that contains the lake, preparing disaster for the future.
But if you are a traveler who’d like to take a break from the beautiful blue Mediterranean Sea, I can recommend a trip to the Elmali plain. The Lycian site of Arykanda is well worth a visit and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what a drained lake looks like. The Three Angels is a clean, amateurish hotel where you’ll get a taste for the real Anatolia. And don’t forget to ask Serdar to take you up to the ‘Koca Katran’, the giant Lebanese Cedar that stands majestically tall in the Taurus Mountains.