The things we do for faith.
Deep in the silver mines of Potosi, Bolivia, where men labor more than ten hours a day and some still drill holes for dynamite charges without power tools, the miners have made an image of the devil out of clay.
And they give the devil his due – cigarettes, coca leaves, trinkets and other gifts – because he is, they say, the owner of the silver. El deuño de la plata.
The clay evil avatar has the requisite horns, the pointy beard, the devilish grin.
If the miners didn’t pay Beelzebub tribute, they believe he might get angry that they’re taking precious metals from his lair.
Removing that silver is no easy job. The miners carry bags of ore on their backs through narrow passages deep in the mountain, selling it by the ton to make a few dollars a day.
Underground, the miners pay homage to the devil. But above ground, at the end of a back-breaking day, they become good Catholics again, filling the churches on Sunday.
The devil is not welcome there.
After a coffee-less hour and a half on buses, MJ and I arrived in Zipaquirá, a town of 120,000 outside of Bogotá. A quick quaff of joe (or someone was going to get hurt!) and a sweet danish later, we hailed a taxi and headed uphill to the entrance of the area’s top destination: the Salt Cathedral.
We queued up at the entrance on Maundy Thursday, when hundreds of families had come on a Holy Week pilgrimage. As we waited, we discovered a separate line for foreign language tours. My brain was a little fatigued from interpreting Spanish during the past week, so having an English guide was a relief. After a few minutes, a lithe and grinning polyglot of a tour guide came bounding around the corner, teasing his co-workers with a Spanglish mix: “Aynglish? Did someone say Aynglish?” His name was Rafael.
He took us into the long entrance to the site, lined with a dozen or so HDTV monitors playing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in honor of Semana Santa (some of you already know my feelings about this movie: a sacrilegious snuff film I can’t bear to watch). Safely past the gauntlet of TV monitors, our eyes had adjusted to the darkness and we banked to the left and walked down the sloping floor deeper into the tunnel.
Heading toward the cathedral chambers, some 600 feet inside the mountain, we passed 14 chapels, representing the Via Crusis, the Stations of the Cross – the final steps of Christ’s life from being condemned to death by crucifixion to being laid to rest in the sacred sepulcher – images that are common to most catholic churches. As we passed the stations, with some visitors praying at the austere crosses carved from solid rock that looked like marble, but is actually salt, Rafael told us the geological history of the mountain.
The salt is there, he said, because this mountain of rock was once ocean floor. The fossilized salt deposits were thrust upward by the force of crashing tectonic plates and volcanic activity that formed the Andes mountains during the Tertiary period, some sixty million years ago, when we mammals began our dominion over the planet.
Miners have blasted the salt out of this mountain for more than a century (in fact, ancient tribes had long harvested salt from here), carrying the mineral rock out to process into powdery potassium nitrate. To coax the salt from the black-specked rock, which is full of impurities, Rafael said the salt operations here use a leeching and evaporation method, sped up with newer chemical processes. The end result: white table salt.
The mines are still in operation, though tourism is now the main thrust of the site and its church. It is not officially a cathedral and has no bishop, but the church does host some religious celebrations in its rock salt halls.
The idea for that grand sanctuary began long ago, when miners – good Catholics both above and below ground – created a small altar area where they would pray during work. In 1950, blasting began on a grander church in an area of the mine. That cathedral was finished in 1954. But worries about its collapse led officials to close it in 1990.
Construction began on a new cathedral, with an even grander plan that would incorporate the work of several artists, in 1991. Four years and eight million dollars later, the new Catedral de Sal opened to the public, at a time when Colombia was embroiled in a civil war between government troops and rebel factions.
The hallway of the station chapels ends with a carved cupola, a smooth concave ceiling rimmed with blue light. Just a bit further, we turned again to get our first glimpse of the grand room of the cathedral, viewed through a tunnel where salt was once extracted.
Once inside the cathedral area, we saw the three naves – representing birth, life and death/resurrection – and ventured down the far nave, where, in dim blue light, another sculpture, a variation of the pietá by a Colombian artist, draws the eye.
On the wall of the opposite nave, another sculpture shows the nativity, representing birth to balance this image of death.
To support the open cathedral structure, four pillars were left, each named for one of the four writers of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and partially carved as though they were in a Gothic structure (but only partially, because engineers believed the rock above needed to be kept untouched to support the grand hall’s roof).
The crucifix above the main altar appears from a distance to be curved as though made from logs. But the illusion is created because the fifty-foot tall cross is incised into the rock, with lights rimming the image. The effect of light leaves a shadow image of a heart at the center of the cross.
In the center of the main hall – the Nave of Life – on the floor behind the pews, a carving invokes Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel ceiling, with the hand of God reaching out to touch Adam’s. It represents the center of creation, the union of God and man and the beginning of the journey down the true spiritual path.
As you stand in the middle of this structure, you can’t help but wonder why people would spend so much effort, time and money to build something like this.
But having recently lived in Egypt, where ancient monuments still strike us with awe with their size and grandeur, I know it is nothing new to go overboard to praise your deity of choice.
Just think of St. Peter’s Basilica, the grand Blue Mosque of Istanbul, the Bamayan Buddhas, the Hindu temples of Angkor Wat, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio, the grand stupas of Borobudur in Indonesia or, closer to home, New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
It is a marvel of humans that we make these grand places where we can stand, bending our necks to look up and around, our mouths agape, and feel the spiritual power of amazing creations meant to praise the Creator.
As travelers with open hearts and minds, we can be ever so grateful for the things people do for faith.