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Salt of the Earth and the Heavens

In Colombia, an centuries-old salt mine has been turned into a crystal cathedral.

September 21, 2003|Margarita Martinez | Associated Press Writer

ZIPAQUIRA, Colombia — Deep inside an Andean mountain, humans connect with the divine in an underground world of salt and temples.

The Zipaquira Salt Cathedral is built into the walls of a salt mine nearly 600 feet into a mountain at this central Colombian town of 120,000 people.

Winding tunnels descend into the Roman Catholic temple, passing 14 small chapels representing the stations of the cross, which illustrate the events of Jesus' last journey. Soft lights outline the chapels, carved with simple yet powerful strokes.

Benches at each station appear to be marble but are really salt.

Tourists and the devout kneel, breathing in a soft smell of sulfur as they pray.

Moist bits of salt flutter like snowflakes in the distance of the tunnels, while stalactites of the mineral poke out of the white and gray walls.

Walking in the semidarkness of the tunnels, where tons of salt have been extracted over the centuries, visitors reach a startling sight -- an underground dome with an intense blue aura.

"This is where man meets God," says Stella Higuera, a guide at the cathedral, which has been open eight years.

It's illuminated by a majestic cross nearly 53 feet high and 33 feet wide.

Confessionals are built into the salt rock, but they are not in use -- the acoustics make privacy impossible, the guide says.

Before reaching the main section of the cathedral, visitors encounter a statue of Gabriel, the archangel, with the biblical quotation: "You are all the salt of the earth."

Visitors to the cathedral spend nearly $1 million in Zipaquira each year.

Records of local tribes bartering the mountain's salt for other goods date to the 15th century. But the first underground chapel wasn't created until 50 years ago, when miners built a small altar to appeal for divine protection while they performed their dangerous work.

But the land began sinking, and the chapel was closed in 1991.

More than 300 workers then began constructing the cathedral, which cost $3.5 million to build.

Some parts are currently being remodeled, and there are plans for musicians to perform concerts in the underground chambers.

Near the pulpit and baptismal fount, there is an enormous hole in the shape of a cross, built into what was a mine gallery.

"This cathedral doesn't seem like it was made by man," said U.S. tourist Max Camsy, one of more than 320,000 visitors to the church each year. "It feels like it has always been here."

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