Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/264

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
260
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

this part of the world, in spite of its great abundance. He found salt mines in the heart of the desert near a place called Thegazza. For the Soudanese salt has from time immemorial represented, and still represents, the principal article of commerce and their most precious commodity. The long depression in the western Sahara bearing the name of El Djouf is a vast mine of rock salt. The salt mines of Thegazza were abandoned in the sixteenth century for those of Taoudemi, nearer Timbuctoo. The same explorer reports that even here the houses are built of rock salt and roofed with camel skins. Under a thin covering of sand the mineral is found in clearly marked layers. It is dug out in large lumps and trimmed down to blocks about three and a half feet long by one and one fourth feet in breadth. It looks like bars of red or gray-veined marble, and as they come out of the mine they are stamped with the trade-mark of the different contractors. At Timbuctoo they are embellished with designs in black paint and the name of some venerated chief is written on them in Arabic characters. They are then bound round with thongs of raw leather so arranged as to hold the parts together in case of fracture. The densest and whitest blocks are most in demand, those veined with red being of an inferior quality. Timbuctoo is the entrepot of the whole region lying southeast as far as Lake Chad. There is nothing that the Soudanese possesses that he refuses to part with for a lump of salt. To these people it is more valuable than gold itself.

In ancient as well as modern times the partaking of salt with another person was regarded as the symbol of friendship and hospitality. Among the Slavic peoples it is still the custom to welcome the stranger with a proffered gift of salt and bread; while in cases of dispute the Arab is wont to appeal to the bread and salt he has eaten with his adversary as proof of sincerity. The advice embodied in the injunction, 'Before you make a friend, eat a bushel of salt with him,' has been proverbial from the remotest times. Both Aristotle and Cicero refer to it as current in their time. An ancient commentator on Homer says that salt is regarded as the symbol of friendship, par excellence, either because it was offered to guests before anything else, or because salt more than any other substance is a prophylactic against decay. In Numbers certain offerings are enumerated as constituting 'a covenant of salt for ever before the Lord unto thee and thy seed with thee.' Perhaps the custom of handing down the salt vessel from generation to generation in Soman families has some connection with the idea of incorruption.

The word salt has impressed itself on our language in a curious way in our term 'salary.' So necessary did the Romans consider salt to the efficiency of their armies that each soldier was provided with a special ration of it, or with the means of providing it. This stipend