Bafa Gölü (Lake Bafa), one of the most entrancing spectacles in southwestern Turkey, was created when silt deposited by the Büyük Menderes River sealed off the Latmos Gulf from the sea. The barren, weirdly sculpted pinnacles of ancient Mount Latmos (Beşparmak Dağı) still loom over the northeast shore, visible from a great distance west. Numerous islets dot the 100-square-kilometre lake, most of them sporting some sort of fortified Byzantine religious establishment, dating from the lake’s days as an important monastic centre between the seventh and fourteenth centuries.
Bafa’s west end was previously connected to the sea via canals and the Büyük Menderes (now permanently severed). As a result, the water is faintly brackish and fish species include levrek (bass), kefal (grey mullet), yayın (catfish) and yılan balığı (eel). Although locals track their depleting levels, stocks are still high enough to support the arrival throughout the year of more than two hundred species of migratory wildfowl, including the endangered crested pelican, of which there are believed to be less than two thousand left in the world.
Across Lake Bafa is a patch of irregular shoreline with a modern village, Kapıkırı, whose lights twinkle at the base of Mount Latmos by night. This is the site of Heracleia ad Latmos (Heraklia in Turkish) one of Turkey’s most evocatively situated ancient cities.
A settlement of Carian origin had existed here long before the arrival of the Ionians, and Carian habits died hard, though Latmos – as it was then known – had far better geographical communication with Ionia than with the rest of Caria. Late in the Hellenistic period the city’s location was moved a kilometre or so west, and the name changed to Heracleia, but despite adornment with numerous monuments and an enormous wall it was never a place of great importance. Miletus, at the head of the gulf, monopolized most trade and already the inlet was beginning to close up.
Heracleia owes its fame, and an enduring hold on the romantic imagination, to a legend associated not with the town itself but with Mount Latmos behind. Endymion was a handsome shepherd who, while asleep in a cave on the mountain, was noticed by Selene, the moon goddess. She made love with him as he slept and in time, so the story goes, bore Endymion fifty daughters without their sire ever waking once. Endymion was reluctant for all this to stop and begged Zeus, who was also fond of him, to be allowed to dream forever; his wish was granted and, as a character in Mary Lee Settle’s Blood Ties flippantly observed, thus became the only known demigod of the wet dream.