The Ancient Balaton

The first records of the “Hungarian sea” date back to Roman ages, although Balaton most probably played a role as far back as prehistoric times. These records mostly deal with ancient farming and fishing, pointing to an undisputed significance already then. As time had passed, the shape of the lake has changed significantly and the natural and artificial changes can be followed through maps and archaeological sites.

Balaton is the biggest lake of Hungary with its length of 77 km, a maximum width of 14 km and 594 km2 of water surface. It is located in the western part of the country in Transdanubia, [jv1] between Balaton Uplands with excellent wineries and fruit production on the North and Zala Hills and Somogy Hills on the South. This is the satellite image of Balaton today:

The shape of the lake looks different in the various maps of the past centuries. The first map drawn by using a scientific approach is distorted and Tihany Peninsula is depicted as an island. Tihany is also mentioned as an island in a contemporary certificate.

The oldest Hungarian map from 1528: map of Scrivener Lazarus

The other interesting element of the depiction of early Lake Balaton is that the peninsula was attached to the southern shore instead of the northern, as it can be well observed on an early map of Hungary.

Map of Hungary by Lazius

The map of Lazius has started an avalanche and his mistake can be spotted in other maps prepared later. In fact, it was not really his mistake rather it was a misunderstanding on the part of those who were later drawing the maps: Lazius originally marked the ferry crossing, but later the ferry crossing was interpreted as a narrow spit of land.

The size of Lake Balaton in older times can best be extrapolated from the archaeological sites and contemporary certificates dating back to Roman times and the grand migration era, as well as from the maps connected to these eras. The results of different researches show that many centuries ago Balaton used to be much bigger and deeper.

Balation in ancient times and today.

Author: Ádám Kovács

The Early Water level Control and Life of Balaton

Only natural conditions affected Balaton’s water supply and water levels during the first stage of its existence lasting approximately seven thousand years. The second stage is characterised by the impact of human intervention with its effects lasting to this day.  The first human intervention with the aim to decrease the too high water level of Lake Balaton occurred most likely during the Roman era when in the 3rd century AC Emperor Galerius built a flood gate at Siófok. However, subsequent, 20th century archaeological research questioned the existence of this flood gate.

From the Middle Ages, the mills on the stream Sió raised the water level of Lake Balaton. During the Turkish times by raising the water level ever higher, the bays of Lake Balaton were flooded and swamps spread. The newly reorganised business life of the 18th century made the lowering of the water level, then some 5-6 meters higher than today, and the regulation of Sió and Balaton a necessity. Economic development and the emergence of resorts on the shores of the lake necessitated a more significant reduction of the fluctuation of water level. The decisive step in the process of the stabilisation of the water level was the building of the flood gate at Siófok in 1863.


The inauguration ceremony and opening of the flood gate at Siófok on 25th of October, 1863

The regulation of inflows from waterways, the formation of the shores, the upgrading of the surrounding lands (i.e. all activities which improve the quality of agricultural lands and of the soil with the objective of increasing the yields) and agricultural usage could have only been started after controlling the water level of Lake Balaton. As a consequence, the water quality protective function of the surrounding marshes had ceased just at a time when the developing civilisation had been continuously worsening the quality of the waters flowing into the lake.

Water usage came with development. The effect of human activities and of pollution unfortunately inherent with it, can be seen in our waters. The worsening of the quality of water first occurred in shallow freshwater lakes like Balaton but the pollution of rivers, seas and underground water supplies are also well known. By 1970 the pollution of the lake had reached such a level that it required a serious intervention since the environmental condition and the water quality had been deteriorating fast. The first Water Management Development Program of Balaton was completed in 1971 which gave priority to the improvement of water quality as opposed to developmental tasks.

Source: National Environmental Institute, Hungarian Environment and Water Museum