Due to humans’ dependence on salt, this “white gold” has triggered numerous conflicts over the control of salt mines and trade. The uses of salt vary from offerings to gods to the preservation of food to a seasoning in cooking. Traces of salt extracted through the evaporation of saltwater have been found dating back to the Neolithic Age.
Transylvania’s rich reserves of the mineral have played an important role in the region’s history. As early as the Bronze Age, at Figa and Beclean, in the neighbourhood of Bistrița, evidence attests to the large-scale exploitation of mineral salt, such as devices used to cut pieces from salt blocks. Around 1000 BC, in the arc of the Carpathian Mountains, a blossoming trade in salt and metals developed. It is no coincidence that in salt mining areas such as Uioara de Sus (Ocna Mureș) large quantities of bronze and copper were found, despite the fact that neither copper nor tin (the other constituent of the alloy bronze) occur naturally in the area. This testifies to the presence, since prehistoric times, of overland salt trade routes connecting inland reserves with the river navigation routes. It is also possible that salt was exchanged by Dacians for silver from the Greek-Macedonian world.
After Dacia was conquered by Rome, the archaeological evidence connected with salt is supplemented by inscriptions testifying to the administration, exploitation, storage and distribution of salt. On the Peutinger Table, on the imperial road between Apulum (Alba Iulia) and Potaissa (Turda), an area called Salinis (Salinae) is marked, indicating the Roman salt mines at Ocna Mureș. There are records of four conductores salinarum in Roman Dacia, referring to administrators of salt mines in the age of the Severan emperors (193-235 AD) when a policy regarding strategic food supplies necessary for the army and the empire was imposed. The imperial officer P. Aelius Strenuus, for example, was in charge of the entire process, from the extraction to the distribution of salt. He coordinated the salt mines from an office in Apulum, which may also have been Dacia’s salt storage centre (salarium). The transportation of salt, along with other goods, on the Mureș River, is attested to by the existence of a company of shippers (collegium nautarum). Intriguingly, the word salary derives from the Latin term referring to the supplement of salt given to army personnel.
There is evidence of a port at Alba Iulia dating back to Roman Dacia and the name of the neighbourhood Partoș derives from the Latin portus. The importance of this port for the transportation of salt led it to be known as the Salt Port: Salz Porto or Salis Porto.
During the Migration Period, (fourth to tenth centuries) and especially in the time of Germanic and Avar domination, the power centres, as identified through archaeological finds, were located in areas of salt exploitation. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Bulgars took over the ruins of ancient Apulum and gave the old city the name Bălgrad (Slavic for White Fortress). Archaeological artefacts associated with the Bulgars have been found in the neighbourhood of Alba Iulia, Vințu de Jos, Sebeș, Blandiana and Micești. The Bulgars were interested in controlling the salt trade where overland trading routes met those of the waterways.
The Hungarians, settled in Pannonia, discovered the “country beyond the forest” (in Hungarian Erdö-elve, which was rendered in Latin Ultrasilva/Transilvania) and probably defeated the chieftain of Bălgrad. With this victory they gained control of the salt reserves. At the beginning of the eleventh century, Voivode (duke) Ahtum, whose centre of power was near Arad (in western Romania) attempted to charge tolls for salt transported on the Mureș River to Tisza. From the eleventh to fifteenth centuries the kings of Hungary issued numerous charters relating to the transportation of salt on the Mureș and Someș Rivers, salt taxation, and donations to churches and monasteries or religious orders from revenues obtained from salt taxes. The Roman Catholic bishopric at Alba Iulia was a beneficiary of the incomes from the salt mine at Turda and the salt tax paid at Vințu de Jos.
The salt was cut into blocks and transported by carriage or on boats. There were several salt depots in Alba Iulia during the medieval period. In the fourteenth century, the bishopric of Alba Iulia owned a salt depot and port and wharves at Oarda on the left bank of the Mureș River. In the sixteenth century the port was moved to the right bank of the river in Maros-Portus (Partoș). On the island of Limba, now no longer extant, there was station for halting the transport of salt.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, downstream of Partoș was the most important salt depot in Transylvania. Many Romanian families earned their living from the transportation of salt on rafts. Later, in the time of Habsburg domination, Partoș was turned into a workhouse for barges used to transport salt to the surrounding region, including Hungary, Croatia and Serbia. The right bank of the Mureș was specially arranged: nine large salt depots and the buildings of the toll office stretched along the bank for a distance of 300 meters. In 1780, 300 rafts loaded with 600 blocks of salt navigated from Partoș to Szeged. A return trip could last six weeks. In 1772-1780, Partoș hosted from 262 to 300 ships. In the neighbourhood next door, Maieri, a body of sailors, called Hăiuș, were stationed. An inscription from 1726, in the church of Maieri, mentions Andrei David, the magistrate of the sailors from Partoș. The construction of the railway in 1868 finally ended the transportation of salt by water.
Transylvanian salt provided substantial revenues to the emperors of Rome ancient times, as well as to medieval kings and princes. In the modern world, salt is no longer the prize it was in earlier times: nowadays it is an inexpensive foodstuff and has lost the legendary aura of old when it was a highly valued commodity. (C.I.P.)