article-imageSt. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome (photograph by Dnalor 01/Wikimedia)

The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome has seen its share of destruction. Since 340, it’s been struck by lightning, damaged in an earthquake, accidentally burnt to the ground, and sacked by pirates. It seems nothing shy of the apocalypse will keep this church down. But according to local legend, the four horsemen might be riding in sooner rather than later. The collection of papal portraits here are linked to the end of the world.

article-imagePapal portraits (photograph by ho visto nina volare/Flickr)

Every pope is depicted in a large mosaic installed in a niche around the perimeter of the church. They're all exactly the same size and neatly laid out in a single-file line under the windows. The only problem is, there’s a finite number of niches. A second row would certainly throw the aesthetic off so the legend says that when the niches run out, the world ends.

Even though the tradition of the portraits was started by Pope St. Leo the Great in the 5th century, the niches and the legend are newer than you might expect. At first, the portraits were frescos. They were only added sporadically, frequently falling behind the times, until 1823 when a fire ravaged the building. During the rebuilding of the basilica, Pope Pius IX ordered the portraits to be reinstated and brought up to date, this time using mosaics. If a pope’s likeness wasn’t well-documented, artist Filippo Agricola arbitrarily assigned him a face (so even the most devout Catholics won't recognize a few). The project was completed in 1875, and since then the mosaics have been added pope-by-pope.

article-imageMosaic portrait of Pope Francis (photograph by Antoine Taveneaux/Wikimedia)

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article-imageAerial view of Prague in early morning (screenshot from Aerial Prague, via YouTube)

For three months between the hours of 4:30 am and 7 am, a group of filmmakers flew above the spires of Prague in the light of sunrise. Or at least their vision did, as they soared quadcopter drones up from the empty streets to simulate a "magic carpet ride" in the quiet of early morning.

They've compiled the footage into a video at Aerial Prague. Directed with camera work by Jeffrey Martin, produced by John Caulkins, and edited by David Nitzsche, the video backed by soaring violoncello and piano music by Geraldine Mucha takes you on a journey that's like an out-of-body experience to tourist-free streets. "Everyone dreams they can fly," they explain on their site. "So we decided to try to create a video that could simulate that feeling of floating over rooftops — with the river Vltava below and Prague's castle above."

The editing can be a little rushed, but it's just the first in what they plan will be more aerial explorations of the city at its most peaceful (you do catch a glimpse of a bridal party also taking advantage of the emptiness). Check it out below, and glimpse the sunrise of Prague from an angle usually reserved for the birds.


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article-imageKings Theatre on Flatbush (photograph by Allison Meier)

The ruins of America's great movie palaces are now almost as famous as their original splendor. Driven out of business by franchises and waning interest in one grand space showing one film at a time, the velvet curtains in their gilded interiors fell one by one. On Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, the Kings Theatre has been abandoned for nearly four decades, its roof caving in and water streaming over the sculpted faces and towering columns meant to be a 20th-century version of the Opera Garnier in Paris. 

Numerous failed restoration projects were pitched since it closed in 1977, but finally last year the Kings Theatre Redevelopment Company, with heavy backing from the city, broke ground on a $93 million restoration and modernization project. Now set to reopen in January of next year, the over 3,000-seat complex is nearing its second chance as the biggest theater in the borough.

This Tuesday, Atlas Obscura joined a hardhat tour of the Kings Theatre, where corners of the French Renaissance Revival still in their crumbled state contrasted to the meticulous reconstruction by Martinez+Johnson Architecture and Evergreene Architectural Arts with general contractor Gilbane. Chicago-based architecture firm Rapp & Rapp designed the Kings Theatre as one of Loew's five extravagant "Wonder Theatres" in the New York City area (three of these are now churches, while the one in Jersey City still screens movies and hosts music). The 1027 Flatbush Avenue location was unique when it opened in 1929 as being at the end of the silent film age, merging sound and vaudeville entertainment from the beginning with its screenings. 

article-imageIn the lobby of the Kings Theatre (photograph by Dylan Thuras)

article-imageThe Kings Theatre auditorium (photograph by Dylan Thuras)

Gary Martinez of Martinez+Johnson Architecture described the theatre as a "spatial progression of rooms," and as we moved from the lobby with its conjoined soaring spaces, into the over 80-foot-tall auditorium, it did open up in an incredible way that its terracotta façade now peaking out from behind construction boards only hints at. Each room has its own aesthetic patterns and design techniques, the only visuals repeating are the numerous sculpted faces that gaze down at you from every angle, often hidden in floral flourishes or positioned high on the ceilings.

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The foundation of Atlas Obscura is contributed by intrepid users around the world, out exploring the places no one else is noticing, or delving into history that's been all but forgotten. Here we are highlighting five of our favorite recent additions to the Atlas. Have a place we've missed? Create an account and become a part of our community.

London, England

article-imagephotograph by Amanda Slater/Flickr

Victorian London had far outgrown its sewage system, and in 1858 a hideous incident known as the Great Stink brought a wretched stench to the streets. In order to combat the smells, the city overhauled its infrastructure for dealing with human waste. Thus the gorgeous Crossness Pumping Station was born. Added to the site by Atlas Obscura user jhope, the station completed in 1865 has stunning ironwork around its four giant steam pumps. 

Cape Perpetua, Oregon

article-imagephotograph by Bill Young/Flickr

The incredible sight of Thor's Well, added to Atlas Obscura by user DCrane Photo, appears as an abyss that is pulling in the ocean like a black hole. However, all is not as it seems, and it's really a 20-foot-deep hole in the Oregon shoreline rock that creates a perpetual waterfall. 

Ravenna, Italy

article-imagephotograph by Terry Clinton/Flickr

The crypt below San Francesco in Ravenna, Italy, contributed by user Nikel, was constructed between the 9th and 10th centuries, and over time the marshes in the area have gradually retaken the ground. Now a steady level of seawater covers the mosaic floors in the burial chamber, while goldfish and sometimes even ducks swim below the vaulted ceilings. Visitors now have a tradition of tossing in coins to this curious wishing well of the dead. 

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From August to September, Eames Demetrios, Geographer-at-Large for Kcymaerxthaere, is serving as the Geographer-in-Residence at Atlas Obscura. His Kcymaerxthaere explores the lines of a world parallel to our own with historic markers around the world. 

I have always been interested in the idea that in any culture that makes representations of its stories, religious and otherwise, one can often see very different depictions of the same character or story, and yet everyone who sees these images knows they are the same person. It is true of the Ganesh (the god with the elephant head) who is seen in myriad, but clearly expressed, ways all over India. It is true of Christian saints like St. Sebastian — who despite many differences in the individual person's physical features from painting to painting — were often recognizable because of talismanic items in their presentation (for St. Sebastian it was the martyrdom in arrows). It is even true today, when James Bond has been played by six different men, and yet we accept that each is the same character.

Here are Andrea Mantegna and El Greco's depictions of St. Sebastian as examples:

article-imageAndrea Mantegna, "St. Sebastian" (1457-59), oil on wood (via Kunsthistorisches Museum); El Greco, "El martirio de San Sebastian" (1577-78), oil on canvas (via Museo Catedralicio, Palencia)

What I think that means is that there is part of the human programming that permits our visualizations to be clusters of understandings, not literal representation.

So as Kcymaerxthaere began to expand, and I wanted to share such visualizations, I realized that I wanted to be sure there was this kind of visual richness and ambiguity. I wanted to create a story and a universe, but I wanted it to be conjured up fresh in each reader's imagination and experience. From this came the notion of a disputed likeness — something looked like the character or creature, but did not have to be a photographic representation.

Rather than one official version, I liked the notion that the image would start with the story — whether right after a talk of mine, or from reading the text. Because remember (from an earlier post), these stories are new stories, created by me for Kcymaerxthaere, not based on local stories at all. So the visual track record is thin! Though I do some drawings, I have to be careful. After all, if I draw an animal, then people will say, of course he knows what they look like — he wrote it!


So I just started doing it: asking people to draw what they thought I was talking about. One of the first creatures we did this with was the gnacien, a seven-legged, deer-like creature whose prime numbered legs are very nutritious, but whose non-prime-numbered legs are poisonous unto death. Its story was first told here, outside Pedraza in Spain.

Here are four different versions of the beloved gnacien from four continents. One painted on a wall in Spain:


Another embroidered by a woman from the collective known as Penduka in Namibia:


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article-imageInside Brazil's Caverna da Torrinha (photograph by Coen Wubbels)

Stalagmites and stalactites are common calcium salt formations in caves. But have you ever heard of helictites? Needles of gypsum? Aragonitas? Bolas?

Each of these formations can be found elsewhere in the world, but Caverna da Torrinha is one of Brazil's most complete limestone caves considering the richness and diversity of its speleothems (cave formations), making it a fascinating place to visit. It is also one of the world's largest caves.

Gruta da Torrinha, as it is also called, lies just north of Chapada da Diamantina National Park, 450 kilometers west of Salvador da Bahia. Until 1992, only one cave of the Caverna da Torrinha complex was known to the surrounding inhabitants. Rock paintings near the entrance of that cave are testimony to indigenous people who once inhabited the area.

When a French speleologist with Meanders Speleological Group investigated this chasm, she set down her lantern to take a rest. The flame flickered, betraying a current of air coming from a narrow passage between fallen blocks. It gave access to a much vaster underground area, of which only some 14,000 meters have been mapped.

article-imageSign for Caverna da Torrinha (photograph by Coen Wubbels)

Rock painting at the entrance (photograph by Coen Wubbels)

article-imageView underground (photograph by Coen Wubbels)

By clambering over the same boulders as the French speleologist once did, and wriggling your way through the narrow passage, you will get to the two adjacent caves — together with a mandatory guide who will bring a lantern and provide you with a helmet. The caving requires physical fitness and a moderate degree of limberness. The four-hour tour includes quite a bit of walking, often with bent heads for those taller than 1.70m (about 5.6 feet). It is most certainly no trip for claustrophobics.

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article-imageDerinkuyu Underground City in Cappadocia, Turkey (photograph by Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia)

The history of underground cities is a complex and meandering one, ranging from the Ancient Era in the Middle East and Europe to those sunk during the height of Cold War paranoia, such as the bunker complexes of Cheyenne Mountain or Beijing's Underground City. There are also more recent underground cities, some of which are simply underground shopping centers or networks of tunneled roads, like those in Vancouver and Tokyo, as well as others which will begin to be built only in the future, due to the constraints of small islands and the opportunities for vast wealth, which are being considered in Singapore and in Hong Kong.

Now, we're not talking about mole people (or even their modern namesakes). The primary reason for digging underground cities in the ancient world was for protection, as the spaces could be closed by rolling heavy boulders across the entrances. So-called "fairy chimneys" allowed for the ventilation of the chambers, and the smoke from within would rise to the surface many miles away from the cities. Some of the oldest known underground cities are in Spain, with the village of Setenil de las Bodegas showing evidence of occupation dating at least from the Roman invasion of Iberia in the First century CE, and possibly from much earlier. The town has an especially florid history, having been occupied by the Romans, as well as being a Moorish stronghold from the 12th century until the early 15th, when it was finally taken during the Christian Reconquest. The town is not what you would imagine an underground city to be, however, as it is mostly above-ground, with large boulders overhanging the houses. 

Vista de la localidad de Setenil de las Bodegas, en la provincia de Cádiz - image by Andrei Dimofte, via WikipediaSetenil de las Bodegas (photograph by Andrei Dimofte/Wikimedia)

article-imageSetenil de las Bodegas (photograph by Samu/Flickr) 

The cities of Özkonak, Derinkuyu, and Kaymakl─▒ in Cappadocia, Turkey, are some of the most complete (and most underground) of our underground cities. Denrikuyu is estimated to have once been capable of housing 20,000 people, and actually connects to Kaymakli via an underground tunnel, eight kilometers long. The cities are just three of a huge number of underground refuges in Turkey, and each is suggested to have been occupied since antiquity. They contain churches, storerooms, and staggering staircases, as well as artefacts of Zoroastrianism, Byzantine Christianity and of more mundane activities, with oil presses and gigantic storerooms occupying large portions of the site. The history of the region provides an explanation of why so many underground cities exist in Turkey - not only was the region under constant pressure from foreign invaders (the Greeks, Persians, Scythians and Romans all fought over this territory for millennia), but the region also sheltered Christians during the persecutions of the Roman Empire and of the area's later Muslim overlords.

article-imageDerinkuyu Underground City in Cappadocia, Turkey (photograph by Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia)

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Recently we interviewed Chandler O'Leary of the fantastic illustrated travel blog Drawn the Road Again. We are thrilled to be sharing a series of O'Leary's illustrations of roadside attractions, along with their place on Atlas Obscura, in a summer series. 

article-imageThe World's Largest Axe (illustrated by Chandler O'Leary/Drawn the Road Again)

Up in Nackawic, Canada, a quiet little park has been pierced by the World's Largest Axe. Created in 1991, it commemorates the small town's appointment as the Forestry Capital of Canada, and stands at nearly 50 feet tall in a concrete stump as tribute to that lumber history.

As its plaque reads: "This giant axe symbolizes the importance of the forest industry, past, present and future, to the town of Nackawic and the province of New Brunswick." Chandler O'Leary of Drawn the Road Again writes on the illustration that she happened upon the axe "by complete accident," before giving it a fine portrait against the St. John River with a few trees that might shudder in terror if they knew what was beside them.

The axe with its 55-ton, 23-foot steel blade was made in Woodstock, New Brunswick, and journeyed to its permanent site early on a Sunday morning so its domination of the highway wouldn't cause too much trouble. There's said to be a time capsule somewhere inside all that metal.

It isn't the only giant chopping implement in the world, with the Big Axe made of wood in 1979 in Kew, Australia, not to mention the numerous giant Paul Bunyans standing guard around the United States. However, the World's Largest Axe keeps its title. Yet if that time capsule ever emerges, it will be to a very different industry. In 2004, the town's pulp mill closed, with workers later suing for their lost income. The axe may someday outlive the lumber business.

article-imageDead-on view of the axe (photograph by Dennis Jarvis/Flickr)

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article-imageWat Pa Non Sawan (photograph by Chris Backe)

Welcome to Buddhist hell. Between ghastly, oversized concrete statues, and a number of violent scenes, you'll quickly be asking yourself: "what's going on here?"

Entering a Buddhist hell temple (also called a hell garden) means entering a dark side of the religion. In short order, you learn that in Buddhism, the punishment fits the crime. If you are caught stealing, you get your hands cut off. Alcoholics are made to drink hot oil, and adulterers are made to climb thorny trees. A rapist has his genitalia cut off or mutilated in some way — and believe me, this is one sight you'll want to steer your kids away.

Animals also figure in heavily – you might be turned into one, or you might become animal food. At Wat Pa Non Sawan, animals pray on their knees and bow for forgiveness, and some sinners are pecked alive by birds! There's plenty of symbolism around, far more than a layperson would be able to explain. Wat Pa Non Sawan also features dinosaurs to go with its hellish statues, and is about 25 kilometers outside of Roi Et in eastern Thailand.

article-imageDinosaur at Wat Pa Non Sawan (photograph by Chris Backe)

Hell, to a Buddhist, is a complex sort of state. You might end up in any number of undesirable places based on your sins in this world, but it's also not a permanent, eternal damnation. How long you'll be there is dependent on which hell it is, but let's start by calling it by the right name — naraka. These temples serve as a reminder of naraka, and begin to give you a sense of why Buddhists make merit in this world. Most temples lack English explanations, unfortunately, so it's best to go with a Thai friend or to get someone to translate the signs for you.

After a Buddhist dies, the mythology states that your name is checked in the “Traibhumi Phra Ruang,” a record of good deeds (like making merit) and bad deeds. You'll be judged based on those; if you have more good than bad in your ledger, you are reborn into the next life. If you have more bad than good, you'll go to one of the punishment pits in naraka. Another ancient text, the Abhidharma-kosa (literally, the Treasure House of Higher Knowledge) describes eight "cold" pits and eight "hot" pits, where your suffering — and its length — grow exponentially based on your deeds. You will eventually be reborn, but that might be billions of years away. You can see some stages of this judgment process at Wat Pa Thewapithak, about eight kilometers north of Roi Et. Keep your eyes out for the Santa suits by the entrance!

article-imageWat Pa Thewapithak (photograph by Chris Backe)

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Why are people fascinated by fire? Candles, campfires, bonfires, and flickering flames seem to tap into a primal sense of safety. And if there's anything better than a small fire, it's a massive one, so why not throw a party for the occasion?

Here we explore some of the best fire festivals around the world where that safety gets a little dangerous.

Up Helly Aa
Lerwick, Scotland

article-imageTownspeople in full regalia (photograph by Mike Pennington)

Up Helly Aa is Europe's biggest fire festival, and since the 1880s the festival has only been cancelled three times: Queen Victoria's death in 1901, and for the two World Wars. The local townspeople spend countless hours designing elaborate costumes, dressing as Vikings, and lighting thousands of torches for a grand procession.

The Wednesday after the event is always public holiday so that everyone can recover.

Date: Last Tuesday in January

article-imagephotograph by Anne Burgess

Daizenji Tamataregu Shrine's "Oniyo"
Fukuoka, Japan

article-imageOnlookers surrounded by giant torches for the devil fire (photograph by Pontafon/Wikimedia)

 The Oniyo ceremony performed by the Daizenji Tamataregu Shrine for the past 1600 years is intended to drive away evil spirits.
The fire ritual marks the end of the Onikai festival, which begins on New Year's Eve. At 9 pm on January 7, the Oniyo ("devil fire") which has been guarded at the temple is transferred to six massive torches more than three feet in diameter and almost 45 feet tall. Rowdy crowds of men in loincloths parade the torches around the shrine, and attendees to the ceremony are blessed with good luck with embers or ash fall on them.

Date: January 7

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