Lake Orumiyeh (or what used to be Lake Urmia)

Lake Urmia may soon be no more.

Photo courtesy of the Financial Tribune
Lake Orumiyeh (or Lake Urmia as I’ve called it since a child) is a great salt lake in Iran’s West Azerbaijan province. At roughly 6,000 km, it’s one of the largest salt lakes in the world. This though could soon change as the lake is rapidly drying up. Seriously, take a look at the image below:
Lake Urmia through the last few decades
This one is also a bit astounding.
Lake Urmia more or less today. More like a salty marsh than a lake…
So why is this happening? It appears that the waters of it’s major feeder river, the Zarinarud, has been diverted to increase the water supply of nearby Tabriz.

History of Lake Urmia

Photo courtesy of
In Persian, the lake is called Daryāche-ye Orūmiye and has been a major feature of the area since ancient times. In fact, archaeologists have found the remains of human settlement around the lake going back over 7000 years. A few of these sites include Teppe Hasanlu, Yanik Tepe and Hajji Firuz Tepe. There are several others but I can’t remember their names.

First Mention of Urmia, the Medes and the Persians

The earliest written records of Lake Urmia come from the Assyrians. In them, the 9th century Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (858–824 BCE) mentions Lake Urmia along with campaigns against the Madai (a.k.a. the Medes) and also another tribe known as the Parsuwaš or Parsua, i.e. the Persians. These are believed to be the first mention of the Medes and the Persians in ancient historical sources. Another group of people who are believed to have lived in the area are the Mannaeans.

During medieval times, Lake Urmia and its surround region served as a sort of frontiers for many empires. On one side you had the Byzantines and their client states, on the other you had the Sassanians, followed in later years by the Arabs and then the Seljuk Turks. Hulagu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan who all but destroyed Baghdad and, along with his fore-bearers, brought the whole eastern Islamic world to heel, died and was buried here in 1265 on one of the lake’s islands known as Kabudi or Shahi. Legend has it that he was buried with all of his treasure and an accompaniment of virgins who were sacrificed in his honor. However, his tomb or burial mound has never been found.

Since then, the region has seen it’s share of conflict, especially between the Safavid and Ottoman empires. Along with Persians, Armenians and Assyrians also have lived in the vicinity for centuries. The many old and abandoned churches in the region are testament to this.

The Lake

Photo courtesy of
Being a lake much saltier than any sea or ocean, Urmia is pretty much devoid of all life save for the tiny artimesia worm. This though brings flocks of flamingos to the lake who find the worm to be a tasty meal. There are also several species of phytoplankton that live within the lake’s shallow waters.

Lake Urmia supposedly has 102 islands, but as the lake dries up, many of these are being transformed in to peninsulas and large, muddy mounds of dirt. It’s sad that such a beautiful and historical lake is in danger of disappearing forever. My advice? Go see it while you still can. Who knows for how much longer Urmia’s azure waters will continue to exist.

Go to the main page