A Taste of the World’s Monuments to Salt

Culture/History, Featured, Offbeat — By Zain Iqbal on October 5, 2010 at 6:00 am

It’s one of the world’s oldest seasonings, used in food preparation, religious ceremonies, and ritual cleansing. Legend says that Roman legionnaires were often paid partly in salt, giving rise to the word salarium, which we know as the modern word, salary. Yes, that salt in the shaker on your dining table is part of a long and storied history that stretches back almost 8,000 years.

Sure, as a food additive, salt gets a bad rap now and again, mainly among concerned cardiologists and health advocates. Perhaps this should’ve stopped my college roommate from living on salt bagels and salted butter for four years [Ed. note: that sounds amazing], but it shouldn’t stop anyone from marveling at the wonder that is sodium chloride.  Today there are monuments to salt — both man-made and natural — all around the world, whether they’re old salt mines, salt flats used to test the speed of rockets and race cars, or merely beautiful natural wonders.

Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá – Colombia

One of the strangest places you’ll ever find a church? Within an old salt mine near Zipaquirá in Colombia. The Salt Cathedral was built as a religious sanctuary, carved by miners as a place to worship while on the job and originally consisted of several naves and a gigantic cross. While officials shut down the mine in the 1990s because of safety concerns, they also poured almost $300 million into expanding the cathedral and the halls of the sanctuary to accommodate 8,000 worshipers!

Images: olliethebastard/Flickr, olliethebastard/Flickr, Novoparra/Wikipedia

Since its construction, the mine has been expanded into a center for religious worship (even though the cathedral technically is not recognized by the church because it lacks a bishop), and also a museum for mining and geology. The complex is an immense source of pride for the Colombian people, and locals consider it one of the country’s great cultural attractions.

Wieliczka and Bochnia Salt Mine – Poland

Salt mines usually evoke thoughts of hardship and labor; judicial officials in the Middle Ages even sent prisoners to work in salt mines as punishment. But enter the Wieliczka and Bochnia salt mines just outside Kraków, Poland and you’ll think you’ve entered opulent underground palaces. These mines are among the oldest continually-operated salt mines in the world, having produced table salt since the Middle Ages.

Images: Il conte di Luna/Flickr, Rafa/Flickr

The Wieliczka mines (pictured above) opened sometime in the 13th century, and sport statues, figures, and impressive chandeliers — all carved out of rock salt. The mine shafts span over an unbelievable 200 miles, but visitors can take in most of the splendor by walking along the much easier two-mile touring route, which has been visited over the years by the likes of Nicolaus Copernicus, Pope John Paul II, and former US President Bill Clinton. Ever thought about having a party or even a wedding in a salt mine? The site has a chapel and reception room at the end of the tour.

The Bochnia Salt Mines (pictured below) are the oldest in Europe. While not as extensive as Wieliczka they still have plenty of sights to offer, such as a church, various statues, and a preserved underground town that generations of miners called home from the 12th century to just after World War I.

Images: jazonz/Flickr, Bochnia County Government

Can’t get enough of the underground Polish mine scene? Head on over to eastern Poland to the town of Chełm, a short drive from the Ukrainian border and check out some of the most unique chalk mines in the world. Not as tasty as the salt mines, but the Chełm Chalk Tunnels still hold an important place in Polish history, most notably as a hideout for persecuted Jews during World War II.

Khewra Salt Mines – Pakistan

Halfway between Lahore and Islamabad lays one of the oldest salt mines in the world — a place where salt was first discovered by an electrolyte-starved horse in Alexander the Great’s army. Legend has it that, on a rest break while conquering the Punjabi plain, a number of the soldiers’ steeds started licking the stones that lay on the ground. A curious soldier took a taste test of the soil, and soon after the Khewra Salt Mine was founded.

Images: Karrar Haidri/Flickr, alitahir/Flickr

Unlike the two mines in Poland, Khewra is still functioning to this day and produces approximately a half-million tons of salt per year. The mine also receives about 40,000 visitors who come to marvel at its bright pink, red, and rust-colored salt deposits and bricks. Inside one of the chambers is a tiny mosque where both visitors and miners can pray. Religious spaces inside mines are kind of a no-brainer, considering the dangers of working in such cramped places.

Solotvyno Salt Mine – Ukraine

Fresh off the presses from a Wired.com Raw File photo essay comes this story about a salt mine in Ukraine that for decades has been used as a therapeutic ward for asthmatics. Writer Pete Brook, via photographer Kirill Kuletski, describes this convalescent sanatorium as “eerie” and “dysutopian” and akin to a “biological fallout shelter”.

Images: Kirll Kuletski via Wired

We agree, especially when we read there were designated smoking areas inside this salt-mine-turned-lung-treatment-center. It’s not the Four Seasons: single beds laid side-by-side inside a shaft, and the Soviet-era medical instrument instills a Cold War-era terror inside us. (That said, this author would be willing to check out the habitability of the mine for himself.)

Devil’s Golf Course/Badwater Basin – Death Valley, California

For the next stop on our salty tour, we head over to Death Valley National Park, where they say only the Devil himself would be willing to play a round on the surface of this jagged earth. The Devil’s Golf Course is a salt flat: the remnants of a vast endorheic lake that once spanned the length of the valley. Wind and other weather patterns now shape the floor of the salt pan. On warm days (most of the year in Death Valley) visitors can hear the surface of the Devil’s Golf Course cracking.

Images: EverJean/Flickr, Mila Zinkova/Wikipedia

The park service advises caution when walking on the surface — it is sharp, solidified rock salt and could cause a nasty injury (ed. note: talk about pouring salt on an open wound!). You can head about 15 miles down the road and check out the eerie honeycomb-shaped salt formation or just lounge freely at Badwater Basin. At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America.

Images: Zain Iqbal

If, for some unfortunate  reason, you brought your clubs all the way to Death Valley thinking you’d play on the Devil’s Golf Course, don’t worry: the park has an actual course at a resort in Furnace Creek. It also happens to be the lowest golf course in the world at 214 feet below sea level. Just don’t forget your sunscreen as temperatures can easily reach 125°F in the summer.

Salar de Uyuni – Bolivia

Hotels made of halite, train graveyards, 900-year-old cacti, and thousands upon thousands of square miles of salt! Yep, Salar de Uyuni is one of the strangest places on Earth. At 4,086 square miles, this Bolivian salt flat’s massive salt and lithium deposits is not only a huge contributor to the Bolivian economy, but it’s also a fantastic tourist destination for the salt-obsessed.

Images: Where There Be Dragons, chrisstreeter, jimmyharris, Robert Veldwijk (on Flickr)

While most of Salar de Uyuni is devoid of life or vegetation, several “islands” around the flat, such as Incahuasi Island, are oases for cacti and other hardy plants, and a home for foxes and rabbits. Other attractions include the train cemetery outside the town of Uyuni, that’s made up of the remnants of a rail depot constructed by British engineers in the late 19th century and filled with well preserved steam engines and boxcars.

Bonneville Salt Flats – Bonneville, Nevada

If you’re a racing enthusiast or just have a thing for fast cars, then head due west from Salt Lake City on Interstate 80 for about 100 miles until you reach the Bonneville Salt Flats — a vast salt pan that was once the massive Lake Bonneville. The salt in the Bonneville Flats — home of the now-famous Bonneville Speedway — is packed so firmly that it’s a prime surface for use as a straightaway for motor sports and for setting land speed records.

Images:  Zain Iqbal, Zain Iqbal, jotor/Flickr

While early gearheads were testing out their engines on the flats in the early 20th century, it wasn’t until a pair of racing experts, Sir Malcolm Campbell (a British motoring journalist) and Ab Jenkins (a race car driver who would later become the mayor of Salt Lake City) brought fame to the area in the 1930s. In the decades since, the Bonneville Speedway has been synonymous with record-breaking speed, including the Blue Flame’s 1970 push to 630 mph (1014 km/h).

Know of any other awesome monuments or tributes to salt around the world? Drop us a line or add your own in the comments!

Tags: Badwater Basin, Bochnia Salt Mine, Bonneville Salt Flats, Bonneville Speedway, death valley, Devil's Golf Course, Khewra Salt Mines, Salar de Uyuni, Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, Solotvyno Salt Mine, Wieliczka Salt Mine

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