Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Feb. 10 2015 10:35 AM

The Cave Church of Garbage City

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Large Christian communities are not abundant in Muslim-dominated Egypt. One of the more populous groups is the garbage-scavenging Zabbaleen, who have retained their Coptic beliefs and established the largest Christian church in the Middle East at the Monastery of St. Simon.

The Zabbaleen (meaning literally “garbage people”) village at the base of the Mokattam cliffs began around 1969 when the Cairo governor decided to move all of the garbage collectors to a single settlement. The garbage collectors were largely Coptic Christians, and as their numbers continued to grow over the years the need for a centralized church began to grow. In 1975 the first Christian church was built in the village, but after a large fire broke out nearby, work began on a monastery that was built right into the cliffside. 

The Monastery of St. Simon was the result of this new project. Simon the Tanner was a craftsman who lived during the 10th century, and the cave church that was dedicated to him seems as though it might last for 10 more. Using a pre-existing cave and the slope that led into it, the current monastery seats 20,000 people around a central pulpit. Other nearby caves have also been built into separate church spaces, and all of them have been linked to create a massive Christian complex in the heart of garbage city.

Since tourism through the scavenger’s village is not a thriving industry, reaching the Monastery of St. Simon is no small feat, yet as the largest Christian church within a handful of countries, hundreds of thousands of people make the pilgrimage each year.    

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Photo: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

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An Egyptian girl runs up the stands ahead of a service.

Photo: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

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Egyptian Copts attended a Mass celebration in the cave church on December 13, 2012, where they prayed for Egypt ahead of the disputed referendum on the new draft Constitution.

Photo: MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

Other churches tucked away in caves:

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Feb. 9 2015 9:35 AM

The Ransacked Mummies of Chauchilla Cemetery

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Since 1997, Peruvian law has protected the haunting Chauchilla Cemetery, a Nazca burial ground where mummified corpses were laid to rest until the ninth century. Prior to 1997, it was ravaged mercilessly by Peruvian grave robbers. For many of these ancient corpses, it was the second time they lost their heads. 

Scattered among the many full-bodied mummies at Chauchilla Cemetery are a number of mummified heads. Many of the heads have been specially prepared with holes drilled into the backs of their skulls, and in some cases rope has been threaded through the mummified head. This is possibly so they could be worn as a necklace or as a jaunty charm hanging off of a belt. Though originally believed to be "trophy heads" taken in battles, recent evidence shows that the heads actually came from the same population as the rest of the mummies, suggesting the heads may not have been taken in battle after all. The exact nature and use of the heads remains distinctly unclear. 

Despite the fact that the burial grounds have not been utilized since the ninth century, the human remains are astoundingly well-preserved. The Peruvian Desert's dry climate is of course a factor in the preservation, but burial practices also contributed to the condition of many of the corpses, some still hanging on to their hair and skin over 1200 years after their demise.

Clothed in cotton and painted with resin, the deceased were placed in mud-bricked tombs. Wooden posts that were once assigned by archeologists to the category of religious use are now thought to be drying posts for the dead, which would explain the added step needed for such an impressive example of mummification.

Discovered in the 1920s, the remains and artifacts were spread across the area, picked over by nefarious pilferers. The burial ground has been restored to as close to its original state as possible, with the bones, bodies, heads, and artifacts either returned to tombs or showcased in displays.

Other unusual cemeteries around the world:

Feb. 6 2015 1:21 PM

The Abandoned Power Plant of Charleroi, Belgium

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

In a small neighborhood known as Monceau-sur-Sambre, within the Belgian town of Charleroi, sits an abandoned power station. Its magnificent cooling tower still looms over the town no longer creating electricity, but providing plenty of dystopian vistas.

Power Plant IM was originally built in 1921. When it was finished, it was one of the largest coal burning power plants in Belgium. Water would be let into the cooling tower, where it would be cooled by the wind that swept in from portals in the base of the tower, releasing billowing columns of hot air. By 1977, the power plant and its massive tower was the main source of energy in the Charleroi area and is said to have been able to cool down 480,000 gallons of water per minute. During the 1970s, new components were even added to the power plant that could also use gas power. However, the power plant's days in the sun were numbered.

Following years of service, a report found that Power Plant IM was responsible for 10 percent of the total carbon dioxide emissions in Belgium. Due to this, protests from Greenpeace in 2006 gave the power plant a lot of negative attention and it closed in 2007.

After it was closed down, there were reports of looting by metal scrappers. Today security guards are often posted on site—a fact that has not deterred many an urban explorer from investigating the cooling tower's moss-coated innards.

Other abandoned power plants to explore:

Feb. 5 2015 1:38 PM

Little Boy Zero: The Swine Flu Statue of Mexico

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Located 120 miles east of Mexico City, the tiny town of La Gloria—population 2,300—is home to a bronze statue of a little boy named Edgar Hernandez. Standing four-foot-three and clad in shorts, a t-shirt, and sneakers, the statue holds a frog in its right hand. This frog, symbolizing one of the seven deadly plagues, also represents swine flu—Hernandez was four when he survived the earliest documented case of H1N1 in April 2009.

Guided by the belief that La Gloria's swine flu fame could bring a tourism boom, then Veracruz governor Fidel Herrera Beltran unveiled the statue in August 2009—at the height of the global pandemic that killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide in a year, according to the CDC. The bronza figure is modeled after Belgium's inexplicably popular urinating toddler statue, Manneken Pis. There's a reason for the resemblance—according to Beltran, Hernandez's recovery from swine flu caused people to believe his urine had healing powers, and the boy would often be followed to the bathroom.

Thus far, La Gloria's H1N1 statue has not generated a steady stream of swine flu tourists.

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Edgar Hernandez in April 2010.

Photo by LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images

Other double-take-inducing statues and sculptures:

Feb. 4 2015 11:14 AM

The Gurgling Mud Volcanoes of Gobustan

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Half of the world’s 700 mud volcanoes—oozing, gurgling mounds of once-subterranean sludge and methane—are located in Azerbaijan, concentrated around Gobustan National Park along the coast of the Caspian Sea.

Unlike lava-spewing igneous volcanoes or the whiffy bubbling mud of Rotorua, the contents of Gobustan’s mud domes are cold. Their main danger is in their unpredictability—a buildup of pressurized gas in the cone can be released without warning, causing possible asphyxiation, triggering a jet of fire, and drawing a torrent of fast-flowing mud from the volcano.

In 2001 gas seepage caused a mud volcano near Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku to explode. The mound shot flames hundreds of feet into the air, burned for three days, and filled the sky with mud and black smoke.

If you’re pondering a visit to the gurgly hills of Gobustan, make sure to also see the UNESCO World Heritage-listed rock art in the area, which dates back tens of thousands of years.

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Ancient rock art in Gobustan.

Photo: Azeri/Creative Commons

More mud in which to wallow:

Feb. 3 2015 11:50 AM

Passetto di Borgo: The Hidden Papal Escape Route  

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

To the average eye, the stone Passetto di Borgo that runs 2,600 feet from Vatican City to the Castel Sant’Angelo looks like a plain old fortification. But within its walls is a passageway that several popes have used as an emergency escape route.

Construction of the wall dates back to 850, with Pope Nicholas III overseeing the creation of its current form in 1277. Pope Alexander VI finished the wall in 1492—and just in the nick of time. He used it to flee the invading French two years later.

The most recent papal escape was in 1527, when Clement VII evaded the 20,000 mutinous troops of Charles V. Said troops went on to murder most of the Swiss Guard on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Following the high drama of the 16th century, the Passetto languished in declining condition, closed to the public but available to the reigning pope in case of a crisis. In 2000, in honor of the Roman Catholic Church’s Great Jubilee year, the Passetto was renovated. In recent years it has opened to visitors for a limited time each summer.

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Inside the passage at night.

Photo: Raja Patnaik/Creative Commons

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An unassuming part of the passetto.

Photo: Sailko/Creative Commons

More hidden passages around the world:

Jan. 30 2015 4:33 PM

The Stone Home of Fafe in Portugal

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

On the hills of Fafe in far north Portugal sits a house that seems to have been transported from the Stone Age. The Flintstones-inspired home was built between four boulders in 1974 by the Rodrigues family as a holiday retreat. The interior is just as rustic as the outside—railings made from logs and a couch made from concrete and eucalyptus wood are among the furnishings.

Though not intended as a tourist attraction, the house has been drawing visitors to the remote location ever since photos of it circulated the Internet in 2009. Many assumed the pics were Photoshopped and that the house doesn’t exist. It is definitely real. According to Portuguese publication Publico, the Rodrigues family is well aware of its home’s Internet fame, and a little annoyed at the visitors who knock on the windows.

More houses with amazing features:

Jan. 29 2015 12:29 PM

Mail Rail: London’s Abandoned Underground Train System

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Every day, 6.5 million passengers take a ride on the London Tube. Few of these riders know that among the crisscrossing lines of the Underground lurks a ghost Tube: the Mail Rail.

Officially known as the London Post Office Railway, the 6.5-mile-long system opened in 1927. Its purpose was to transport letters and parcels to sorting and delivery stations across the city, from Whitechapel in the east to Paddington in the west. Operating between 19 and 22 hours a day, the Mail Rail chugged back and forth using driverless trains, never having to worry about getting stuck in the traffic that clogged the roads above. 

Over the decades, the cost of operating the trains became higher than transporting mail by truck. After many of the sorting stations were relocated, and their associated stations closed, the Mail Rail finally ceased operations in 2003. It has sat idle since, but plans are afoot to convert the system into a museum equipped with mail trains modified to seat passengers. According to the BBC, the project is expected to be completed by 2020.

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A train modified to hold passengers in seated comfort.

Photo: Matt Brown/Creative Commons

More facsinating tales of trains:

Jan. 28 2015 4:26 PM

Tropical Islands: Summer Fun in a German Airship Hangar

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Seeking a relaxing escape from winter? You could always take a trip to a German airship hangar built on a Luftwaffe air field. There you will find Tropical Islands, a year-round beach resort where it’s always summer.

The complex is located inside the Aerium, a massive dome built in 2000 to house dirigibles. CargoLifter, the company that constructed the Aerium, declared insolvency in 2002. Shortly afterward, Malaysian company Tanjong snapped up the empty hangar and turned it into Tropical Islands.

The resort, maintained at 77 degrees Fahrenheit, features an array of pools, water slides, beaches, and a rain forest teeming with tropical plants. The décor is a mishmash of cultures—the jungle contains temples modeled on Angkor Wat and Elephanta, a network of eighth-century Indian cave temples. “Asia House” is modeled on a Japanese pavilion. The evenings bring Latin rhythms in the form of a Cuban dance show.

More resorts with unusual offerings:

Jan. 27 2015 2:10 PM

The Rusty, Creaking Cable Cars of Chiatura

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Around 20,000 people live in the mining town of Chiatura, located in a manganese-rich valley in the west Georgian region of Imereti. Back in the mid-1950s, when the mining industry was more prosperous and the population much higher, and Georgia was part of the USSR, the Soviet government installed a network of cable cars to transport manganese production workers more efficiently.

Though the hammer-and-sickle crowd has long since departed, many of these cable car lines continue to operate. The rusty, creaking cabins are the main form of transport for miners and factory workers traveling up the mountain. Some Chiatura kids also use the cable cars to get to school.

The ride up the mountain is less scary than it looks, but the odd incident does occur. During an interview for Chiatura, My Pride, a 2011 short film, a cable car rider says she was in mid-journey in 2007 when one of the cables tore. Despite initial screams, all 17 passengers calmed down enough to joke around and were rescued one by one by mountain climbers dispatched from the capital, Tbilisi.

Day to day, the greater issue seems to be dealing with drunk miners. Another cable operator interviewed in the film says that, while the official policy is to not let intoxicated people onto the cars, miners are often impervious to such requests. In those instances, she says, “we just hug drunk people so they cannot fall down.”

Other harrowing ways to travel across a valley:

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