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 Kaymaklı 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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article-imagePike Place Market in 1968 (via Seattle Municipal Archives)

The upstairs of Pike Place Market in Seattle bustles with tourists buying fresh produce and crafts, but the downstairs spills into something stranger, its walls honeycombed with shops that seem to exist in another space and time. Walking those corridors, catching glimpses of blue Puget Sound through dusty windows, it’s easy to think that nothing’s changed there for decades. And much of it hasn’t. The market as a whole is just shy of its 100th birthday: it was founded in August of 1907 by eight farmers determined to cut out greedy middleman and sell their wares directly to the public.

Plenty of other guides will tell you where to get the best cheese in the market, or when to catch the guys at Pike Place Fish Co. doing their aerial show. But here is a brief guide to the more unusual nooks and crannies of Pike Place — its uncanny corners that seem like portals into the past. 

The Gum Wall

photograph by Eli Duke/Flickr

Straddling that fine line between art and public nuisance, the Gum Wall has been around since the early 1990s, when some patrons in line for an improv show at the Market Theatre got bored and decided to squish their gum against the brick wall. Somehow the practice took off, and the blobs of gum in all shapes and colors festoon a long expanse of wall that continues into a nearby alley. The gum has been scraped off several times, but around 1999, market authorities decided to preserve it as an attraction. It's now a frequent stop for tour groups, and the first location for one of the market's many ghost tours. It's also a strangely popular place for wedding photos.

article-imagephotograph by David Fulmer/Flickr


Tenzing MoMo

article-imagephotograph by Joe Mabel/Wikimedia

Giant amber jars filled with herbs, hundreds of bottles of essential oils, and packets of incense from all over the world crowd the mysterious Tenzing MoMo shop, which always seems more dimly lit than the rest of the market. Knowledgable staff will custom-blend teas and oils, and on-site tarot readers tend to more metaphysical problems.

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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. Here he explores the lines between Kcymaerxthaere, a world parallel to our own, and Atlas Obscura.

Since our communities enjoy finding wonder out in the world, Atlas Obscura and Kcymaerxthaere have a couple of public activities in mind for this Geographer-in-Residency. From the beginning, it seemed like a road trip would be a perfect Atlas Obscura event — especially since the story of the Tehachapi is so important to Kcymaerxthaere. So let me tell you about our Atlas Obscura/Kcymaerxthaere Caravan (or Kcy-ravan if you prefer!) this September 27th and 28th. It will be posted on the Atlas Obscura events page soon, too.

article-imageFolks on a road trip to a Kcymaerxthaere site in Joshua Tree, California

We're going to have a weekend of three-dimensional storytelling across three great Great Lake States culminating in a Spelling Bee that features words from the parallel world of Kcymaerxthaere! We'll stop at nine Kcymaerxthaere Markers, one Kcy Historical site, see another in process, enjoy a Disputed Likeness exhibition, and groove on that 9th Annual Kcymaerxthaere All-Kymaericas Spelling Bee. At the Spelling Bee, you can be in the audience or, even more fun, compete for the cash prize by spelling words from the parallel world. The prize is 100 US Dollars (since no winner yet has accepted Kcy dollars).

For two days, the stories of Kcymaerxthaere will reveal themselves in myriad ways — always with the Geographer-at-Large (yours truly!) as your personal guide and storyteller. It is not simply a tour of sites, it is a saga of some of the great overarching narratives of the xthaere. Icons like Culev Larsze, the woman who was so clever she tricked the Gods into not helping their believers; communities forced to license their very form of government; Forrest Bess, a man disaggregated in time while crossing a ywreng (or time frontier); the unexpected tale of New Singapore; the courage of Gevrian Milam; and the many journeys of Amory Frontage. And much more.

article-imageReenactors recreating the arrival of Amory Frontage & his followers at a new Paris.

The trip is free (well, not really, you DO have to pay for your own gas and food and whatnot — but WE won't charge!), but we do ask you to register so we can co-ordinate a magical experience. You will need to provide your own wheels (it will be a caravan) and buy your own meals — though we have found reasonably priced places for each meal where we can all go together. We also offer the tours a la carte — just one day at a time if that is better for you!

If you are based in the Michigan area — or are visiting for the marvelous ArtPrize experience — you can start bright and early Saturday. I'll share the interwoven stories of Kcymaerxthaere as we visit the five markers in downtown Grand Rapids.

article-imageThe Erailen Gwome marker where the tour starts in downtown Grand Rapids

There is something wondrous in telling and hearing stories in the very places great things happened in the parallel world, with the markers there to anchor the narratives. And when you add to that the magical spectacle of ArtPrize, it will be a unique experience. This group of five markers is one of only four clusters of Kcy installations we have around the world. (A cluster is a few markers close enough together that one almost experiences its stories in unison). So it is a perfect place to take intrepid explorers. 

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article-imageSammezzano castle (all photographs by Diana Di Nuzzo)

The Sammezzano castle in Tuscany near Florence was designed by the Marquis Ferdinando Ximenes Panciatichi of Aragon between 1853 and 1889. Faithful supporter of the Italian national cause, he was animated by a notoriously difficult personality. He financed and built the entire structure — all materials were created "on the spot," with a local workforce educated for the occasion, even building a kiln to bake pottery — inspired by a wide range of styles that the Marquis had known only through his readings (it seems he did not travel outside the country).

Disillusioned by politics, and by the attitude of the Florentines of his day, he decided to finally retire into this world of his own creation, surrounded by a park of great redwood trees and rare plants (in addition to being an architect, bibliophile, and entrepreneur, he was also considered a botanical expert). Inside the palace, he embedded messages for the few visitors allowed, such as the famous inscription Non plus ultra, "nothing farther beyond," with reference to the uniqueness and originality of his treasure. 




After the Marquis passed on, the castle became a hotel, then was abandoned in 1990. In 1999, the castle was bought by a British company, which did not adequately address the preservation of this architectural masterpiece. The rooms, each individually decorated with care and imagination, were sometimes robbed by intruders, as the castle was not protected by any kind of security system.

These days, the only people who are really taking care of Sammezzano are the members of the FPXA Committee, headed by Massimo Sottani. They are hoping for a restoration of the building backed by investors, while in the meantime they still organize rare openings to the public. 

The visionary talent of the Marquis evoked an atmosphere of One Thousand and One Nights, which he used to take refuge from the frustrations arising from the present. Many more meanings are supposedly hidden in the mystical colors and fantastical shapes of the castle, along with messages of architectural modernity: uplifting the function of beauty in architecture, the demand for freedom and human dignity, and even spirituality and religion are issues that are taken into consideration in the magnificent rooms of the castle.

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In Part One of the Seven Summits series, we saw the highest peaks of Australia and Oceania; Antarctica, with its staggering logistical challenges; and Europe, with its large snow fields and infamous outhouses. In this second stage we visit mountains with familiar names towering over their continents, and one mountaineer calling into question the prestige of this list.

5,895 meters / 19,340 feet

Standing alone over the plains of east Africa near the Tanzania-Kenya border, Kilimanjaro has a reputation as an easy climb to its highest point — Uhuru Peak — the top of three volcanoes that form the mountain. The standard route, Marangu Route, is called the “Coca-Cola Route” by locals due to the sheer number of well-to-do foreigners using it to climb.

This route is deceptive, because even though the climb is technically easy, climbers can fail to properly acclimatize to the altitude if they rush to the summit, suffering altitude sickness, and thus needing to descend quickly or die of a pulmonary or cerebral edema. Climbs up Kilimanjaro now, by law, must be guided and take at least five days to allow climbers to acclimatize.

article-imageAn elephant with Mount Kilimanjaro (photograph by Charles Asik)

North America
Denali (aka Mount McKinley)
6,168 meters / 20,237 feet

Because of the high latitude of Denali, climbing it is likened to a higher Himalayan mountain due to the air’s much lower barometric pressure. This is because the troposphere is thinner near the poles of the Earth. The West Buttress Route is the standard route in recent years, among at least 40 other routes and variations, and climbers must face jet stream winds and punishing snowstorms on their ascent.

article-imageDenali viewed from McKinley Princess Lodge (photograph by Nic McPhee)

South America
6,960 meters / 22,837 feet

Towering over the Andes Mountains in western Argentina, Aconcagua has a reputation of being a technically easy climb on its standard route. Much like Kilimanjaro, it's a long scramble up scree fields until the summit area. This easy reputation has led to deaths due to improper acclimatization. Climbs on the standard route can take up to two weeks to properly acclimatize to the nearly 7,000 meters of altitude.

View of Aconcagua from Argentina's Mendoza region (via

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article-imageHuastec Life-Death Figure, front and back view, sandstone (900-1250) (via Brooklyn Museum)

While centuries separate us from the creators of this Huastec statue, its dual perspectives of a sturdy young man on one side and a skeleton draped, grinning on the other, still have an immediate message: death is always near. 

The sandstone sculpture stands at the center of the Brooklyn Museum's ongoing Life, Death, and Transformation in the Americas exhibition, which focuses on life's transitions through its Art of Americas collection. The Huastec "Life-Death Figure" is joined in a gallery on death by such artifacts as a miniature of a Los Hermanos Penitentes Society cart pulled in Holy Week, Doña Sebastina, the "female Angel of Death," perched inside, and a 19th-century Heiltsuk ladle with a skull symbolizing the rebirth from a cannibalistic death state to life in society. 

As the Brooklyn Museum explains of their "Life-Death Figure": 

Representing life, the human figure is the Aztec wind god, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, who created humankind and is identifiable by his J-shaped ear pendants. Representing death, the skeletal figure with a protruding heart wears a collar and skirt decorated with a half-circle motif that was associated with the sun and the planet Venus.

Venus in particular was linked with the underworld, and further details on the sculpture, like the dense tattoos laced over the man's skin, echo the sun and Venus, life and death. The Huastec culture on the Gulf Coast of Mexico has a particularly rich history in sculpture, with the figure at the Brooklyn Museum dating between 900 and 1250 only one example of how the transition between different states was represented. As Richard E. W. Adams wrote in his Preshistoric Mesoamerica book, several "sculptures from the Huasteca seem to represent life images of a person on one side and a death image on the other." Others have a child clinging to the back of the slab-style sculptures. 

This Mesoamerican figure, with its contrast between virility and inevitable mortality, is similar to later memento mori art, like this 18th-century wax Vanitas at the Wellcome Library of Queen Elizabeth I, with half her skull exposed and attacked by bugs, or the 15th-century Braque Triptyph altarpiece, which when folded shows a skull to contrast with the portraits of vibrant holy figures. The visual of our inevitable decay is one that echoes endlessly through art, stone images of death reminding us of each beginning's end long after their creators have turned to dust. 

article-imageHuastec Life-Death Figure at the Brooklyn Museum (photograph by the author)

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From the religious cat cult of ancient Egypt, to the booming popularity of modern Japanese cat cafes, it’s clear that the human fascination with cats is a far from new concept. With all the fuss made over felines, it hardly comes as a surprise that there are several locations dedicated exclusively to their well being and entertainment.

Below are eight sites where cats are king:

Tashirojima, Japan

article-imageCat Island kitty (photograph by Nakae/Flickr)

The small Japanese Island of Tashirojima is well-deserving of its nickname: "Cat Island." Stray cats were originally brought to island to aid in protecting silkworms from predatory mice. However, the locals formed a kinship with the felines, and the cats' importance grew long after the silk trade ended.

At present, the island’s population of feral cats massively dwarfs its human population of only 100. Islanders believe that feeding the cats brings good fortune, and fishermen feel the cats can help in predicting fish and weather patterns. As a result, in Tashirojima cats hold a high status. Dogs have been effectively banned, and the copious cat tours and exhibitions have made the tiny island an unlikely tourist stop for feline lovers. The cats have even made an impact on Japanese pop culture after a movie and series were based on a Tashirojima stray nicknamed “Droopy-Eared Jack.” A paradise indeed.

article-imageA cat shrine on Cat Island (photograph by Kakei.R/Flickr)

article-imageCat Island resident (photograph by Nakae/Flickr)

Key West, Florida

article-imageCat at the Hemingway House (via Florida Keys Public Libraries)

Ernest Hemingway: writer, adventurer, bon vivant, world traveler, bastion of manliness, and felinophile. The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum was the main residence for the legendary author for nearly a decade, often cited as the location for some of his most prolific years as a writer. However, the home is also a tourist draw due to the abundance of felines of the polydactyl variety.

Story goes, Hemingway was given a white six-toed cat by a ship’s captain. A lifelong cat lover, Papa Hemingway named the cat Snowball and let the tomcat run amok on his Florida estate. Today, one can see the results of Snowball’s romantic exploits in the form of the 40 plus cats that call the grounds home, the majority of them with extra digits. The cats range in breed and temperament, but following a tradition started by Hemingway, all of them are named after famous contemporaries of the author.

article-imageErnest Hemingway with his sons & cats in Cuba (1942) (via Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library)

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