Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Aug. 13 2015 4:49 PM

The Grafitti-Covered Ruins of the Miami Marine Stadium 

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

Built in 1963, the Miami Marine Stadium took advantage of a beautiful view of downtown Miami and a passing speedboat trend. Now the world's first boat racing stadium is an abandoned maze of vandalized cement. 

When the Miami Marine Stadium opened, it seemed like a great fit for a seaside city that already had a strong relationship with boats and water sports. Despite the death of one of the speedboat racers, James Tapp, on opening day of the park in December of 1963—surely a bad omen—the stadium thrived for decades as the world's first and only stadium custom-built to view motorboat races. The venue also hosted concerts, boxing events, and anything else that would pack the more than 6,000 wooden seats beneath the broad cement shade. Unfortunately, the stadium was declared unsafe in 1992 after it was damaged by Hurricane Andrew and the site was left to rot. 

Of course the open-air seating was nearly impossible to seal off to trespassers, and the empty halls and cement walls quickly became completely covered in thick layers of graffiti. The wooden seats were marked up, destroyed, or ravaged by the elements, and now the venue looks closer to a post-apocalyptic wasteland than a boat racing center for family fun.

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Aug. 12 2015 2:57 PM

A Man-Made, All-Natural Bridge of Roots

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

Extending over the Indonesian Batang Bayang River, the slowly growing Jembatan Akar root bridge is made entirely out of the naturally growing roots of two banyan trees that have been slowly cultivated to knit into a walkable span.

The span (Jembatan Akar means "root bridge") was first conceived of in 1890 by a local teacher named Pakih Sohan, who wanted his students from a village across the river to have an easier time getting to his classes. To start the bridge, he put a bamboo frame in place and began wrapping the ever-growing aerial roots of the large banyan trees on either side of the water along the frame. Ever so slowly, the bridge began to take shape.

The project took 26 years of carefully tended growth to become sturdy enough to support anyone. The 100-foot span has since been shored up and reinforced with wooden planks and metal cables as well as becoming stronger year after year as the massive roots of the still-living trees continue to grow. Guide lines have also been added to provide additional support for visitors.     

Unfortunately the original creator of the bridge is no longer alive to see what has grown from his simple idea, but thousands of visitors and commuters each year have him to thank for creating one of the most curious bridges in the world.

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Aug. 11 2015 1:16 PM

Manhattan’s Smallest Island

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

Barely poking out of the East River off the coast of Manhattan is tiny U Thant Island, a hardly noticeable mound of greenery. What looks like metal scaffolding rising from its base is actually a set of Buddhist monuments.

That the little islet is there at all is due to one of New York's many subway tunnels. Officially named "Belmont Island," U Thant didn't exist until the late 19th century, when a trolley tunnel was dug beneath the East River to connect Manhattan with Queens. As dirt and rock from the tunnel's construction built up on a pre-existing reef beneath the surface, the island slowly began to emerge above the water level. By the end of the tunnel's construction, a new landmass was born.

Initially the freshly born land was named after the financier who finished the tunnel, August Belmont Jr. In 1977 a Buddhist group known as Peace Meditation at the United Nations rented control of the island from the city and unofficially renamed it after former United Nations Secretary General U Thant, building a skeletal metal arch adorned with mementos of the leader. A sign was also placed on the island heralding its new name, ensuring that it would stick in the decades to come.

Today the island is off-limits, but eagle-eyed sightseers can view it from shore, or pass beneath it on the 7 train that now operates in the old tunnel.

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Aug. 10 2015 1:45 PM

The Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas of the Cats Solved a Snake Problem With Felines

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

When a plague of snakes almost prevented the building of what is now known as the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas of the Cats, the titular felines were shipped in to save the day. 

Construction originally began on the monastery in 327 CE on the island of Cyprus under the patronage of Saint Helena. As legend has it, a terrible drought afflicted the island during this time, allowing countless venomous snakes to proliferate, driving off not only the builders of the monastery, but even island locals.

Helena's solution to the infestation was to fight snakes with cats, and she had 1,000 of the furry killers shipped to the island from Persia and Egypt. Soon the savior had trained the felines to react to two bells: one signaling feeding time, and the other signaling snake hunting time. After battles that reportedly left the cats missing eyes and noses, the snakes were all but eradicated from the island and the monastery was completed.

Although the original building was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times over the ensuing centuries, the cats on the island remained, and even flourished into an unofficial sub-breed known as the "Cyprus cat." When the modern incarnation of the monastery was given over to a group of nuns in 1983, the church grounds themselves had become devoid of cats, and the snakes had returned. Unsurprisingly, the sisters took a page from history and brought in even more outside cats which quickly contained the problem.

In addition to the newly imported animals, the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas of the Cats began taking in any stray cat brought to them in honor of the felines' centuries of service. 

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Aug. 7 2015 3:26 PM

The Unnatural Symmetry of Tree Mountain

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While the pointed hill in Ylöjärvi, Finland, known as Tree Mountain looks like an oddly symmetrical natural forest, it is actually a colossal work of man-made art that is said to be protected for the next few hundred years.

Proposed in 1982, the hill itself had to be built before the swirling rows of trees could be planted. Once the land itself was built, the artist, Agnes Denes, enlisted 11,000 people from all across the globe to plant 11,000 in a specifically designed pattern. The pattern itself was designed to evoke ancient artworks as well as the mathematical precision found in many of the works of the painting masters.

The planting took place over four years, from 1992 to 1996. With everything set to roll, the artist then let nature do its thing. The trees flourished on the reclaimed land, and by the early 2000s the intricate pattern was beginning to show itself as though it had occurred naturally.

The environmental art project is slated to be a 400-year installation, although there does not seem to be a plan to raze the land when the time is up. In fact, it looks like the trees could last far beyond that date. The forest has continued to thrive over the years and is now so lush that the original pattern can barely be discerned.

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Aug. 6 2015 4:16 PM

Indiana Jones’ Worst Nightmare: The Slithering Masses of of the Narcisse Snake Dens

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

Part wildlife conservation preserve, part ophidiophobic nightmare, Canada's Narcisse Snake Dens see tens of thousands of garter snakes arrive each year to sleep and mate in huge slithering piles of serpentine chaos.

At one point in the late 1990s, the population of red-sided garter snakes in the area of Narcisse, Canada approached 70,000, but terrible weather and an unprecedented number of the beasts being crushed while crossing the roads quickly eroded the total.

In the early 2000s, the snake population was dangerously low. In order to remedy this depopulation, the Narcisse Snake Pits Wildlife Management Area was established. Snake-crossing tunnels were created under the roads, and snow guards were installed to funnel the creatures into them, leading towards the wildlife area. New signs cautioned drivers to slow down during peak season.

With all these measures in place, the population of snakes in the area rebounded. Now the wildlife area has become a popular attraction where visitors come to witness the thriving creatures. 

Each year, hordes of snakes come to hibernate in the natural crevasses and tunnels eroded into the porous limestone in the ground. With the thaw of the snow and ice each spring, the sleeping serpents awake and quickly get to making babies in huge, teeming orgies among the grasses outside of their limestone sleeping holes. Despite the seeming impropriety of leering at a bunch of snakes having sex, this is the prime serpent-watching season. 

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Aug. 5 2015 4:46 PM

That’s Not a Bomb Crater, That’s Art

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

As postindustrial America looked back at much of the landscape it had wrought, the number of unappealing tracts of blasted land and gravel pits must have seemed a bit staggering.

To counteract this, a number of artists were commissioned to transform the spaces into something a bit more aesthetically pleasing. In the case of the Seattle Department of Public Works' Johnson Pit #30 (of 100), artist Robert Morris achieved this with grass. Lots of grass. Morris molded the sides of the pit into large, gently sloping steps and covered the entire surface of the dusty pebble pit with wild rye grass. While the pit and its surrounds were entirely cleared to make way for the artsy landscaping, Morris left a scattered bunch of blackened tree stumps along the rim as a monument to the forest that existed on the site before it was converted into a rock pit. Morris noted Peruvian and Persian landscapes as inspirations for the piece.

Today the massive earthwork is still in place, although preservation of the site is an ongoing struggle. The once sharp terraces are in danger of disappearing due to pedestrian traffic, and the grass still needs mowing. The funds for upkeep on the site are provided by a local arts council, but these resources are far from limitless. Regardless, the grassy pit remains and even features a sign explaining that it is art.

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Aug. 4 2015 1:29 PM

The Delicately Balanced Beauty of Krishna’s Butter Ball 

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

Forever (hopefully) perched on a steep rock slope in the historic town of Mahabalipuram, India, the massive round boulder known as Krishna's Butter Ball refuses to give in to gravity or the shoves of tourists.

The giant boulder appears to be frozen in its roll down the hill it sits on, and no one is quite sure why. The boulder is likely a glacial erratic that got stranded in a serendipitous position on the hill, but local legend has another version of the story. According to Hindu mythology, when the great god Krishna was just a baby, he was fond of stealing butter. Following this tradition, the big orange stone has been likened to a giant dollop of purloined butter that the god dropped.

The actual name of the stone is Vaan Irai Kal, which translates to Sky God's Stone, and according to one source, the more playful name was given to the rock by a local tour guide. However it got its sort of silly name, it stuck.

Reinforcing the stone's strangely balanced position, the slippery stone slope is used by local children as a slide. Today Krishna's Butter Ball is a popular tourist attraction. Visitors to the site love to get behind the stone and try to push it down the hill. So far no human power has been able to budge the buttery boulder.

Best of all, sometimes the local goats climb on top of it. It's adorable.

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Aug. 3 2015 2:32 PM

Journey to the Center of the Hollow Earth Monument

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

While Jules Verne may have been the most famous writer to expound on the concept that the Earth is hollow, Journey to the Center of the Earth was explicitly a work of fiction.

Early-1800s lecturer John Symmes Jr., however, wanted to let people know that Verne's visions were not as fantastic as they seemed. Ohio's Hollow Earth Monument honors the man's spurious science.

Symmes' Hollow Earth Theory posits exactly what you'd think: that the Earth is in fact hollow. According to Symmes, the empty center of the planet is accessible via shafts located at the north and south poles of the planet, as though Earth is some sort of celestial jewelry bead.

While the theory seems far-fetched by modern standards, Symmes was able to garner a strong amount of interest in the concept via his lecture tours, where he displayed his research into the magnetic fields that he claimed were proof of the holes at the poles. Symmes garnered so much interest that he actually got Congress to vote on funding that would allow him to mount expeditions to the polar regions in the 1820s, where he guaranteed they would find the entrances to the center of the planet. Unfortunately for him, the government did not share Symmes' sense of wonder and the grant was voted down.

After the rigors of the lecture circuit took their toll, Symmes retired to Hamilton, Ohio, where he would eventually died in 1829. One of Symmes' acolytes, Jeremiah Reynolds, continued the Hollow Earth cause for a time, even finding a ship to take him to Antarctica in search of one of the entrances to the inner Earth. Nothing was ever found.

Symmes is remembered by a monument in Hamilton, Ohio's Ludlow Park, which features an abstract hollow Earth, atop a stone pedestal and a plaque that explains his theory. Quackery or not, Symmes' sci-fi theories will not be forgotten anytime soon.

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July 31 2015 12:12 PM

What It Was Like to Seek Asylum in Medieval England

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

So you are in 13th-century England and you’ve been accused of, or maybe have actually committed, a murder. To be taken into custody and tried would likely result in execution, so you need to go to ground, fast.

The right to sanctuary, as the tradition is called, is probably best known through the titular outcast of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, who used the protective right to save his true love. But it actually dates all the way back to traditions from the ancient Greece and Rome, yet surprisingly survived (in a much changed form) into the 17th century.

Taking refuge in these miraculous safe zones, though, was far more complicated and dangerous than most people think.

The ancient Greeks and Romans had a similar concept of sanctuary from which the romanticized medieval laws grew. In Greek and Roman society, all temples to the gods could harbor runaway slaves and criminals to a certain extent. These early asylums were established under the belief that the gods (or god) were inviolable, and thus their temples and holy sites shared this untouchable aspect. Of course, these sites were not just hidey holes where fugitives could go to thumb their nose at the authorities; petitioners for sanctuary had to atone and pay penance for their crimes.

According to Karl Shoemaker, associate professor of history and law at the University of Wisconsin and author of Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400-1500, it was from these examples of holy forgiveness that the better-known version of medieval sanctuary sprung. The earliest Christians were aware that pagan temples offered sanctuary for criminals, and they did not want to be shown up in their piety by their pagan rivals. Thus, criminals could be offered protection within Christian churches as well, with the added benefit that asylum seekers might be converted or offered a chance to repent.

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The Sanctuary Knocker at Durham Cathedral

Photo: dun_deagh/Creative Commons

Shoemaker explains that as Christianity spread across Europe, sanctuary protections came along with it, supported by the church as well as the various crowns. Thanks to the precise and pervasive record-keeping of the English, their codified and standardized version of sanctuary procedure is the process best known today.

In order forasylum seekers to gain sanctuary, they had to simply enter a church and wait for an appointed officer of the crown (known as a coroner) to arrive. Once the coroner arrived, the seekers had to confess to their crime, whether they committed it or not, and they were then under the protection of the church. In some cases, more specific action was required, such as ringing a certain bell, sitting down on a special bench (known as a “frith-stool”), or wrapping their hand around a special door-knocker, as was the case at the Durham Cathedral, and giving it a rap, not unlike a historic, legal version of freeze tag.

During the existence of English sanctuary laws, which lasted until 1624, countless thousands of felons claimed sanctuary. Shoemaker claims that “in some counties as many as half of the recorded felonies would end in a sanctuary claim rather than a trial.” This could be even higher in some counties, where up to two-thirds of all the felonies were “resolved” in a sanctuary. During this period all Christian churches offered sanctuary within their walls. Certain churches also offered a widened area of protection that was extended to areas surrounding the church, demarcated by monuments known as “sanctuary stones” or “sanctuary crosses” Those churches (there were at least 22, including Westminster Abbey) that offered a wider sanctuary usually had to be approved by a charter from the king.

The vast majority of asylum seekers were fleeing from capital crimes such as murder and theft, which surprisingly often carried the death penalty in those days. Other offences, such as rape and arson, were also not unheard of.

Shoemaker walked us through a typical (and hypothetical) scenario:

Two guys are drinking in a tavern. They get a little too deep into their cups. Violence erupts. One of them pulls a knife. In the fight, he kills, whether on purpose or a little accidentally, the other guy. First thing he’s gonna do in that situation, if he’s in England any time between 1300 and the abolition of sanctuary in 1624, is run to the nearest church. He’ll enter the church and he’ll wait until [the coroner] arrives. When that man arrives, the fugitive will confess—he’ll say, “I killed so-and-so. I claim sanctuary.”
The coroner will write that down, and then at some point, months or perhaps even years later, when royal judges come into that vicinity to administer justice, that man’s crime, and his sanctuary claim, will be reported into the judicial record. Then the last thing that will happen is that the killer will what they call “abjure the realm”—that is, he will swear an oath to leave England and never return.
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The Sanctuary Ring at Notre Dame

Photo: myrabella/Creative Commons

Once their sanctuary was resolved in this way, the fugitives would have to forfeit all of their possessions, money, and land to the crown, and get the hell out of Dodge, so to speak. The traditional custom was that the abjuring fugitive would dress in the clothes of a penitent (a simple tunic, no shoes, no hat), and head for the nearest port, where ship’s captains were required to take them on, and ferry them abroad, often to Ireland or France. Unfortunately, between the crusaders’ garb marking their status as a criminal, ensuring a less than friendly (if not outright hostile) journey out of the country, and their new, penniless life in a new country, leaving sanctuary was no free ride.

Through much of the existence of English sanctuary laws, fugitives would be given about 40 days to remain in the church, setting their affairs in order and generally preparing for their journey to exile. While they remained within the prescribed sanctuary grounds, their protection was sacrosanct. It was not unheard of for people to take justice into their own hands, although abusing or messing with fugitives in sanctuary held heavy penalties for the perpetrators.

As the centuries rolled on, the length of sanctuary afforded to fugitives began to increase, with many churches extending their fugitives indefinite stays. This form of sanctuary began looking pretty attractive to some criminals, who would flock to these church safehouses, essentially forming small dens of thieves under the protection of the church. Again from Shoemaker: “We have evidence of [the fugitives] are going out in marauding bands. Robbing shopkeepers, robbing others. Then retreating back to these sanctuaries.” This began to change the perception of church sanctuaries among the people of England, and was likely the death knell of English sanctuary law.

Shoemaker believes that the changing nature of the role of law during the late 16th century in English society was the ultimate downfall of church asylum. Previously, sanctuary was seen as an act of kindness, forgiveness, and piety on the part of both Christianity and the crown. But as the feeling that an effective criminal system would deter wrongdoing through punishment began to grow in the country, the view of sanctuary’s penitent treatment of fugitives seemed only to be rewarding the criminal acts by allowing asylum seekers to avoid the official penalty.

Slowly, sanctuary laws were rolled back. The eligible number of crimes were reduced. By 1624, standard sanctuary laws were abolished, and fugitives were no safer in a church than they were in the streets.

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