The Eighth Wonder
Some of us put it on eggs, some of us in soup. It’s probably one of the most widely used cooking additives in the world. It’s found in great multitudes in our ocean waters, and has been claimed, and rightly so, to have great healing powers. It’s a fine white, granular substance that can be found on every kitchen table in the U.S.
You’ve guessed, I presume, that this week’s column is about salt. Why talk about salt, you ask? Well, because it’s part of our background, our treasured heritage. It’s about the salt mines at Wieliczka, Poland.
“The salt mines of Wieliczka are no less wonderful than the Pyramids of Egypt, but they are of a far greater usefulness. They give excellent testimony to the diligence of the Polish people, whereas the Pyramids merely testify to the tyrannical vanity of Egyptian Pharaohs,” so stated French traveler Le Laboureur as he wrote of the salt mines in 1642.
If I’ve wet your appetite with the above quote, it’s because there is a very interesting story as to how the salt mines came into existence some time during the 13th century.
It all began during the reign of Boleslaw Wstydliwy (Boleslaus the Timid), Duke of Cracow. He had dispatched an embassy to the King of Hungary requesting the hand in marriage of the beautiful Princess Kunegunda, famous for her virtue and piety. When the embassy was received with favor, the princess began wondering what dowry would be most suitable for her husband-to-be, who ruled the land in the North.
She wished not for gold and previous stones, pearls and diamonds, for such things always carry the stigma of blood, sweat and tears. But there was one stone in her country more precious than all others, a grey-colored stone – salt.
So she begged her father, the king, to give her one of the salt mines in Transylvania for the dowry. When her request was granted, she traveled to the mines and dropped her engagement ring down one of the shafts. Then, surrounded by a group of nobles, she set out for the land of her betrothed.
Duke Boleslaw also set out with his lords and barons to meet his beloved. Their meeting took place in a small valley, a short distance from Cracow. There, the Hungarian princess commanded her men to start digging. They had not been at it long before they came upon solid rock-salt and there, shining right at the top of it, the engagement ring she had dropped down the shaft in Transylvania lay embedded.
Archaeologists from a “salt mine museum” have supplemented this ancient tradition. They have not only proven without a doubt that the salt mines date back to the middle of the 13th century during the reign of Boleslaw but also have found proof that the salt had been obtained there much earlier – from remnants of what seemed to be mineral springs dating back to the Neolithic Age; that is, between the years 3000-2500 B.C.
Other archaeological digs in the vicinity brought traces dating back to the Gothic and Roman times. At some point, the mineral springs ran dry and prospecting for salt began. In all probability, that was when the salt deposits were first discovered.
After Boleslaw developed salt mining on a significant scale, Casimir the Great, understanding the importance of the product, went so far as to draw up statutes for its rights and privileges.
There was nothing surprising in the interest the king took in the mines. In the Middle Ages, the importance of salt could be compared with that of natural oil in modern times. At the end of the 14th century, the Cracow salt mines brought the sovereign 24,000 marks of silver annually, which was equivalent to one-third of the entire state revenue. Up to the beginning of the 19th century, the mines were the largest industrial enterprise in the country.
Today, however, their importance lies in the attraction for tourists who come from all over the world to see these mines. In the past, kings, queens, emperors and scholars, such as Mikolaj Kopernik visited the mines. Goethe, Chopin, Czar Alexander, Moniuszko and even Paderewski, who gave a musical reception at the time, were its recorded visitors.
Today the salt mines are one of Poland’s main tourist attractions. Deep beneath the earth’s surface, they house a 17th century chapel, various hewn-out sculptures, religious statues of various saints, an underground lake, an underground chamber that serves as a mini-sports field, a tennis court, an experimental laboratory and a monstrously large museum filled with exhibits illustrating work in the mines from its early beginning down to present time.
So, my dear readers, the next time you put salt on your hard-boiled egg, in your soup or on your roast beef, think of where it came from and the historical and traditional importance it has to your Fatherland. As a Polonian, you could consider yourself the “salt of the earth!”
SEE YOU SOON… GOD BE WILLING!