Once a thriving tourist destination, Lake Urmia provided a livelihood to countless people, including my mother’s family. 

My grandfather ran a lakefront motel in the touristy port city of Sharafkhaneh. Less than a decade ago, my grandfather hosted dozens of tourists a day in the summers. 

I spent all my childhood summers on the shore of the salt lake, in my grandparents’ house. When the lake was still a popular destination, bathers would immerse themselves in the saline water and smear their bodies with its legendary black mud. 

I cherish those memories and still remember the sound of the waves, the chatter of beachside vacationers, the sulphur smell of the dark mud, and the salty breeze in the mid-afternoon heat.
The Eyes of Earth - On the shore of Sharafkhaneh port in 2015, an abandoned ship sits wedged against a pier that...
On the shore of Sharafkhaneh port in 2015, an abandoned ship sits wedged against a pier that leads nowhere. Sharafkhaneh port was once one of the most important ports on the lake Urmia. Ships used these piers to move people and equipment between cities around the lake. It has shut down, and few remaining ships have gone aground.
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The Eyes of Earth - A concrete Flamingo statue in an eerie and apocalyptic landscape greets visitors who stop by...
A concrete Flamingo statue in an eerie and apocalyptic landscape greets visitors who stop by Sharafkhaneh’s shore, once the region's thriving tourist destination. Iran, 2020.In its heyday, this lake was the largest natural habitat for Artemia brine shrimp, which are uniquely adapted to saline environments, as well as an essential stopover point for migratory birds such as flamingos and pelicans.
The Eyes of Earth - Sharafkhaneh port was once one of the most important ports on the lake. Ships used these piers to...
Sharafkhaneh port was once one of the most important ports on the lake. Ships used these piers to move people and equipment between cities around the lake. It has shut down, and few remaining ships have gone aground.2015
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The Eyes of Earth - Grandmother, Narges, seen here in 2015, walks on a pier on the coast of Sharafkhaneh. Fifteen...
Grandmother, Narges, seen here in 2015, walks on a pier on the coast of Sharafkhaneh. Fifteen years ago, before the lake receded too drastically, the whole family met on weekends to eat dinner by the water.Grandmother loved trees and plants and every corner of her house were plants. An illiterate woman who knew the importance of balance between humans and nature and managed to plant 800 trees during her lifetime. She died due to Covid-19 in 2020.
The Eyes of Earth - People came to visit lake Urmia and to take pictures from what remains of it. Lake Urmia is...
People came to visit lake Urmia and to take pictures from what remains of it. Lake Urmia is showing signs of recovery in some small parts because of heavy rainfalls. Lake Urmia, West -Azerbaijan, Iran. 2016 Iran
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The Eyes of Earth -  Photo taken by my uncle 1980 shows my grandmother standing in her orchard. When the shrinking of...
Photo taken by my uncle 1980 shows my grandmother standing in her orchard. When the shrinking of the lake began, it affected my grandmother’s orchard and made the almond trees dry.
The Eyes of Earth -   Dried almond trees in the villages near the lake. Between 10 and 15 years ago, there was water...
Dried almond trees in the villages near the lake. Between 10 and 15 years ago, there was water in this area. The salt line on the horizon used to be full of water, and water was much closer to this village. 2015
                 
The Eyes of Earth - The dry bed of the lake is a source of salty dust that can be whipped up by strong winds into a...
The dry bed of the lake is a source of salty dust that can be whipped up by strong winds into a dust storm. West-Azerbaijan, Iran.2016 Iran
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The Eyes of Earth - Seyed Agha,my grandfather, used to own a guesthouse on the coast and made his living by renting...
Seyed Agha,my grandfather, used to own a guesthouse on the coast and made his living by renting rooms and offering swan-boat rides to the many tourists who frequented the area. As Lake Urmia dried up, tourism and agriculture waned. The motel and swan boats have been unused for years. My grandparents turned the motel into a garden after the lake dried up, and they visited it in the summers to pick fruits. East-Azerbaijan, Iran. 2015
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The Eyes of Earth - The vast consequences of this environmental catastrophe have finally triggered a coordinated...
The vast consequences of this environmental catastrophe have finally triggered a coordinated effort to save the lake. The Iranian government has created a national lake restoration committee to revive the lake over ten years. These days, the lake has expanded to about half its former size. But how much of this is due to the restoration programme, and how much is due to heavy rainfall. 2016
The Eyes of Earth -   My uncle took this picture in 1990 of pedal boats he built and rented out to vacationers...
My uncle took this picture in 1990 of pedal boats he built and rented out to vacationers visiting the lake over the summer. Sharafkhaneh port, East-Azerbaijan. Iran. 1990

Once a thriving tourist destination, Lake Urmia provided a livelihood to countless people, including my mother's family. My grandfather ran a lakefront motel in the touristy port city of Sharafkhaneh, and my uncles were sailors. I spent all my childhood summers on the shore of the salt lake in my grandparents' house.
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The Eyes of Earth -   After the drying up of Lake Urmia, all tourism complexes were abandoned and unused. The land...
After the drying up of Lake Urmia, all tourism complexes were abandoned and unused. The land became less accommodating. The vegetation died off, and the bustling lakeside resorts turned ghost towns. Like many structures in the area, my grandfather’s motel now lies in ruins.

My grandparents turned their motel into a garden and visited it in the summers to pick fruits. In this image, my grandmother rests in the remains of the guesthouse they owned after swimming in a pond kilometres away from the coast of Sharafkhaneh port. Eas-Azerbaijan, Iran. 2016
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The Eyes of Earth -   My grandmother's hands while swimming in shallow and highly saline waters of what remains...
My grandmother's hands while swimming in shallow and highly saline waters of what remains of Lake Urmia. Urmia's destruction has unravelled against a backdrop of war, sanctions and no-holds-barred domestic politics. It has all culminated in a situation where even the bid to revive the lake has become intensely politicised. Sharafkhaneh port,Iran. 2016
The Eyes of Earth - A girl is Swimming in shallow water in coast of Urmia salt lake,from olden times, local...
A girl is Swimming in shallow water in coast of Urmia salt lake,from olden times, local physicians made use of the water (because of its mineral content) and coastal sludge, in treating skin diseases and rheumatoid disorders."Govarchin Ghala",West Azerbaijan,Iran.2015
The Eyes of Earth -   My grandmother turned the ruined motel into a garden of peaches, apricots, and grapes. Despite...
My grandmother turned the ruined motel into a garden of peaches, apricots, and grapes. Despite her age, she spent the majority of her time working in her gardens and tending to them.Port of Sharafkhaneh, East-Azerbaijan, Iran.2016
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The Eyes of Earth - view of abandoned
villas located in "Sheikh Wali coastal village . "Sheikh Wali"...
view of abandoned villas located in "Sheikh Wali coastal village . "Sheikh Wali" located in the northeast of Urmia lake used to be one of the heavily traveled touristic villages. by the lake becoming dry, the value of the surrounding lands were reduced and created great financial problems for families.East-Azerbaijan province,Iran.2015
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The Eyes of Earth -            "A lake is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth...


"A lake is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature."

Henry David Thoreau


 
Personal connection

I grew up beside Lake Urmia, which was once the largest lake in the Middle East and the second-largest salt lake on the planet. The nearly six million people who live in the Urmia basin have deep social and economic ties with this shrinking body of water. The Turk-Azeri people, who live around the lake, treasure it as a symbol of their identity, calling it "the turquoise solitaire of Azerbaijan."


Once a thriving tourist destination, Lake Urmia provided a livelihood to countless people, including my mother's family. My grandfather ran a lakefront motel in the touristy port city of Sharafkhaneh, and my uncles were sailors. I spent all my childhood summers on the shore of the salt lake in my grandparents' house. I cherish those memories and still remember the sound of the waves, the chatter of beachside vacationers, the sulfur smell of the dark mud, and the salty breeze in the mid-afternoon heat.


The (once) great salt lake

Salt lake Urmia remains a UNESCO biosphere reserve. However, the lake has lost 88% of its area and 80% of its volume since 1972 due to increasing temperatures, excessive dam constructions, water mismanagement, population growth, and agricultural sector expansion to ensure national food security after eight years of the Iran-Iraq war.


As Lake Urmia dried up, local tourism and agriculture suffered. Winds that whip across the lake blow salt dust to farm fields, slowly rendering the soil infertile. Like so many other people around the lake, my grandfather's motel and gardens now lie in ruins. The port town is now a sparsely populated village that young people flee for nearby cities. Most of the residents who have stayed are elderly. Neither port town nor Salt lake resembles the place of my childhood memories.


Fighting back

The vast consequences of this environmental catastrophe have finally triggered a coordinated effort to save the lake. Rescuing the lake has been an international effort and collaboration between Iranian government ministries, the Urmia Lake Restoration Program, and UNDP. Between 2018 and 2019, above-average precipitation has helped to turn the tide. however, there is still a long way to go for the lake, and it's far from its glory days.


In this long-term ongoing personal-environmental story that I started in 2014, I tried to demonstrate the impacts of the drying of Urmia Lake on my own family, ecosystem, and people living around it to reflect the interconnectedness of humans and the environment. 


The vanishing of Lake Urmia is much more than an environmental hazard; it is an emotional wound in people's memory. For those who remember what this place once was, the lake is much more than a receding blue spot on the world map. It is a part of our identity, and we can only hope that it does not vanish forever.


Years of creation: 2014 to 2021 (ongoing)



The Eyes of Earth -   A 2018 photograph of the arid, salt-crusted lakeshore of Sharafkhaneh, a port that was once a...
A 2018 photograph of the arid, salt-crusted lakeshore of Sharafkhaneh, a port that was once a draw for tourists. The imposing structure in the background, “Tal,” was once used to repair ships in the water. 
My my father photographed the same area in 1992.
The Eyes of Earth -    [left]:  In a 2015 photograph of the arid lakeshore of Sharafkhaneh port....
[left]: In a 2015 photograph of the arid lakeshore of Sharafkhaneh port.
[Right]: The coast of Sharafkhaneh port  taken by my father in 1993.

Sharafkhaneh port which used to be one of the heavily travelled touristic villages on the north shore of Lake Urmia before Lake Urmia began to dry up.
The Eyes of Earth -            [  Left]:  Sharafkhaneh port-Lake Urmia  2017       [Right]:  Sharafkhaneh...

[Left]: Sharafkhaneh port-Lake Urmia  2017
[Right]: Sharafkhaneh port-Lake Urmia 2015

A pump moves water from deeper places to the shallow beachside for people to swim. 
It no longer works because the deep parts have also begun to dry.
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The Eyes of Earth - Children who live in a village beside Lake Urmia play on the dried lakeshore. Sheikh vale port...
Children who live in a village beside Lake Urmia play on the dried lakeshore. Sheikh vale port was once one of the most important ports and used to get the most visitors. Now it has shut down and a couple of boats and ships in these ports have gone aground. Urmia Lake|East-Azerbaijan|Iran.2015
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The Eyes of Earth - Poeple came to see lake Urmia and to take picture from desolated ship that was surrounded with...
Poeple came to see lake Urmia and to take picture from desolated ship that was surrounded with salt for kilometers.its now in water. Lake Urmia showing signs of recovery in some small parts. Good rain fall(El Nino) combined with the opening of Boukan dam seem to have set the lake on path to recovery in very small regions But the lake is far from a complete recovery which now barely contains 5% of the water it held less than 20 years ago."Shahid Kalantari" Highway,West Azerbaijan,Iran,2015
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The Eyes of Earth - Lake Urmia in Iran in the summer of 1969: many tourists and locals swam here. At that time, the...
Lake Urmia in Iran in the summer of 1969: many tourists and locals swam here. At that time, the area was a popular travel destination and also the habitat of many birds such as ducks, pelicans and flamingos.
The Eyes of Earth -    The ship Sahand on the shore near Sharafkhaneh port, where it was brought to port for...
The ship Sahand on the shore near Sharafkhaneh port, where it was brought to port for painting. 1983
The Eyes of Earth -   At the port of Sharafkhaneh in 2015, an abandoned ship is stuck in solidified salt.
At the port of Sharafkhaneh in 2015, an abandoned ship is stuck in solidified salt.
The Eyes of Earth -    The photo was taken around 1977 and is one of the oldest photos of the shore of Lake Urmia in...
The photo was taken around 1977 and is one of the oldest photos of the shore of Lake Urmia in the port of Sharafkhaneh when the lake was in its heyday.  The young man on the left is my uncle at 18. He was a math teacher and had a sailing business at the port town. After the lake dried up, he migrated to Tehran.

The Eyes of Earth

Profile photo of Solmaz Daryani
Solmaz Daryani
Photographer based in United Kingdom
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Public Story
The Eyes of Earth
Copyright Solmaz Daryani 2024
Updated Feb 2023
Location Iran
Topics Climate Change, Documentary, Environment, Environment Health climate change human drought, Family, Journalism, Landscape, Mixed Medium, Nature, Photography, Photojournalism, Portrait, Water
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