The salt mines of Zipaquirá, Colombia, have been worked since the 5th Century BCE. Salt was a highly prized trade item for the pre-Colombian Muisca people, and on occasion it was even traded for emeralds.
Salt extraction ramped up following the Spanish conquest of the Americas; the mines of Zipaquirá reached deeper and deeper into the ground, the mine complex became more vast, more extensive.
The first salt cathedral was completed in 1954 inside an abandoned chamber in the salt mines (although smaller, informal spaces had been used by the miners for their prayers for centuries). An enlarged replica of the original cathedral can be viewed in the new complex (shown in photo below).
The original cathedral (the one created in 1954) was closed to the public in 1990 due to structural instability. It has since collapsed, and now has a ceiling height of less than a metre.
In 1991 construction of a new salt cathedral commenced. This time the lower, more stable levels of the salt mine were utilised.
The new salt cathedral project re-appropriated many of the empty chambers left behind by the salt extraction process.
To reach the new salt cathedral you must walk past a series of chambers containing sculptures depicting the stations of the cross. There are 14 stations of the cross in Zipaquirá; each of which is used to tell the story of Jesus’s crucifixion.
To interpret the sculptures you must imagine Jesus as the cross, and the small kneeling blocks are the people he interacts with along the way.
All of the stations of the cross are lit for dramatic effect, many making use of colourful LED lights.
The main chamber of the cathedral, 75 metres long and 18 metres high, is overlooked by a statue of Archangel Gabriel. It makes use of one of the rooms left behind by the modern day pillars and rooms salt extraction process.
The design for the chamber was selected following an national design contest that included proposals from 44 Colombian architectural firms.
Four columns of immense girth, said to represent the four gospels, prevent the ceiling from crashing down on this new cathedral.
A salt waterfall cascades silently, motionlessly, into one empty gallery.
And finally, once you have concluded your tour of the salt cathedral, and walked through the underground arcade full of jewellery shops and souvenir stalls, you come upon this sculpture. It depicts a Muisca ritual, where an offering is made to a tribal leader: a reminder of where it all began.