Almadén: A Spanish treasure trove
If you leave Madrid for Cordoba via the old highway, after about 300 km you reach an inconspicuous looking town. Tight streets, ruins, strange constructions with rusty pipes – it’s hard to believe that once it was the industrial capital of the world and almost the most poisonous place on the planet. Of these, Rudyard Kipling wrote: “I would prefer the worst death to work in the mercury mines, where the teeth crumble in my mouth…”
The dungeon. A rumbling dark corridor lined with brick. Here is a wooden cart with a pile of stones, here is the figure of a convict hunched over a puddle of mercury, and here is a soot-black train that will take you straight back in time. The history of the mercury trade is said to reflect the entire history of mankind, and it seems to be true. Mercury has been known to mankind since at least the 15th century B.C., and it has been mined for 2500 years in Almaden alone. It is here, in Castile, Spain, not far from the birthplace of Don Quixote, La Mancha, that the richest mercury deposit on earth is found.
In nature, there is very little mercury – on average, less than a drop per ton of land. Native mercury is most often found in drops, but Almaden is an exceptional place: its mines have sometimes uncovered cavities up to a cubic meter in volume, filled with liquid metal. And yet most of the mercury is found in cinnabar. But why is there so much of this “bloody” mineral? Geologists are still arguing about it. Most likely, the mercury mineralization was preceded by volcanic activity some 450 million years ago. This led to the formation of coarse rocks on the surface, such as quartzite (a durable stone used to make fire bricks) on the one hand, and clastic, porous sedimentary rocks on the other. Hot mineral solutions containing mercury flowed upward from the interior of the planet through the numerous cracks, like vessels, solidifying at a depth of less than 1 kilometer. These voids are where the cinnabar is deposited – the ore-bearing zones are in quartzite beds. Such deposits are called epithermal. The total reserves of Almaden, already extinguished and still hidden in ore deposits, are estimated at 1 million tons, which is approximately equal to the reserves of all other deposits in the world combined. True, in early 2018, the U.S. Geological Survey declared the permafrost the largest mercury storehouse – researchers estimate that the frozen ground in the Northern Hemisphere contains 1.6 million tons of mercury.
A furnace to produce mercury from cinnabar, www.pinterest.ru/carlosblazquez9
IN PLINY THE ELDER’S “NATURAL HISTORY” Pliny the Elder mentions that mercury mines were mined here by the Romans. In ancient times this place was called Sisapon, and the “scarlet stone” – cinnabar – was used mainly for making dye.
Later the Roman settlement fell into the hands of the Moors – to whom the city owes its modern name (al-Ma’din is translated from Arabic as “mine”). Mercury mining enabled neighboring Cordoba, the capital of the Caliphate of Cordoba, which was already a megalopolis in the 10th century, to flourish. It was then that mercury began to be extracted on an industrial scale. Here, it literally flowed as a river – in the mercury fountain of the palace complex of Madinah al-Zahra, which Abd al-Rahman III, the victorious one, built for himself. One can imagine the concentration of mercury vapor in the hot Spanish summer!
In 1151, it was seized by Alphonse VII and given to the Knights of Calatrava, who exploited it fourfold. During the Arab domination of Almadén, the castle of Retamar was built to protect the “mercury vein” – its tower still rises above the town. In general, in the Middle Ages mercury was sought by all those who dreamed of creating the elixir of immortality or turn the “living silver” into gold – doctors and alchemists. Large alchemical laboratories created at his court and the European monarchs, extremely interested in obtaining gold through the philosopher’s stone.
“Jacob Fugger burning bills of exchange in the presence of Charles V,” Carl Ludwig Friedrich Becker, 1866. www.fugger.de
In the 16th century, the head of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, presented the mines of Almaden to a German family of merchants and bankers named Fugger. And it was not just a broad gesture – thus the Spanish king paid back a debt to Jacob Fugger, who had helped him ascend to the throne in 1519 by lending a fabulous sum to his rival Francis I. In addition, German bankers took over the revenues of three chivalric orders in Spain, including the Order of Calatrava. The Almaden mines were leased by the Fuggers for more than a hundred years, until 1645, and it was German workers, among others, who helped raise the production of liquid metal.
The demand for molten metal increased sharply during the Spanish colonization of the New World. In America at that time, they called it shoveling silver – only first they had to wash the huge amounts of ore with mercury, which was mined in Almaden and transported across the ocean.
There were not enough laborers to service the world’s largest mercury mine. King Philip II of Spain, son of Charles V, ordered in 1566 that 30 prisoners-all those in good health and physical fitness-be sent to the mines. Only murderers were excluded, for whom harsher punishments awaited. But even work in the mines was akin to torture: with time, the miners’ limbs began to tremble, their teeth fell out, and they suffered severe pain and mental disorders. In the 1590s, in a series of interviews with the royal commissioner and famous writer Mateo Aleman, the convicts dared to speak about the bad working conditions – contrary to expectations, they were heard. Workers were given daily bread, meat, and wine, and once a year a pair of shoes, pants, two shirts, and outerwear. There was a hospital where they could go for medical care, and even their own pharmacy. Despite the changes, mortality was still high – one in four died, most often of mercury poisoning, before the release date. The fear of death and the anguish of fellow inmates oppressed everyone else. In addition to criminals, African slaves and gypsies became prisoners of the Almaden mines.
By the dawn of the 19th century, 4,000 people were working in the tunnels and factories, most of them now free citizens. The mines went underground for five stories, the lowest of which was 300 meters deep. The town, which lay between the parallel mountain ranges of the Sierra de Almadén, housed the headquarters of the Royal Mining Office, and the exploitation of the nearby deposits served as the main source of income for the Spanish treasury. It remained so until in the 1830s, the rights to the mining of mercury bought the Rothschild family. The founder of the famous dynasty of bankers, Meyer Amschel Rothschild, left behind five sons. Only a few years later, they divided the world domination between them. Amschel Meyer ruled the stock exchange in Frankfurt am Main, Nathan in London, Solomon in Vienna, Charles in Naples, and James in Paris. Before the discovery of mercury deposits in California, mercury came to Europe from two main deposits, the Spanish Almaden and the Austrian Idria, discovered in 1490. Spain mortgaged the Almaden mines to the Rothschild house of London, and after Nathan’s death in 1836 his brothers effectively monopolized the world mercury trade. Solomon leased the mercury mines in Idria through a series of large deals. James sent his men to California and Mexico to buy precious metals and organized the minting of coins on the orders of several European countries. The price of mercury increased two or three times, and the most affected was medicine, which at that time could not do without mercury. Because of the high cost of pure mercury mined in the deposits, manufacturers of medicines had to melt down mirrors and old eyeglass frames. Despite the fact that for the Spanish kingdom contracts with the Rothschilds were unprofitable and brought only losses, deals were still made. In 1870, was signed a loan agreement for 30 years, under which the government was obliged to send to London to sell 2.4 thousand tons of liquid metal annually – that is, almost all that was mined in Almaden a year.
Almaden retains the Royal Hospital of St. Raphael, built in the second half of the 18th century as a miners’ hospital. When a worker felt the first signs of poisoning, he was sent “to the beach” – to a special room with lamps on the walls and a circle drawn on the floor. Stripped naked and sweating from the heat, the patient would walk around in a circle and “evaporate” the mercury from himself – it was assumed that in this way he would be cured.
IF before the 19th century monarchs and businessmen quenched their thirst for money with “silver water,” in the 20th century it was oil. But here, too, mercury was involved. In 1936, newspapers reported that a mercury mine was bought by a major oil company to use the liquid metal in an oil refinery. Because mercury vapor allows the temperature of processes to be controlled most precisely, it is still indispensable in oil refining today.
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012 (Site No. 1313), Almadén, with its castle, royal hospital and ancient mines, has become a monument unto itself. But there is another site that commemorates fallen miners. In 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out, Almaden was overrun by the Nationalist army of General Francisco Franco, and many miners were killed. Mercury exports stopped, depriving the government of an important revenue stream and stalling the production of firearms, for which mercury was needed. The Spanish Republic needed international support. A year later, the World’s Fair in Paris unveiled an unusual mercury fountain by the American sculptor Alexander Calder, the only foreigner in the Spanish pavilion. The design he created was rattled by the movement of the mercury: from a circular pool it was pumped up through metal tubes, ran down the “steps” and struck a paddle-like paddle, on the other end of which were suspended a red circle and a twisted wire inscription “Almaden. Now the fountain, encased in a glass “sarcophagus,” is in the Joan Miró Museum in Barcelona.
One of the first to foresee the “mercury boom” after World War II was Marc Rich, the future “oil king,” who at the time worked for the German Jewish emigrant firm Philipp Brothers in New York. It was the Jews who had controlled the world trade in metals and precious stones since the 19th century, and later switched to the raw materials industry. Financier’s instincts told Rich to bet on mercury during the Cold War. And the first firm he started doing business with was the Spanish mining company Minas de Almadén y Arrayanes (now called Mayasa). Rich met Alfredo Santos Blanco, president of the Almadén mines and later an employee of the Ministry of Industry, which helped him make other useful connections. He made appointments for anyone who had anything to do with mercury to buy it. There was someone to sell to – the U.S. had launched a rearmament program and the army now needed twice as much mercury, since many devices used mercury batteries. It was a success for Rich: mercury brought Philipp Brothers a lot of money. And Spain in the 1960s was transformed from a predominantly agrarian country in economic and political isolation into an industrialized country.
FOR ALMADEN, where only about 7,000 people live, mining has long been the main economic activity. There were two mining academies and miners in almost every family. But according to the rules introduced two centuries ago, miners were allowed to work no more than eight days a month, so they combined several professions – became lawyers, merchants, teachers, hairdressers. In addition, in the vicinity of Almaden grow crops and cattle, and in the city itself there are mills and shoe factories. It took mankind hundreds of years to realize the dangers of playing with mercury. Yet mercury is not gold, but “almost gold,” without which the world economy and industry would not grow, and without mercury gauges, science and medicine would not develop. We owe a lot to mercury, and most of it – about 80% – was mined in Almaden. Since the early 2000s, the main mines in this town have been closed, there are guided tours, and museums have been opened at the site of the first mines.
The mercury mines Almadén in Spain and Idria in Slovenia, what can tourists see there
Mercury is important in various technical, chemical and industrial processes and is indispensable in amalgamation for gold and silver.
This metal was mined for a long time only in a few mines around the world, of which the 2 largest were Almaden in Spain and Idrija in Slovenia .
They were added to the World Heritage List in 2012.
It is located in the southwest of the province of Ciudad Real in the Valle del Alcudia region.
Mining sites and facilities stand out in the city. It is home to the Mining Park with barrios and furnaces. In addition, Almadén has buildings that have influenced the economic development of the region, such as the Real Cárcel de Forzados, the mining hospital de San Rafael, Plaza de Toros.
Almadén is also a benchmark for Spanish and American engineering thanks to the creation in 1777 of the Mining Academy, now the School of Mining and Industrial Engineering of the University of Castilla-La Mancha.
The mine closed in 2001, but metallurgical activities and industrial processes did not cease until 2003.
In 2019, the European Chemical Society (EuChemS) recognized the role that Almadén and its mines played in chemical production.
It is now a tourist site with an hour-long tour of a real mine . It has preserved and equipped galleries, buildings, and tools. They created a museum and an information center.
The visit to the Mining Park begins with the open mines in the Visitor Center and continues in the old workshops and mines of San Aquilino and San Teodoro.
The walking tour takes us to a depth of 50 meters in a mine that was exploited in the XVI and XVII centuries. This part of the tour recreates the actual conditions of mining practice at that time: dimly lit lamps and wearing a helmet.
Then you can tour the Baritel de San Andrés and the gallery of indentured laborers.
A 1941 building built, square in shape with an open patio and basement.
It combines the most important museums of the entire Highland Park.
Halls on the first floor are devoted to geology and paleontology of the area, mercury science with interactive experiments in physics and chemistry, history of metallurgy and a room for weighing and packing mercury.
The basement floor is dedicated to the history of mines and transportation from Almaden to the Seville shipyards and from there to America.
Next to the mine is the old hospital for miners. There they treated illnesses and accidents that they might have suffered.
Construction began in 1755 and was completed 18 years later.
Nowadays there is the Historical Archive of the Almadén Mines, which contains documentary collections from the 18th century to the present day.
3 museum rooms about the history of the building as a hospital, the metallurgy of mercury and its evolution, the people of Almaden, life and customs of the region.
It is located in the northwestern part of Slovenia . An hour’s drive from Ljubljana, Nova Gorica and Škofja.
It was the second largest mine in the world for the amount of mercury recovered . Idria accounted for more than 13% of the world’s production.
The mine also produced cinnabar (HgS) from the beginning, which was used to make paints.
In the mid-16th century it was one of the deepest mines in the world and for over 300 years from 1600 to 1900 it was one of the most technically equipped in Europe. The instrumental section extended 1.5 km in length and 300 to 600 m in width.
In 1500, 10 years after the discovery of mercury, Antonius Ditch was excavated. It is one of the oldest preserved entrances to the mine in the world.
Originally the tunnel was supported by wooden supports, but in 1766 it was surrounded by walls of limestone blocks.
Today this part of the cave is turned into an exhibition. Here you can walk to hidden corners with precious cinnabar and drops of native mercury, as well as to a unique underground chapel.
The smelter has now been converted into an exhibition where you can see and experience the importance of this liquid metal through experiments, animations, videos and devices based on mercury. Here you will learn about its versatility in science, technology, industry, medicine, culture and everyday life from prehistoric times to the present day.
In addition to the exhibition, the plant boasts the largest rotating mercury furnace in the world.
They are located in the landscape park of Zgornja Idrija.
Because of their exceptional size, technical, technological and aesthetic sophistication they are also called “Slovenian pyramids”.
Until the beginning of the 20th century there were no suitable forest roads and means of transport to transport the wood, so the most suitable way of delivery was the natural waterways.
Clavže were used for the needs of the Idrija mine, which required large quantities of wood for burning cinnabar, for making supports in tunnels and mines, and for building powerful mining devices on the surface during the periods of operation.
They were originally built of wood and stone in the form of barns. The very first wooden barns were erected in 1589 on the Zala River, in Idrijica in 1595, and in Belce in 1750.
They often suffered from floods. During the reign of Empress Maria Theresia, between 1767 and 1779 on the Bełec, Idrijec and Zala they were replaced by masonry made of carved blocks of limestone and dolomite, which were joined with pozzolanic mortar.
The largest in capacity and size are the cloisters on Idrijca, which were built in 1772 according to the plan of the local surveyor Jožef Mrak.
The system of flooding of the Idrija River and its tributaries operated continuously with the help of the klavže from the XVI century until the great flood of 1926, which swept away the wooden rake in Idrija.
The rake is a 412.6 m long wooden barrier for stopping floating wood in the form of a barrier that was installed obliquely to the riverbed.
According to the legends, the cave dwarf Perkmandlk still lives in the Idrija mine.
He lit a lantern, hid tools or tied the shoes of those miners who cursed loudly during hard work.
Often rewarded the hard-working by tapping and so showing them where rich ore could be found. With louder taps of his hammer he warned them of impending disaster.
In gratitude, the workers would leave him a small piece of their humble snack, and sometimes their wives would sew Perkmandlk a warm jacket for the winter.