Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Jan. 26 2015 6:55 AM

The Strange Story of Australia’s Mysterious Marree Man

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

Charter pilot Trec Smith was flying over South Australia toward the opal mining town of Coober Pedy in June 1998 when he saw it: a 2.6-mile-tall naked indigenous man, his left arm raised and ready to launch a hunting stick toward unseen prey.

The perfectly proportioned figure, carved into the earth, was dubbed the Marree Man due to its proximity to the small outback town of Marree. Its wide lines, dug 10 inches into the ground, could only be seen from the air. But despite the planning, precision, and sheer boldness required to create it, no one came forward to claim authorship of the geoglyph—and apparently no one witnessed its creation. 

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The situation only got stranger. Anonymous press releases appeared, seemingly written from an American perspective. They used U.S. units of measurement, referred to local places with awkwardly formal names, and referred to the Native American Great Serpent Mound in Ohio. In June 1999 a fax from the U.K. revealed that a message had been buried beneath the Marree Man’s nose. Authorities surrendered to curiosity and dug it up to discover a plaque that was decorated with an American flag, the Olympic rings—likely referring to the 2000 Sydney Olympics—and a quote about Aboriginal wallaby hunting from The Red Centre, a 1936 book on outback Australia.

The created-by-Americans angle seemed to be a red herring planted by an audacious eccentric. That’s where Bardius Goldberg, now considered the most likely perpetrator, comes in. Goldberg, an artist prone to provocation, had been making Aboriginal-style dot paintings near the desert town of Alice Springs when he got into a dispute with the traditional land owner, Herman Malbunka. National newspaper the Australian spoke to retired drilling contractor John Henderson, who said Goldberg used a borrowed GPS and a tractor to send a spiteful message to Malbunka in the form of the Marree Man.

Unfortunately, Goldberg died in 2002—according to the Australian, after getting a tooth dislodged in a bar fight, he refused to go to the dentist and developed fatal septicemia—meaning the mystery of the Marree Man has never been officially solved. Goldberg’s other schemes included planting eucalyptus trees in the shape of a giant kangaroo and installing a magically disappearing Virgin Mary in the wall of a house. To those who knew him, he was the only possible culprit.

The Marree Man is gradually disappearing due to erosion. In 2013 some impassioned locals spearheaded by Marree pub owner Phil Turner made a public plea to restore the geoglyph at an estimated cost of half-a-million dollars.

“It’s really no different to someone restoring a masterpiece, a Rembrandt or something like that that’s been lost and covered in dust,” Turner told Australia’s ABC News.

More geoglyphs:

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Jan. 23 2015 1:26 PM

The Magnificent Ottoman Ruins of Ishak Pasha Palace

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 a plateau overlooking Dogubeyazit, the last Turkish town before you hit the Iranian border, sits a ruined Ottoman palace.

Still grand despite the wreckage, Ishak Pasha Palace was built from 1685 to 1784. Multiple generations of the Pasha family contributed to its construction, with Colak Pasha kicking things off in 1685 and his grandson Mehmet Pasha adding the finishing details in 1784. The palace is named for Ishak Pasha, son of Colak, who also pitched in with the bricklaying. (This Ishak is not to be confused with another Ishak Pasha, the 15th-century Ottoman Grand Vizier whose mystical armor shows up in Assassin’s Creed.)

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During its glory days, the 366-room palace boasted two courts, a harem, a bath house, servent stations, apartments, a mosque, dungeons, and a mausoleum. The decline of the Ottoman Empire brought the abandonment of Ishak Pasha Palace, but its ruins retain a sense of magnificence, enhanced by the hilltop location. Over the last few decades, the Turkish government has been conducting restoration work on the palace, making a few questionable choices along the way—the glass roofs with orange beams now covering some of the ruined rooms are a definite departure from the Ottoman aesthetic.

If a few glass roofs don’t arouse your sense of controversy, you could always head down the road to the area’s other big draw, the Durupinar site. This boat-shaped natural rock formation was hailed as the remains of Noah’s Ark by a few faithful after an earthquake made it visible in 1948.

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A glass roof covers part of the ruins.

Photo: Myararat83/Creative Commons

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The ruined cemetery beside the palace.

Photo: Griselda Ramírez/Creative Commons

More ruined palaces to explore:

Jan. 21 2015 2:54 PM

Inside the Stunning Mosques of Shiraz, Iran

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

The south Iranian city of Shiraz is home to three neighboring mosques with jaw-dropping architecture.

Chief among the trio is Shah Cheragh, first built during the 12th century. Though its golden minarets and intricately tiled facades are impressive, the most stunning parts are the interiors lined with millions of tiny, glittering mirror shards and hung with chandeliers.

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A chandelier at Shah Cheragh.

Photo: Yuen Yan/Creative Commons

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A dome at Shah Cheragh.

Photo: David Holt/Creative Commons

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Nasir al-Mulk mosque, just next door, is remarkable for the stained glass windows lining its indoor prayer hall. Visit early in the morning and you’ll see sunlight streaming through the colored glass, painting kaleidoscopic patterns onto the supporting columns. Completed in 1888, Nasir al-Mulk is also known as the Pink Mosque due to the pink tiles lining its interior.

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The winter prayer hall at Nasir al-Mulk mosque.

Photo: dynamosquito/Creative Commons

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A vault at Nasir al-Mulk.

Photo: dynamosquito/Creative Commons

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The courtyard at Nasir al-Mulk.

Photo: dynamosquito/Creative Commons

Across the road, Vakil mosque, built between 1751 and 1773, features an expansive outdoor prayer hall ornamented with spiral columns, brick-patterned arches, and floral tiles.

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The prayer hall at Vakil mosque.

Photo: Esin Üstün/Creative Commons

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Detail from Vakil mosque.

Photo: Fulvio Spada/Creative Commons

Non-Muslims may visit each mosque, but cameras are often forbidden and women should don a chador before entering.

Visit Atlas Obscura for more on Shah Cheragh and other magnificent mosques.

Treat your eyes to these remarkable mosque designs: 

Jan. 20 2015 12:03 PM

The Dish: How an Australian Sheep Farm Brought the Moon Landing to TV

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 Monday Australia’s Swinburne University announced that one of its astrophysics Ph.D. students, Emily Petroff, had become the first person to witness a fast radio burst arrive at Earth from billions of light-years away. Fast radio bursts, known in the astrophysics biz as FRBs, are a known phenomenon but until Petroff saw one arriving last May had never been witnessed live. FRBs last just milliseconds but can give off about as much energy as the sun does in a day. Their source is unknown, but, according to Petroff, “the neat idea that we are seeing a neutron star imploding into a black hole remains a possibility.”

The mysterious cosmic burst was observed via the Parkes Radio Telescope, a 210-foot-wide dish in the middle of a sheep paddock 240 miles west of Sydney. The story of this telescope, known affectionately as The Dish, is a very Australian one. In the mid-1950s, the CSIRO (Australia’s national science agency) went looking for a sparsely populated site free from radio interference. There they would establish an observatory formidable enough to impress the Americans.

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Given Australia’s population density, the CSIRO was spoiled for choice. Eventually it settled on an area in the Goobang Valley, just outside of the small town of Parkes. In 1958 sheep farmer Australia “Austie” Helm—named after the July 1915 holiday Australia Day, on which he was born—sold 170 hectares of paddocks to the CSIRO for its observatory. The Dish began operating in 1961. Eight years later it played a major role in one of humanity’s greatest achievements—in an inconspicuous way. 

On July 20, 1969, 530 million people—then a fifth of the world’s population—watched Neil Armstrong take those first steps on the moon. Live signals from the moon landing were beamed to three receiving stations: California’s Goldstone and two Australian locations, Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes. As Armstrong emerged from the lunar module, NASA switched between signals, wanting to broadcast the best image possible for the historic moment. Parkes’ transmission was the clearest, and NASA stuck with it for the rest of the two-and-a-half-hour broadcast. 

Parkes’ part in the Apollo 11 broadcast forms the plot of The Dish, a 2000 Australian film crammed with quirky characters that takes a few creative liberties with the story. (The CSIRO notes that, unlike in the movie, “there was no animosity with Americans.” Also, despite cinematic depiction to the contrary, astrophysicists have never played cricket on the surface of the telescope.) 

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Austie Helm mustering sheep beside the telescope, circa 1961.

Photo: David Moore, CSIRO/Creative Commons

Other telescopes with tales to tell:

Jan. 19 2015 10:36 AM

El Peñón de Guatapé, the Giant Rock Stitched With a Staircase

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

From a distance, this 10 million-ton stone towering 650 feet above the Colombian town of Guatapé looks like two halves of a giant rock messily stitched together. Get closer and you realize that the “stitching” is actually a zigzagging staircase wedged into the crack running down the rock.

Once worshiped by the local Tahamies Indians, the rock—known as El Peñón de Guatapé—had come to be regarded as a nuisance until 1954, when a group of adventurous friends climbed it using a series of boards jammed into the crack. The ascent took five days, but the view from the top of the rock was so spectacular that it had to be shared. A 650-step staircase was installed in the crack, and El Peñón soon began attracting visitors eager to make the trip to the top. You, too, can climb to the summit after a three-hour bus ride from Medellín.

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More stone-cold fascinating tales of rocks and boulders:

Jan. 16 2015 3:24 PM

The Park of the Monsters at Bomarzo in Italy

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

Just north of the small Italian town of Bomarzo is a quiet park where sunlight filters through the canopies of trees and lands on moss-covered stone sculptures. Many of these sculptures, however, are less than tranquil: There’s a reason the place is called Parco dei Mostri, or the Park of the Monsters.

The sculptures in the park emerged from the tormented mind of 16th-century Italian prince Pier Francesco Orsini. The prince endured a brutal war, saw his friend killed, was held for ransom for years, and returned home only to have his beloved wife die. Seeking a way to express his grief, Orsini hired architect Pirro Ligorio to create a park that would shock and frighten its visitors.

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The park exhibits the 16th-century Mannerist style—an artistic approach that rejected the Renaissance’s elegance and harmony in favor of exaggerated, often tortured expressions and a mishmash of mythological, classical, and religious influences. Its wretched sculptures—including a war elephant attacking a Roman soldier, a monstrous fish-head, a giant tearing another giant in half, and a house built on a tilt to disorient the viewer—caught the attention of Salvador Dalí, who visited in 1948 and found much to inspire his Surrealist artwork.

A trip to the park is not complete without a walk down the stone stairs leading into the “Mouth of Hell”: the face of an ogre captured midscream. Walk into its gaping maw, inscribed with “all reason departs,” and you’ll find a picnic table with benches.

More parks to wonder at and wander through:

Jan. 15 2015 2:10 PM

Ascend to the Clouds in This Breathtaking Outdoor Elevator

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

The summit of Bürgenstock, a mountain overlooking Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne, offers stunning panoramic views of the Alps, the serpentine lake, and the bustling yet bucolic city of Lucerne. And the journey to this spot is just as thrilling as the destination: To ascend to the top, you ride in Europe’s tallest outdoor elevator, built in 1905.

The trip to the peak, which rises 3,714 feet above sea level, begins at a rock pit inside the mountain, reached via hiking path. Step into the 12-person, glass-walled Hammetschwand elevator and you’ll be rocketed up the last 500 feet to the summit in under a minute. 

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Lest you be concerned that the cables on this 110-year-old contraption may be getting a little frayed, rest assured that the elevator has been upgraded over the decades. In 1935 the speed was increased from 3.3 feet per second to the current speed of just under 9 feet per second.

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The top of the elevator, with the city of Lucerne in the background.

Photo: Baumanns/Creative Commons

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Overlooking the lake.

Photo: Gindegg/Creative Commons

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One of the paths overlooking Lake Lucerne.

Photo: Philipp Meier/Creative Commons

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The view from the top.

Photo: Tschubby/Creative Commons

Afraid of heights? Don’t go to these places:

Jan. 14 2015 8:42 AM

The Trompe L’Oeil Church of Milan Is Much Smaller Than It Looks

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

The grand Santa Maria presso San Satiro church in Milan is not what it first appears. Standing in the doorway, you’re drawn to the majestic, cavernous space behind the altar. Rows of columns support a lofty, gilded ceiling that matches the decadently adorned arches above the pews. But it’s all a clever deception—the space behind the altar is less than 3 feet deep. The seemingly vast expanse is actually a painted wall.

When the church was built in the late 15th century, it had to be crammed into a small plot of land due to the presence of a main road. To compensate for the building’s modest square footage, artist Donato Bramante created a trompe-l’œil, an architectural optical illusion, on the back wall. The forced-perspective trick becomes apparent as you get closer to the altar, but the space passes for an imposing cathedral when you’re standing at the front doors.

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The painted wall behind the altar, viewed from the side.

Photo: Luca Volpi/Creative Commons

More churches with surprises inside:

Jan. 13 2015 11:31 AM

The Abandoned Italian Hilltop Village of Craco

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

Given its precarious position on a 1,300-foot-high cliff in Italy’s southern, earthquake-prone Basilicata region, it’s a wonder Craco lasted as long as it did.

The now-deserted village was established as early as the eighth century. Panoramic views provided advance warning of attacking barbarian hordes, but Craco could not protect itself against the forces of nature. Standing strong for over a thousand years, the town survived the Black Plague and bands of marauding thieves, but residents finally had to leave after landslides in the 1950s and ‘60s made buildings dangerously unstable. Craco is now a ghost town—abandoned, plundered, and overgrown.

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Though no one lives there anymore, Craco hosts six religious festivals between May and October. Other than that, the village receives visits from travelers, goats, and the occasional film production—scenes from The Passion of the Christ and Quantum of Solace were shot among the crumbling walls.

Other abandoned villages to explore:

Jan. 12 2015 12:12 PM

The Tessellated Pavement: Mother Nature’s Mosaic

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

Looking down onto the siltstone platforms on the Eaglehawk Neck isthmus in Tasmania, Australia, is like peering through an airplane window onto a grid of fields and roads. The rows of rectangles—each of which is a shade of brown, or green if covered by moss—appear too neat to have been made by nature. But humans played no part in their construction.

The crisscrossed rock is a geological formation known as “tessellated pavement” for its resemblance to Roman mosaic floors of the same name. The Eaglehawk Neck formation began when pressure at the Earth’s crust caused cracks to appear in the rock at perpendicular angles. That happened, if you’ll pardon the vague estimate, around 60 million to 160 million years ago. Salt water has since eroded the areas between the lines, giving the joints an enhanced appearance and creating a tiled effect.

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Tessellated pavement is found in only a few places on Earth. Bimini Road, an underwater rock formation in the Bahamas featuring neat blocks of limestone, caused much argument following its discovery in 1968. Geological consensus is that the road is a naturally occurring tessellated pavement, but the folk at self-described “pop archeology site” Ancient Origins—as well as some scientists, according to the Epoch Times—posit that Bimini Road is a human-built remnant of Atlantis.

Visit Atlas Obscura for more on Eaglehawk Neck and Bimini Road.

More geological oddities around the world:

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