Category: Salt History

If you’ve visited our “Hype-Free Zone,” you know what we think of wildly exaggerated or even blatantly false claims about the supposed curative properties of certain types of fancy salt. We specifically mention Himalayan salt, simply because no other salt’s hype has infested the internet to such an extent. But just because a particular type  of salt is nauseatingly hyped-up doesn’t mean the salt itself is no good or that there isn’t an interesting story behind it. Many people really like the flavor of Himalayan salt, and we think you’ll also enjoy reading its story.

Himalayan salt doesn’t actually come from the Himalayas.  It comes from the Khewra salt mine in Pakistan. 

City of Khewra, a bowshot away from the salt mine. Not very mountainous.

Of course, “Pakistani Salt” doesn’t conjure up quite the same majestic mental images as “Himalayan Salt.” Thus, the magic of marketing combined with the average consumer’s poor knowledge of Asian geography work in tandem to erase a gap of hundreds of miles between where something is said to come from and where it actually comes from.  For our story, though, it’s quite fortuitous that the Khewra salt mine sits at a mere 1,000 ft elevation 100 miles south of Islamabad.  Because if it actually was tucked in some inaccessible nook high in the Himalayas, it wouldn’t have such an interesting history.


Going back 23+ centuries, Alexander the Great’s campaigns had come about as far eastward as they were going to get.  He had just won a victory over Porus at the Jhelum River (better known by the Greek name, Hydaspes, among historians). 

Jhelum (Hydaspes) – One of Alexander’s toughest battles.

If you search for the Khewra salt mines on Google Earth, you’ll notice that they’re real close to the Jhelum River.  According to Alexander’s crack team of geography experts, the end of the world was now only about 600 miles away.  If he could finish conquering India, he’d have reached his modest goal of conquering the world.  But as they marched a bit further, and they heard repors of 300,000 coalition troops sharpening their lances on the other side of the Ganges, his army’s confidence began to wane.  But I’m getting off topic.  Long story short, Alexander didn’t get to conquer the whole world.


At some point during his coming or going past the Jhelum River, as the story goes, some of the horses from his cavalry started licking the stones, and his men quickly discovered that the stones were salty. And so the salt was discovered in the string of hills known today as the Salt Range. Whether or not this story is true is anyone’s guess. During the British occupation of this region, it was quite the “in” thing to attribute anything and everything to Alexander the Great.


No organized mining is recorded until a millennium-and-a-half later by the Janjua-Raja tribe in 13th century. Given salt’s value in the ancient world, though, once people knew there was salt to be found, they were probably gathering it all along in small-scale operations. In the 16th century the Mughal Empire swept through, led by its first Emperor, Babur.

Babur – Chuck Norris is afraid of him.

From the moment he was born, he was destined to be one bad dude, descended as he was from Genghis Khan on his mother’s side and Tamurlane on his father’s side! But again, I’m off on a tangent. Back to the salt mine.


The Mughals made good use of the mines until their empire ran out of steam.  The Punjabi Sikhs finally kicked them out and took over the mines in 1809.  They’re the ones who named the salt mines “Khewra.” Unfortunately for them, another empire moved in only 40 years later: the British.


When it came to business, the colonial British meant business.  They quickly had it whipped into a shape to run as a proper salt might ought, complete with a good Christian name (it was renamed Mayo salt mine after Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India), tunnel excavation, and local forced labor.

“Now that’s a proper salt mine!”

It was not a nice place to be subjected to forced labor.  The workers (men, women, and children) were locked inside and not let out until they’d filled their quotas of salt. In 1876, during a protest, 12 were shot and killed.


It could have been still worse, though, if it hadn’t been for the engineer in charge of the main tunnel.  He employed the room-and-pillar method of excavation.  Old-fashioned methods often wound up involving just blasting a bigger and bigger cavern until it either collapsed, burying everybody inside, or the mineral deposit ran out.  The room-and pillar method deliberately leaves about half of the mineral deposit undisturbed in the form of pillars to keep the cavern’s ceiling from landing on your head.  Given that estimated reserves of salt in the Khewra mine run into the several hundreds of millions of tons, and the mine itself produces around 350,000 tons of salt per year, it’ll be a few hundred years before anyone is tempted to start chipping away at the pillars.

Entrance to Salt Mines

After the first world war, heavy equipment began to be used, first in the form of steam engines, and then in the form of electricity, produced by two 500 horsepower diesel generators installed in the 1920s. This modernization brought production into the hundreds of thousands of tons annually. At present, the mine’s tunnel network extends about 25 miles through 19 different levels.


Despite the immense scale, the mine has struggled financially in recent years.  In order to try to make the mine profitable, the Pakistani Mineral Development Corporation, which owns the mine, has also been working the tourism angle, with considerable success. I haven’t been there, but it looks to be well worth seeing if you happen to be passing through the Punjab region of Pakistan. Wikipedia estimates the mine receives 250,000 visitors a year. The main shaft has now been converted to a tourist attraction. Some of the highlights are:


…an underground mosque built from blocks of salt,



… a model of the Minar-e-Pakistan (Tower of Pakistan), built from blocks of salt,



… and, of course, a food court.


For the health-conscious visitors, there is a ward with 20 beds for salt-therapy. Many believe that inhaling salt particles in the very sterile environment inside the mine helps with respiratory ailments. Some swear by it, others say it’s quackery. Controversy notwithstanding, it’s certainly affordable. A 2010 article by The Telegraph stated a 10 day treatment costs 42₤ (Currently $52 US). Some critics of alternative health treatment have pointed out that the salt mines are somewhat radioactive. While this is true, the level of radioactivity isn’t much out of the ordinary, according to this research paper.


But beyond the development of tourism, since with withdrawal of the British in 1947, further modernization has, for the most part, ground to a halt.


This article, from the Seattle Times, addresses the plight of miners in the Khewra Salt mine today.

At Asia’s oldest salt mine, the march of technology stopped generations ago. Bare-chested laborers use hand-cranked drills and gunpowder to blast away the pink and orange-colored rock crystal, lucky if they earn a couple of dollars a day…


…Mohammed Buksh works alongside his son Shezad, 24, and three cousins, by the light of a lamp mounted on a gas cylinder. For three years they have been digging the same cavern. It is now about 30 feet high and wide, and 120 feet deep.


Buksh complained that the mine management withdrew mechanized rock-cutting and bore machines in 1998 to save money. The team gets 164 rupees ($2.75) for every ton of rock salt excavated. If they work hard, he said, he can earn about $50 a month — a poor but living wage in Pakistan…


…“The miners are living in medieval conditions,” said Farooq Tariq, secretary-general of the trade-union-affiliated Labor Party of Pakistan. “They have no advantage from technological advancement. They just use their bodies and labor.”…


Muhammed Saifullah Qureshi, the chief mining engineer at Khewra, conceded that little has changed since British times — and that little is likely to.


Speaking inside his colonial-vintage office, complete with a polished desk bell for summoning his secretary, Qureshi said it doesn’t pay to modernize because industrial-grade salt produced worldwide is cheap and the mine has been operating in the red for the past 10 years.

$7.63 on
Working for their .014% of the selling price.
Photo by Luke Duggleby


It’s rather sad when you do the math. When you pay 8 bucks for 4.5 ounces of this salt at Trader Joe’s, the guys risking their necks underground are making a tad over 1/10 of one cent.



Salt versus Gold

You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted fun fact: “Back in ancient times, salt was worth its weight in gold!”


But is it true?


The answer is a definite “maybe,” but only in very specific places under very specific circumstances.


Regardless of how true this claim is or isn’t, though, the history associated with it is pretty interesting.


Here goes.


In the early middle ages, trade started to develop in west Africa through the Ghana empire. Plenty of commodities changed hands, but the most important were salt and gold.  Don’t let the name fool you, the present day nation of Ghana is a ways off from where the Ghana empire was.


The map below shows the pertinent places we’re talking about.

Gold Salt Trade


So if you were to head north from the Ghana empire, you’d soon find yourself in the middle of this:

Sahara Desert

Not much to see here.


But, in certain places in the Sahara, like Taghaza or Taoudenni, if you dug through a couple feet of sand, you’d hit halite deposits (salt).  So traders from north of the Sahara started crossing the desert to trade with the people south of the Sahara.  Among other things, they were interested in gold.


Conveniently, the people from Bambuk region, west of the Ghana empire, as well as the people from the Wangara region, south of the Ghana empire, had lots of gold.  But wouldn’t you know it, they were a little short on salt.  You see where this is going.


Pretty soon, Arab traders set up salt mining operations in Taghaza and Taoudenni.  They brought in slaves, and left them there to get blocks of salt ready to load on their caravans when they rolled in from the north.  Since there was literally nothing in these places except for salt, water, and sand, they brought in all the food for the slaves on these caravans.  They lived on dates, camel meat, millet, and of course, all the salt they could eat.  Once the caravan left, there was no need to worry about the slaves running away, they had the only food and water for many miles in any direction.  They even built their houses out of salt because there was nothing else to build with. 


The Ghana empire ran a tight ship when it came to commerce.  They policed their travel routes to provide traders a safe strip though their territory (in exchange, of course, for some hefty duties levied and everything going in and out of their borders.)  So if the Arabs traders could make it through the Sahara, it was then smooth sailing to get to the Bambuk and Wangara regions where the gold was.


But once they got there, instead of meeting face to face and haggling, they engaged in silent barter, which is exactly what it sounds like.  Nobody says anything, and often the parties don’t even see each other.


It often went more or less like this:  The Arab traders show up at a designated trading location.  They lay out the salt they want to trade.  Then they beat on some drums so that the Wangarians know they’re ready to trade, and they withdraw back to wherever they’re camped out, a fair distance away, but within earshot of drumbeats.  The Wangarians show up, take a look at the salt, and then put a pile of gold next to it that they think is a fair price.  They then beat on some drums and withdraw from the trading location.  The Arab traders come back, check out how much gold the Wangarians have left, and decide whether or not it’s enough.  If they’re satisfied, they take the gold, leave the salt, beat on their drums, and leave.  If they want a higher price, they leave everything, beat on their drums, and head back to camp, so as to give the Wangarians a chance to offer more.  The process continues until a deal is reached.


This process sounds a little strange, but it served a couple of purposes.  First, language differences were no barrier because speech simply wasn’t used.  Perhaps more importantly, it ensured that no trade secrets slipped out.  For example, the Wangarians traders kept the locations of the gold mines strictly secret to prevent the Arabs from simply bypassing them and going straight to the gold.  It is said that if a miner was captured by traders, he would die before revealing the location of the gold mines.  One story holds that a miner was captured and killed in an effort to discover the location of the mines, and when the Wangarians found out about it, they refused to trade for 3 years as retaliation.  When you are that serious about keeping something secret, the less direct human interaction the better.


So this brings us to our original question.  Was salt traded, pound for pound, for gold?  Wikipedia thinks so.  Under the topic “Silent Trade,” it says:


Also in West Africa, gold mined south of the Sahel was traded, pound for pound, for salt mined in the desert.


This sounds doubtful, given that salt was so plentiful in Taghaza that they used blocks of it to build houses, whereas the Wangarians had to work hard to obtain relatively small quantities of gold. (They certainly weren’t making solid gold cinder blocks.)  Also, while salt wasn’t plentiful in the Wangara and Bambuk regions, it did exist there.

On the other hand, shipping and handling fees on a 200lb block of salt all the way from Taghaza were steep.  One traveler from the late middle ages noted that the price of salt quadrupled between the northern edge of the Ghana empire and an area just north of the Wangara region.  And that was the easy part of the trip.  The other half of the journey was through the Sahara. 


Still, I tend to agree with Mark Kurlansky, the author of Salt: A World History.  His take:


It was said that in the markets to the south of Taghaza salt was exchanged for its weight in gold, which was an exaggeration.  The misconception comes from the West African style of silent barter… From this it was reported in Europe that salt was exchanged in Africa for its weight in gold.  But it is probable that the final agreed-upon two piles were never of equal weight.