Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Jan. 27 2016 12:30 PM

On Japan’s Tashirojima Island, Cats Are King

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On the island of Tashirojima, the cats outnumber people, and the people like it that way.

It's no accident that the cats who inhabit Tashirojima, or what has become known as "Cat Island," in Japan have come to be the island's primary residents. Cats have long been thought by the locals to represent luck and good fortune and doubly so if you feed and care for them. Thus, the cats are treated like kings, and although most are feral because keeping them as "pets" is generally considered inappropriate, they are well-fed and well cared for.

Despite this, luck and fortune hasn't exactly come to the human residents of "Cat Island." In the last 50 years, the human population of the island has dwindled from 1,000 to fewer than 100. As more and more people have shunned the island as it became dominated by felines, the people who have remained have become ever more protective of the cats. Currently, dogs are not allowed on the island to protect the well-being of the cats—and presumably any dog foolish enough to venture onto an island full of feral cats.

The cats may end up bringing luck after all, however. Tourism has been picking up as the island has become an attraction for curious travelers, thanks to all of those cats.

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Jan. 26 2016 12:30 PM

The Elephant Path at Lahore Fort

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Because it would be a shame to leave one’s elephant parked outside the citadel, the magnificent Lahore Fort in Pakistan features an entranceway crafted for an entire pachyderm parade.

As the Mughal Empire expanded across the Indian subcontinent in the 16th century, Lahore became an increasingly important stronghold. Its strategic location was key in tying the expanded Mughal territories to the fortified cities of Kabul, Multan, and Kashmir. The city’s fortress was built under the reign of Emperor Akbar between 1566 and 1605 and housed several Mughal (and later Sikh) rulers over the following centuries.

The two sections of the fort are divided by usage—an administrative portion and a residential portion. The elephant stairs (or Hathi Paer) are part of the private entrance to the royal quarters and effectively allowed royalty to ascend all the way to the doorway before dismounting. In order to accommodate the lumbering creatures, the stairs were designed with wide treads but minimal height (a balking elephant can really dampen the mood of a procession).

Although it's been centuries since a herd of jewel- and silk-laden elephants traveled several abreast along this sloping corridor, it was once certainly the most magnificent driveway in the world. 

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor Tawsam.

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Jan. 25 2016 12:30 PM

The Tribeca Fire Station That Got a Starring Role in Ghostbusters

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Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!

But where ya gonna call them? At their iconic firehouse headquarters, of course. In the film, the spook chasers' firehouse is as much of an iconic piece of the action as the Ecto-1 car or their homemade proton packs. It appears in Ghostbusters video games and even has its own LEGO set. But in reality the firehouse has a history that is more Old New York than supernatural hot spot.

Hook and Ladder 8, the building used for the exterior shots of the Ghostbusters' HQ, is a working firehouse that has been around for more than a century. In fact, the firehouse even predates the Fire Department of New York. When Hook and Ladder 8 was established, the firefighting forces of New York were made up of a bunch of loosely affiliated companies of volunteering men.

In 1866, just one year after these disparate fire brigades were incorporated under the umbrella of the Metropolitan Fire Department, the Hook and Ladder 8 company moved its operations to the current spot on North Moore Street in Tribeca. At the time, an older school building occupied the site.

Jan. 22 2016 12:30 PM

The Watermills of Jajce

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Jajce, in the central region of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a historic city all about falling water. Famous for its enormous waterfall in the middle of town, the meeting of two rivers—the Pliva and the Vrbas—established the region in the 14th century as the capital of the then–Kingdom of Bosnia. There’s a town castle, old fortified city walls, high mountains, and deep river valleys. And just downstream, in the area of the Pliva Lakes, is a collection of about 20 little huts that once served as watermills for local farmers.

The little windowless huts sit on top of skinny stilts right over the gushing water. Since the flow here is spread out, by using a series of little mills instead of one big water wheel, the diffuse water power could be aggregated. Pretty ingenious. Most of the huts go back to the period of the Austro-Hungarian empire (about 1867 to 1918), and they give the impression of a little storybook village.

No longer used for actual milling, the Pliva Lakes watermills draw tourists down the river from the giant waterfall in town. That waterfall is certainly impressive with its showy 65-foot drop. But the little shingled watermills feel like they might be home to some local trolls, with their dragons hitched up out back.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor mandacvitic.

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Jan. 21 2016 12:30 PM

A Beautiful Library in Sárospatak, Hungary

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Some of the oldest and most valuable books and manuscripts in Hungarian history are housed in the beautiful library of a small university town in the Bodrog river valley.

The Protestant Reformation took root quickly in Hungary, where enthusiasm for a new vision for participation in religious and intellectual life proved infectious. In the mid-to-late 1500s, several Calvinist colleges sprang up across the country, with the mission of training ministers for the new Hungarian Reform Church. Sárospatak College was one the earliest and the most notable of these institutions, hosting some of the country’s most influential thinkers. Notably, the famous Czech educator and pedagogical historian Jan Comenius spent several years here, developing his own modern vision of a college education, which included the introduction of pictorial textbooks and an emphasis on critical thinking over rote memorization. 

Although it existed in some form since 1531, the college’s library was scattered across several storage facilities until 1843, when it moved into its current building. The facility features high windows and an intricate, trompe l’oeil painted dome. Having exploded in size in the 20th century, it now contains over 25,000 volumes. 

Some of the oldest and most important pieces of the Sárospatak collection recently returned to the country after more than half a century abroad. At the dawn of World War II, 170 of the library’s treasures were transferred to Budapest for safety. They were seized by the Soviet Army on its 1945 return from Germany, and spent over half a century in the regional library of Nizhni Novgorod. In 2006, they were given back to Hungary and are now on display at the Budapest National Museum.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor ahvenas.

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Jan. 20 2016 12:30 PM

The Story of Julian of Norwich, the Most Famous Anchorite of Her Day

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In 1413, Margery Kempe was embarking on a dangerous quest. She and her husband had agreed to be celibate: She was going to begin to live her life as a woman devoted to God, a mystic. She was about to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And she knew whose spiritual guidance she wanted: Julian of Norwich, the most famous anchorite of her day.

In England, from about the 12th to the 16th century, an estimated 780 people chose to live permanently shut up in a room attached to a church. They were called anchorites, from a Greek word meaning “to withdraw,” and most of them were women. They left little record of their lives behind, and they’re little remembered today.

But, in their way, they were powerful women. Julian of Norwich wrote the first published book attributed to a woman in all of English literature. And although they had just two or three small windows letting a sliver of the outside world into their chambers, anchorites were influential. They could give counsel from the wisdom they accrued in their contemplative lives, and in this way, have an outsized impact on the places and communities they lived in. 

Before anchorites retired from the outside world to dedicate their lives to religious devotion, a priest would say a rite of enclosure, akin to a funeral rite. The sealed rooms they lived in were not unlike tombs. (Some scholars have also likened them to wombs.) The small spaces were called anchorholds, and they were perhaps 12 feet by 12 feet, built onto the side of a church. They would have been sparsely furnished and dark: An anchorhold was supposed to have, at most, three small windows, sometimes called squints or hagioscopes.

One of these windows would have had a practical purpose: An attendant would pass simple meals and other necessities through it. One window would have given a portal into the church itself, so that the anchorite could receive the Eucharist and hear the services inside. The last window would have provided the anchorite with the only connection to the rest of the world.

Jan. 19 2016 12:30 PM

Italy’s Sammezzano Castle

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An overlooked Italian marquis left behind one of the finest examples of Moorish Revival architecture in the world … yet only a handful of people each year get a chance to bask in its glory.

Located in the midst of a sprawling wooded estate, the Sammezzano Castle occupies the same spot as a royal palazzo first established in 1605 by a Spanish nobleman of the name Ximenes of Aragon. Though long-lasting, the original was deemed unfit by Marquis Ferdinando Ximenes Panciatichi, who in 1853 undertook a complete rebuild of the site.

This historically overlooked marquis retreated from Florence's increasingly toxic political climate and decided to hire artisans and construct his ideal retreat in the form of what is now known as Sammezzano Castle. It was built entirely on-site over the course of 40 years.

Meandering through the castle, it's clear just how far the marquis went to ensure his architecture allowed visitors to feel utterly transported from their current circumstances. Embedded in the walls is the motto Non plus ultra, "nothing farther beyond," in reference to the uniqueness and originality of his creation. Though no two rooms are alike, among the most jaw-dropping are the Room of the Lilies, the Room of the Lovers, the Room of the Stalactites, the Room of the Mirrors, and the Room of the Peacocks.

After the marquis' death, Sammezzano was converted into a luxury hotel. The castle's commercial turn thrived in the post–World War II era, but as revenues dwindled, the hotel was shuttered and subsequently abandoned in the 1990s. Only in 2012 did the FPXA committee (short for Ferdinand Panciatichi Ximenes d’Aragon) acquire the property, since which time they have sought to secure funds to properly restore the masterpiece. In conjunction with their mission, the organization will invite visitors to Sammezzano for tours in its current, unrestored state

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Jan. 18 2016 12:30 PM

The Czech Republic’s Bone Church

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"Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return."

Any lapsed Catholic will remember this line, as it's part of the tradition of Ash Wednesday celebration. It has its roots in "memento mori," the Latin theory of death that was of great importance to medieval Christianity. Monks surrounded themselves with the bones of the dead, reminding them that life was fleeting and they would be with God soon. Churches were stacked with femurs and monasteries overflowed with skulls. What was philosophical was also aesthetic. The arrangement of human remains into fantastical forms became an art form. Nowhere is this more true than in Sedlec Ossuary, also known as "The Bone Church."

Watch the video above for the explanation of how this bone church came to be!

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Jan. 15 2016 12:30 PM

The Majesty of Pakistan’s Fairy Meadows

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Nestled in the Raikhot Valley high in the Himalayas, it's not hard to guess why this lush green mountain pasture at the foot of a majestic snowy peak was named Fairy Meadows.

Known as "Joot" among locals, the place was given the name Märchenwiese (literally "Fairy Tale Meadows") by German mountaineers who were no doubt astounded when they first glimpsed this idyllic landscape. At 3,300 meters (10,826 feet) above sea level, the wide grassy meadow surrounded by dense alpine forest is fed by waters from a glacier formed by the Nanga Parbat, the ninth-highest mountain in the world (and second-highest in Pakistan, after K2) that towers over Fairy Meadows from the south. A magical setting indeed—made all the more wondrous by the dangerous road one must take to get here.

There is only one road to Fairy Meadows, and it isn't your average tricky mountain road; in 2013, the World Health Organization ranked it as the second-deadliest road on the planet. The windy narrow gravel mountain road is open to locals only (thanks to the high number of fatalities the way has claimed), who ferry visitors from Raikhot Bridge to the village of Tato, one six-person Jeep-load at a time. If you make it through the ride without ending up a smoldering heap at the bottom of the ravine that stands in as the "shoulder" of the road, you still have a three- to four-hour hike from Tato before you can take in the hidden splendor of Fairy Meadows. But once you're there, you'll never want to leave! (Because you'll be terrified to go back the way you came.)

Visitors to Fairy Meadows can find accommodation in small on-site cabins or designated camp sites. (the Pakistani government declared the location a National Park in 1995.) The site serves as a launching point for mountain climbers summiting the northern face of the Nanga Parbat.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor Tawsam.

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Jan. 14 2016 12:30 PM

California’s Mammoth Rubbing Rocks

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Finding clues to the prehistoric past doesn’t always entail digging. In the case of the mammoth rubbing rocks near Jenner, California, it’s best to look up.

The atypically smooth, shiny patches on these blueschist rocks in Sonoma County are isolated at between 10 and 14 feet off the ground, appropriate shoulder height for an adult Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi). The buffed spots on these stones are too methodical to be the result of natural forces and feature the same tiny gravel scratches as modern African elephant rubbing rocks. As a result, scientists have concluded that this area was once part of an extended mammoth territory, and (like modern day elephants and bison) the mammoths groomed themselves by covering their bodies in mud and then scratching it away by rubbing against the massive boulders.

The presence of mammoths in this neck of the woods makes sense. Columbian mammoths wandered the San Francisco Bay area for many thousands of years. The stones are located in a vast prairie that was once even more sprawling and are surrounding what may once have been an ancient watering hole. On a flat, gusty landscape like this one, the stones would have been valuable to mammoths not only as scratching posts but also as protection from the wind.

Today, the rocks are mostly valuable to climbers, who clamber along their more jagged sides to get as close as we smaller animals can get to a mammoth’s-eye point of view.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor kevnielsen.

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