Chapels of salt

The enduring legacy of religion in Krakow’s salt mines

I grew up in California foothills. Mines are nothing new to me. My hometown was founded in the gold rush and the bedrock is honeycombed with tunnels. As a kid it seemed like every local museum was plastered with sepia photos of local miners who look about as hard as the rock they’re hammering at.

Today the tunnels are all walled off, filled and flooded. California mining became regulated, the price of gold dropped, and the money dried up. The mines are long sealed shut. This handful of photos are all that’s left of these men who made their perilous living descending into dark, subterranean folds of rock.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine

A few years ago, me and my family visited another mine, the Wieliczka Salt Mine (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) near Krakow, Poland. This mine was much older than those in California, being in operation for almost seven hundred years until the 1990s. My kids were excited to visit because, according to the brochure, you could safely lick the walls.

Arriving at the mine there wasn’t much to look at: a parking lot, a lawn, a group of older buildings, but things quickly got interesting.

We entered the mine descending a stairwell down a shaft that, judging by the sight between the rails, was bottomless.

Slowly, then dramatically, a place far more beautiful than I expected emerged: smooth passages adorned with icons and crucifixes, small chapels, appearing unexpectedly, lit by salt crystal chandeliers, a green subterranean lake.

The guide explained how over the centuries the miners had hollowed out these chapels so they had a place to pray while working. Most of the statues and images are centuries old, carved by miners who were also amateur sculptures.

Finally, we came to the heart of the mine at a depth of 330 feet: St. Kinga’s Chapel.

The chapel is a wonder. Masses are still held here on a weekly basis (including midnight Mass on Christmas). Images from scripture are carved in the walls.

We left the salt mines feeling like we were leaving a fairy tale.

What are we building that will last?

Mining is a brutal job, perhaps one of the most brutal. The men who mined salt from Wieliczka were, no doubt, similar to the men who mined gold from California: Hard, poor, short-lived. But the men of Wieliczka left something that the men of California didn’t: A legacy of beauty.

Even though I’m a California native and only a century separates me and the gold miners, I think I understand the salt miners of Wieliczka better. I understand men who wanted to make the dark place where they worked away from the sun beautiful and holy. I understand miners who would bring icons of Heaven into the borderlands of Hell. I understand men who pray when they’re afraid and who want the sacred to be with them as they work. I can stand in their workplace and know them.

The Wieliczka mines reflect a sympathy and harmony between enterprise and religion that seems to be gone today. There was no expectation in Wieliczka that the miners should leave their religion at home. They brought their religion with them into the most terrifying, difficult, and dangerous work we could imagine. Instead of living like worms, they lived like humans and in the most unlikely of places they created beauty. And today, when the value of salt makes the mine worthless, the works of the miners themselves endures and delights people (including my family) to this day.

One day Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google will be gone—like Netscape, AOL, MySpace and countless other enterprises before them. The corporate offices that seem so modern and futuristic will become passé and dated. The technological advances will be deprecated by greater innovations. The world will move on. Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel, Paul Graham, all the luminaries of our generation, will fade and die.

What will be left?

I suspect that by neglecting religious expression, tech is strangling its legacy. We are religious creatures and as long as tech conceives of humanity on purely material terms, it won’t be able to speak to our spirits. Facebook and Twitter can monopolize my attention, YouTube can entertain me for hours, Amazon can send me boxes of shit quicker than anyone else, but tech still can’t move my soul like a salt mine.

The medieval entrepreneurs understood something that modern entrepreneurs don’t: If you want a legacy that will last for centuries, build a chapel. Make it as beautiful as you can.

Better yet, let your worker’s faith flourish and see what they build.

If you’re ever in Krakow, be sure to visit the salt mines. And if you visit the salt mines, remember to lick the walls.