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Poland's Wieliczka Salt Mine: An Underground Wonder
There's something alluring about underground spaces. Whether it's the ancient subterranean cities of Cappadocia in Turkey or the alternative art galleries of the Paris catacombs, humanity's works underground take on a strange and mysterious feeling.
Perhaps there is no underground space more strange and mysterious than the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow, Poland. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was a salt mine from the 13th century until as recently as 1996. In that time the miners excavated 190 miles of tunnels reaching a depth of more than 1,000 feet. During the mine's high point in the 16th and 17th centuries, some 2,000 miners worked there digging out 30,000 tons a year.
Salt was hugely important in the premodern world. Not only was it vital for nutrition, but it also helped to preserve meat and other edibles in the days before refrigeration. Several countries, including Poland and Ethiopia, even used salt as currency in addition to coins.
Not content with simply mining salt and making a living, the salt miners carved elaborate statues and scenes out of the salt, including a large chapel complete with "crystal" chandeliers made with purified rock salt. The salt in its natural state is gray, and so it resembles granite. Many of the sculptures are religious in nature, showing Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. Others show miners and folk figures such as gnomes.
The simpler carvings done in the Renaissance and early modern periods are the most interesting to my eye, since they were crafted by regular people out of faith and a sense of fun. Now contemporary artists are getting in on the act and there are many new sculptures, including one of Pope John Paul II, who was from Poland and visited the mine before he became pontiff. The centuries-old mine is continuing to grow and develop.
Interested in seeing more strange underground dwellings? Check out our articles on salt mine tours and underground cities.