Wieliczka Salt Mine’s Ancient Guardians

 “I would tell you a tale, Pilgrim, a tale of picks and shovels and hammers of old,” I imagined a distant voice, a phantom from the past, whisper. “I would tell you of the men who dwelled beneath the earth, their backs bent from toiling in the darkness in the mines of Wieliczka  and Bochnia. I would tell you a tale if you would but listen.”

 Icons, figures of kings, miners, and saints stand lifelessly, their chiseled features casting shadows throughout the cavernous chambers of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. A subterranean world of labyrinthine saline corridors, crystal grottos,  briny lakes, and ethereal chapels, it seems impossible that such a treasure could be located only a short bus ride from Krakow’s busy city center and a short distance from Wawell Castle.

Not far away, tourists throng to Europe’s largest medieval market square, Rynek Główny, with its cozy restaurants, 700 year old Cloth Hall, St. Mary’s Basilica, and Rynek Underground Museum. It is clear why the Wieliczka Salt Mine was added to the list of UNESCO’s World Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites in 1978.

 

Voluntourism: 21st Century Pilgrims

I am a pilgrim. I travel throughout the world on a limited budget, providing volunteer services in exchange for accommodations and meals. A retired educator, I have spent the past two years of my life clutching the hands of young Buddhist monks of Nepal as I coaxed their tiny fingers to trace the English alphabet; delivering earthquake relief to helpless survivors stranded in isolated villages high in the Himalayas; assisting Polish, Spanish, and Hungarian citizens to speak the English language more fluently; and meticulously cleaning the suitcases of victims who were exterminated in the gas chambers of the notorious Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The word “pilgrim” is defined by Webster as a wayfarer, one who travels to holy places as a devotee. The reason that a wanderer, such as I, discards earthly possessions in order to undertake a pilgrimage is more elusive. It entails a seeking, a quest to satisfy a thirst for knowledge, and a calling to stand witness to the voices of the simple folk, those whose words are not deemed worthy to be written in the great tomes of human history. The writings of the author Mark Nemo aptly describe today’s pilgrims, men and women who move silently, undetected by the masses, as they serve in monasteries, orphanages, animal shelters, schools, and other organizations where they sense that there is a need. Nemo states:

“To journey without being changed is to be a nomad.

To change without journeying is to be a chameleon.

To journey and be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.”

 

Ancient History of the Wieliczka Salt Mine

Krakow’s Wieliczka Salt Mine was created circa 13.6 million years ago when the drying up of a Miocene sea resulted in massive sodium chloride deposits. Afterwards, following an uplifting of the Carpathian Mountains, Wieliczka’s unique geological structure emerged. This strange underground world is rich with stalactites and stalagmites, as well as fascinating patterns forged by the powerful movements of the earth’s plates. The ancient salt crystallization resulted in exquisite formations; thus, today Wieliczka has the largest known specimens of Miocene mineralogy in the world.

Wieliczka Salt Mine Shaft

Pieskowa skala chamber

 

 

Evolution of Salt Mining

Mankind first began to obtain salt from brine during the Neolithic Period. This process developed through stages. First, man obtained salt through surface salt springs. Then he constructed wells from which to draw up the brine in order to extract the salt. The final stage of development was rock-salt mining. Significantly, under Poland’s Piast and Jagiellon dynasties, the trade in rock-salt reached its peak, providing about 1/3 of the royal revenue. An essential element in the diet of both humans and animals, as well as a preservative for food, historically sodium chloride was useful for barter and at times served as currency. However, understanding the value of the mineral and its historical significance in no way prepares one for the stunning sights to be found beneath this unique plot of earth on the southern banks of Krakow’s Vistula River.

 

Wieliczka Salt MIne's Weimar Chamber

Weimar Chamber

 

The Subterranean World of the Wieliczka Salt Mine

Slowly, and with apprehension, the group of tourist to which I had been assigned descended the 378 steps leading to the first level of the mine to begin our three hour tour. Shadows played like ghostly phantoms on the walls. Illuminated images stood as sentinels throughout the darkened cavern: graceful winged angels peeking down from pedestals; horses straining under the weight of their heavy burdens; and miners pumping the brine with primitive tools. All had one goal in mind – access to the watery brine beneath the earth for the purpose of extracting the treasured mineral.

With guides who speak several languages, a gift shop, and a restaurant, the Wieliczka Salt Mine staff strives to meet the needs of more than one million tourists annually. It is little wonder that noteworthy visitors such as Nicolaus Copernicus, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Fryderyk Chopin, and Sarah Bernhardt have been drawn by its allure to tread the pathways of this deep underground maze. Sights such the Chamber of Casimir the Great, the Chapel of Saint Anthony, and the exquisite Chapel of Saint John with its statue of the crucified Christ provide an ambiance that reawakens one’s spirit. A rock-salt sculpture representing the Last Supper and carved figures of Saint Pope John Paul II, Saint Kinga, and Saint Casimir, captured my imagination, creating a mystical link to the ancient past of this beautiful Central European nation which, throughout its existence, has experienced numerous partitions, occupations, wars, communism, and genocide.

Wieliczka Health Resort

The health benefits of Wieliczka are such that people from all over the world come to recuperate from the pollution of modern life. In an underground spa on the third level of the mine, those who suffer from respiratory disorders often find healing and peace within the walls of the Wieliczka Health Resort. Free of pollution and allergens, the spa’s micro-climate air is maintained at a constant temperature and is rich in micro-nutrients.

 

 

Warszawa Chamber

Warszawa Chamber

 

Spirituality Within the Wieliczka Salt Mine

As was true for all miners during the Middle Ages, for those who spent their lives in Wieliczka death and serious injury were no strangers. Therefore, I was not surprised to learn from our tour guide that fear of death was the catalyst for many of the beautiful works created by amateur artists deep within this mysterious world. Miners became much more involved in religious worship than did the other social groups of the Medieval world. The saints and angels who looked protectively down upon them as they bent their backs to perform the heavy, difficult labor were a vital part of their existence.

 

Saint John's Chapel

St. Kinga’s Chapel

 

Celestial Guardians

Wieliczka’s Celestial Guardians

 

The most stunning art of the amateur sculptors can be seen in the magnificent underground temple known as Saint Kinga’s Chapel. From the late 1800’s to 1963, dedicated miners such as Tomasz Murkowski, Antoni Wyrodek, and Józef Murkowski created an otherworldly cathedral designed for worship of their deity. Replete with hanging crystal chandeliers made from rock salt, walls depicting scenes from the New Testament, and an elegantly carved altar, Saint Kinga’s is a spiritual testament. It reveals a longing for protection from Wieliczka’s dangers, as well as a passionate belief in the eventual salvation of the souls of those who lived their lives in this shadowy underworld.

Not far away from the Saint Kinga’s chapel stood statuettes of mythical gnomes, sculpted childlike figures sporting tall pointed hats and long scraggly beards, their tiny picks and shovels in hand. It was they who chiseled away with their picks each night while the miners lay sleeping, legend tells us, extracting the salt in an effort to make life easier for the men who toiled beneath the soil of ancient Poland.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

 

If visitors listen closely, they might just hear the footsteps of Wieliczka’s Guardian who the workers of old claimed silently paced the labyrinthine corridors. Beneath the damp earth, one wonders if the Guardian watches still, ever ready to intervene should danger threaten those who do not yet understand that their lives are over, their labors ended.

 

Wieliczka' Salt MIne's Ancient Miners

Wieliczka’s Ancient Miners

 

“We will tell you a tale,” I imagined the ghosts from the past whispering as I entered the elevator to return to my familiar world. “A story of the gnomes who toiled as we slept, so that we could live to become old men with grandsons on our knees. Will you listen, Pilgrim?”

“Yes,” I answered silently.

“Long ago there were kings in our land, mighty heroes with golden crowns and priceless, prancing ponies. Their ladies adorned with soft furs and gems that sparkled in the twilight. Yet, it was not they who made this ancient land great. It was the farmer who threshed in his field. It was the mother who swaddled her babes and sang them lullabies in the soft glow of the candle’s flame. It was the miners with their aching backs and their fading eyesight, the men who once walked the dark caverns of Wieliczka and Bochnia. These were the ones who made the land of the Poles what it is today. Are you listening Pilgrim? Will you share our tale so that all might understand?”

“Yes,” I whispered as I stepped out into the bright sunlight.

 

Suggested Resources

Natural Wonders: The Strange Beauty of the Salt Mines

History of Salt

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Wieliczka Health Resort

Rynek Główny

 

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