For months on end, the salt-pan is white and still as if lying under a blanket of snow. In places, there are patches of glowing pink and red. They stretch so far in every direction that neither the noise of the labourers cutting out the salt nor the calls of tens of thousands of birds which halt here every year can penetrate the silence.
Camalti Salt-Pan, the largest coastal salt-pan in Turkey, lies on the northern coast of the Gulf of Izmir. It was formed by alluvium carried down to the Aegean by the River Gediz from the interior over thousands of years. Until the beginning of the 20th century the Gediz flowed south of the salt-pan, but since then has made two changes of course to the north. The salt-pan covers 58 square kilometres and to the southeast the salt marshes which provide such an important habitat for migrating birds cover 30 square kilometres.
Since around 250-300 BC the inhabitants of this part of the Aegean coast have gathered salt from natural pools of seawater on the coast using primitive methods. Today 550,000 tons of salt are produced here every year. The Macedonians were the first to work the salt-pan, and the production of salt here continued on an ever-increasing scale through Seljuk and Ottoman times. The Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi, who visited the region in 1671-1672, tells us that the area was known as the Melemeniye Salt-Pan. In the 19th century, during the reign of Sultan Abdulmecid (1839-1861), rights were granted to private individuals to work the salt. Thousands of camels carried the salt inland to Balikesir, Aydin and Afyon, and taxes on salt provided considerable revenues. In 1863 an Italian company took over the pans, which they continued to work until they were nationalised in 1933.
Seawater is pumped into the pools in March and April, and here it gradually evaporates in the sun, becoming steadily denser. It is then pumped into the hot water pans, and finally into the crystallisation pans, at which stages the salt turns pink and red respectively, making a colourful contrast with the surrounding white and blue. These colours are caused by halophilic microorganisms which thrive in a saline environment and help to process the brine by consuming the organic matter which it contains. Altogether it takes 90-100 days for the salt to form. By early September a crust of salt 15 centimetres thick forms on the pans, and this is harvested in anything up to 2.5 months. The salt is cut out in blocks by seasonal workers using picks and spades, and loaded onto rail trucks which carry it to the storage yards where the salt is heaped. A mechanised system of salt harvesting machines and conveyor belts will go into operation soon.
The eggs of the brine shrimp, Artemia salina, are introduced into the pools. These tiny creatures play a key role in maintaining the biological balance in the saltwater. For the same reason, they are highly sought-after by breeders of aquarium fish, since they not only serve as a food source but filter the water as they feed, so keeping it clear. It is these shrimps on which the flamingos of Camalti feed. In other words, salt production is an ecologically friendly industry, serving both the needs of human beings and the creatures for whom the salt-pan provides a habitat.