Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Splendor of a Salt Sanctuary

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Splendor of a Salt Sanctuary

Article excerpt

The cathedral of Colombia's Zipaquira mine attracts religious pilgrims and tourists from around the world

Just like his predecessors have done for over two hundred years, Jorge Castelblanco conducts his inspection tour of the mining project he supervises with eyes in constant motion. Adjusting the battery-operated light on his hard hat, he scans tunnel walls, ceiling, and floor, looking for telltale fissures and water seeps that could foretell the kind of disaster that makes his occupation one of the world's most dangerous, tie pauses to pinpoint on a map the location of a seemingly bottomless perforation, contemplating the chasm's thirteen-hundred-feet depth and the proof it provides of deposits so vast the mine could operate for at least another century. "The deposit probably goes down easily to fifteen hundred meters [forty-nine hundred feet]," he speculates with an air of professional confidence as he acknowledges two miners moving slowly on their way to the tunnel's entrance with a wheelbarrow loaded with tools.

The brisk cadence and cheery chatter of a group of students rapidly approaching from behind, however, attracts but a bemused moment of the engineer's attention. These days, schoolchildren on field trips, families on a weekend outing, and young lovers seeking an out-of-the-way place to spend some time together are a more common presence than miners in the endless tunnels of Colombia's most famous salt mine. On Sundays and religious holidays, when thousands of the faithful converge on Zipaquira, a small city of eighty thousand inhabitants thirty miles north of the Colombian capital of Bogota, the mine's transformation from work site to cultural Mecca is complete. Their passion: to attend mass in what is surely one of the world's most unusual sanctuaries, the appropriately named Salt Cathedral.

The Salt Cathedral has become one of the most important destinations in all of Latin America for Catholic pilgrims and a tourist attraction of increasing importance to Colombia. What the curious discover when they set off to explore the site fully is a vast labyrinth of passageways and chambers carved out of solid rock salt hundreds of feet below the earth's surface. In one tunnel, artists have represented the fourteen stations of the cross on a grand scale--each rendered differently to capture the symbol's powerful image in a variety of free-standing, relief, and silhouette renditions. Finely detailed statuary, carved from columns of solid salt, has been polished to a gleaming-white finish in sharp contrast to the black, crudely chiseled surface of the surrounding tunnel walls and ceiling. Skillfully utilized indirect lighting heightens the sensation of a limitless expanse. Such details of a cathedral setting as confessionals, which at one time served the utilitarian purpose as storage space for explosives, and baptismal fonts have been fashioned from solid salt with meticulous detail. A Pieta, a sacristy, and the enormous cathedral itself, comprising three separate parallel chambers, round out a complex that takes well over an hour to explore. As visitors move reverentially through the maze of tunnels to the cathedral's altar, speaking in soft tones and pausing frequently to absorb the majesty of works of art in salt, it is obvious that the experience is an overwhelming one. Whether those present are impressed by the intense spirituality of the experience or are simply in awe of the gargantuan scale of the project, no one leaves the Salt Cathedral unimpressed.

The mine still functions as one of Colombia's primary producers of table salt and may contain enough of the mineral to satisfy worldwide needs for the next century. But the facility's growing importance as a cultural center is beginning to overshadow its historic leadership role in the country's extractive industries, and management of the complex illustrates that fact. "We can't continue using traditional mining methods, like explosives," comments Castelblanco about the need to manage the facility with the dual interests of salt production and preserving the cathedral area for public visitations in mind. …

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