The Caspian Sea, located in the north of Iran, is one of the world's greatest natural wonders which has inspired myths and legends. Despite its name, the Caspian has technically more of a lake than a sea. Yet, its saltwater reminds us that it was once part of a greater ocean.
The Caspian Sea is the world's largest inland body of water, with a surface of 371.000 square kilometres. No less than 130 rivers provide inflow to the Caspian Sea, while the main one is the Volga River. From each side, the Caspian Sea is bordered by lands, at the crossroad of Europe and Asia: Kazakhstan and Russia to the north, Azerbaijan to the west, Turkmenistan southeast and of course, Iran to the south. That's what makes it a lake, and not a sea.
Yet, because of its incredible size, people in ancient times couldn't consider that these large water shores would not belong to the ocean. Little was known about this vast body of water, too vast to be apprehended. The Caspian Sea is indeed four times and a half the size of Lake Superior, which is the next world's largest body of water.
The Greeks used to believe that east of their land, was a country called Hyrcania. They believed that it was the end of all lands and home to the water titan Oceanus. Meanwhile, other civilizations around also called this mysterious body of water their names; Darya-e Khazar, after the name of a large Turkish Empire, Khavalis Sea for the Russians, Mazandaran Sea for the Persians, Gilan or Qazvin Sea for the Arabs. It was not until Strato, a Greek geographer of prehistory that the body of water takes the name of the Caspian Sea. While travelling, Strato discovered that the region was inhabited by a tribe called "Caspi", hence his decision to name what he thought was a sea, the Caspian Sea.
If the Caspian is no longer a Sea, it was once connected to the ocean. 33 million years ago, it was part of the Paratethys Sea, a large inland sea that stretched from the north of the Alps region over Central Europe to Central Asia. The northern half of it is almost entirely freshwater, making the Caspian Sea even more singular.
No wonder it's a natural refuge for numerous fish, fauna and flora species such as the Caspian turtle, the Caspian Gull, the endangered Caspian Seal, etc. In northern Iran, the shores of the Caspian Sea hold the UNESCO-listed Caspian Hyrcanian Mixed Forests, one of the most ancient forests in the world which survived from the ice age termination thanks to the vast length of the Caspian Sea. That's why the region has been an attractive settlement for humankind since ancient times, providing them with all the necessary food.
Nowadays, the biggest freshwater fish in the world lives in these waters: the Beluga, one of the six species of sturgeon native to the Caspian Sea, which gives the precious Caviar. Indeed, 90% of the world's caviar production comes from the Caspian Sea. Once upon a time, there were much bigger fishes in these waters, as shown by archaeological evidence. Dolphins were swimming alongside Baked Whales and Baleen Whales. The Ramsar Convention on wetlands known as the Convention of Wetlands started from the shores of the Caspian Sea in the coastline city of Ramsar in Iran, where the convention was signed in 1971 to conserve wetlands.
It's not surprising that this place of natural wonders has fed the imaginations of men, giving birth the many strange stories and myths. Some still believe that another creature is living in the waters of the Caspian Sea, somehow reminding the Loch Ness creature myth. Called the "Runan-shah", "the king of sea and rivers", this ugly creature has been witnessed over centuries by fishermen of the southern shores. They described it as a large amphibious creature, about 165-168 cm in length, yet mixed with human features. It has a large mouth, and large eyes, on an earless head, covered with black and green hair. His webbed feet and hands are equipped with claws while his nose is like a dolphin's beak. People believe that it swims accompanied by large shoals of fish, producing deep throaty screams from time to time.
This old myth has found an echo in 2005 when the captain of an Azerbaijani crew told the press they had witnessed the Runan-Shah. : "That creature was swimming parallel course near the boat for a long time," said Gafar Gasanof to an Iranian newspaper. "At the beginning, we thought it was a big fish, but then we spotted hair on the head of the monster and his fins looked pretty strange... the front part of his body was equipped with arms!."
In ancient mythology, the Caspian Sea also has its own Atlantis City that disappeared in the waters. Many stories refer to underwater cities, and vestiges have been found by archaeologists. The fabled city of Ithil might be one of them. This flourishing city built in the 9th century on the coast of Northern Dagestan was the capital of the Khazar Khaganate. But the city simply suddenly vanished.
Ithil echoes the story of Sabayil castle, whose remains lie under the water. Sabayilis are mentioned in the Quran, the Muslim holy book, as being located in the land of Saba. People were worshipping the Sun and because they disobeyed God, their land was submerged by the waters. Sabayil can also be linked to a story involving Alexander the Great. The Macedonian king was willing to conquer a city with a splendid castle by the Caspian Sea. Unable to gain the consent of the inhabitants, Alexander sought the advice of Aristotle who pointed out that the city and castle were built on a large rock over the city. Thus, a special liquid was made to dissolve the rock, resulting in the flooding of the city.
Many other local myths have nourished stories about the Caspian Sea. Hidden treasures are said to be hidden all over the coast by the Cossack leader Stenka Razin, after his pillage of the Caspian Coast. These stories find their origin in the Caspian Sea, which is an unusual object of wonders as well as a natural paradise.