Essential Guide: Abandoned Palaces of History’s Megalomaniacs – On Atlas Obscura

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Golden beds, crocodile ponds, guests drowning in rose petals, rooms full of treasure: the homes of absolute rulers have always been marked by stratospheric excess. From the city-sized palaces of the Egyptian pharaohs to the swimming pools of Gaddafi, the world has looked on in fascinated wonder for thousands of years.

But even in this company, some palaces stand out. They have no claim on the reality around them. Their very presence signals the depth of their owners’ delusions. From Nero’s Golden House — a building which threatened to eat an entire city — to Saddam Hussein’s Victory Over America Palace, the homes of history’s true megalomaniacs tell a story of impossible power and of impossible hubris. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair…”

On Atlas Obscura, I explore their ruins.

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Essential Guide: The Perverted Past – on Atlas Obscura

The Temple of Dionysos, Delos

“Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three,” wrote Philip Larkin wryly. Antiquity thought otherwise.

Gods and mortals, men and women, satyrs and nymphs, all kaleidoscopically fell into and out of lust. Across the Mediterranean in the classical world, sexual norms were radically different to those in contemporary Western society. The phallus might well contend with the Parthenon as the symbol of classical civilization.

Ancient Athens was not only the brightest cultural light of antiquity, but also, as Eva C. Keuls puts it in The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens, “a society dominated by men who sequester their wives and daughters, denigrate the female role in reproduction, erect monuments to the male genitalia, have sex with the sons of their peers, sponsor public whorehouses, create a mythology of rape, and engage in rampant saber-rattling.”

Nor was Athens an exception. In Alexandria, in 275 BC, a 180-foot-long gold-plated phallus was paraded through the streets of the city, flanked by elephants, a rhinoceros, and a giraffe — and decorated, as the Greek Athenaeus noted, with ribbons and a gold star. Those who failed to join in such festivals enthusiastically were more likely to attract criticism than those who did:

Someone at the court of King Ptolemy who was nicknamed ‘Dionysus’ slandered the Platonic philosopher Demetrius because he drank water and was the only one of the company who did not put on women’s clothing during the Dionysia. Indeed, had he not started drinking early and in view of all, next time he was invited, and had he not put on a Tarantine wrap [women’s clothes], played the cymbals, and danced to them, he would have been lost as one displeasing to the king’s lifestyle.” (Lucian, Calumnies, 16).

On Atlas Obscura, I explore six sites from the perverted past.

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Essential Guide: Monuments to Epic Failure – on Atlas Obscura

Design for the Watkin TowerFailure, by its nature, tends not to leave traces. Buildings are demolished. Books disappear into landfill. Manuscripts are written over. Statues are smashed to pieces. The world goes about its business, swiftly forgetting.

But some failures are too big to disappear quietly. They stick around — for years, sometimes for centuries. On Atlas Obscura, I explore six monuments born of truly epic failure. From a half-finished Nazi Colosseum to a Victorian Tower of Babel, they are the spirit of Ozymandias in concrete — ambitions which paid no attention to reality.

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Essential Guide: Lost Cities – on Atlas Obscura

Ta Prohm, CambodiaHidden in the depths of the sea, buried under hillsides, swallowed up by the jungle, or consumed by the wrath of the heavens – lost cities have fascinated, ever since Plato told the story of Atlantis:

Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others. [...] But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all the warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.

Many people have gone in search of lost cities — believing in tall tales and ancient legends. Con-men, archaeologists, showmen, and adventurers have traveled over the mountains of Afghanistan, through the jungles of Cambodia, across the deserts of Jordan, and into the very strangest parts of the world, full of hope. But as many have discovered, finding a lost city can be the easy part — what happens next is when things get interesting.

On Atlas Obscura, I explore seven of the world’s most wondrous lost cities.

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Essential Guide: Ancient Cults – on Atlas Obscura

PersepolisAncient religion was bloody, sexy, and chaotic. Gods competed with gods, priests with priests, and prophets with prophets. Religion was personal – gods had to earn your business. And the battle for worshipers was fierce: Rome imported promising religions from all over the world. Persian deities were worshiped as far afield as Britain. In Egypt, a ritual transformed pharaohs into gods. When it came to the divine, many ancient societies were omnivorous.

This divine melting pot has left a string of bizarre sites scattered across the world: a temple with astonishing secrets in Egypt, a musical stone in the mountains of Azerbaijan, and an island covered with gigantic broken phalluses in Greece. On Atlas Obscura, I explore some of the most marvelous of them, in the Essential Guide to Ancient Cults.

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Four jobs for an ancient witch – on Atlas Obscura

Relief_of_MedeaIn medieval Europe, witch-finders roamed the countryside. Full of fear and misplaced piety, armed with the witch-hunter’s handbook — the Malleus Maleficarum, Hammer of the Witches – they put to death hundreds of innocent women.

But in ancient Greece and Rome, witches were a fact of life. Certainly, there were legends of women with fearsome powers: Medea, daughter of the sun-god, could raise the dead and command the heavens. Hecate was the goddess of magic, witchcraft, and the moon. But witches also lived around the corner, down the street — or sometimes even in the apartment next door. (The first Roman emperor, Augustus, ordered all magicians to be expelled from Italy, but they seem to have returned soon afterwards.) Greeks and Romans took a very practical approach to the supernatural — gods could be haggled with, the entrance to the underworld was a grisly tourist attraction, and your neighborhood witch could be put to work.

While witches were feared, it was generally accepted that there were times to call one in. Just like a rat-catcher today, you would much rather not need a witch in the first place — but if you did, you’d want the baddest one of them all. Magic was a way to control and make sense of a baffling and inscrutable world. Long before science made the natural world understandable, magic offered leverage.

On Atlas Obscura, as part of their 31 Days of Halloween series, I explore four jobs an ancient witch might be asked to take on.

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Portrait of an alchemist


In nineteenth-century Afghanistan, the world could seem like a very strange place indeed. Magic was, for many, close enough to touch. Tall tales of all descriptions ran riot.

And so it was that Din Mahomed Khan took up alchemy – and searched for the secret of turning all metals into gold, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. He lived close to one of the main trade routes through Afghanistan, and – as one British traveler, Charles Masson, was to learn – took his research seriously:

‘Din Mahomed Khan [...] was a desperate alchemist; and I was amused to observe how courteously he would address every faquir, or jogi, he met with. The more unseemly the garb and appearance of the mendicant, the greater he thought the chance of his being in possession of the grand secret. [...] His attentions to me were, in part, owing to his idea that, being a Feringhi [foreigner], I was also an adept in the occult sciences.’

This alchemist’s recipes had been growing increasingly far-fetched: ‘a messenger had been dispatched to bring all the limes that could be procured; some bright idea had flashed across his mind that a decisive result could be obtained from lime-juice. At other times he was seeking for seven-years’-old vinegar.’

‘Din Mahomed,’ wrote Masson’ made two trifling demands of me – to provide him with a son, and to instruct him in the art of making gold.’

In the mountains of Afghanistan, several weeks’ journey from the nearest library, research became a different kind of enterprise: not a systematic and sober winnowing of books, but rather an attentiveness to the whispers of travelers, to the signs of a secret kept hidden – even to the significance of a gigantic bag of limes, slung from the saddle of a wealthy man…

Gold, unfortunately, proved elusive.

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The liar and the lost city


Scholarship is not always a respectable business – or a business for respectable people. Much of our knowledge of the ancient world is due to the work of some very dubious people – con-artists and crooks amongst them. I’ve become fascinated by one such character – Charles Masson.

In 1827, Masson deserted from the British Army in India. Fleeing the death-sentence, he escaped across the mountains, into Afghanistan – and began an extraordinary career.  He was a doctor – a renowned tábíb in the mountains, after not an hour’s training.  Then he was a Frenchman – so convincing that one Victorian Biographie Nationale contains an entry for M. Masson.  Then he was an American. Then a British spy. Then an archaeologist – ‘the great pioneer of Afghan archaeology,’  excavator of some of the most significant ancient sites in Afghanistan.

For years, he searched the plains for traces of the cities founded in Afghanistan by Alexander the Great – plotting and re-plotting Alexander’s route obsessively. (When it came to his own life, however, he kept things much more vague – able to switch characters from doctor to prince to distinguished foreigner in a few seconds flat.  He could permit himself to trace the march of Alexander far more accurately, sometimes, than his own journey of the previous day.)

His discoveries were often astonishing: tens of thousands of ancient coins, and a genuine lost city. In July 1833, on the plains of Bagram,  he came upon the remains of Alexandria of the Caucasus. It had been founded in 329 BC, and the remains of centuries of inhabitants were scattered across the plain.  Its location had long been a puzzle.

This was a history which needed a liar to discover it. No Westerner without Masson’s quicksilver identity could have reached the city – and no unswerving truth-teller would have come close to the sites which he discovered. His multiple selves were necessary to survive. His lies brought back truth.

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Space-age China, after the cameras go home

guangzhou kfc

Over the last decade, the cities of south China have begun to swap factory smoke for skyscrapers. Glittering buildings have gone up, one after the other, much to the undisguised envy of many in the West. But what happens to those buildings after the cameras have gone home?

Guangzhou, China’s megacity of factories and bulldozers, is a curious case. It does not normally go in for nostalgia. Neighborhoods vanish to make way for new factories, malls, apartments. The future is cherished here.

But Guangzhou has also been getting into the landmarks game: a massive, shimmering new museum – designed by a starry Western architect – opened in 2010, and it now sits next to Zaha Hadid’s Opera House in the heart of the new city. Critics lined up to admire both.

But just two years on, and Hadid’s majestic Opera House is looking decidedly the worse for the wear – its reptilian skin mottled and chipped by the climate, its curves patrolled by skaters instead of theatre-goers, most evenings. A gigantic Pizza Hut has set up shop inside, next to the reflecting pool. Around the corner, by the main entrance, sits a disreputable looking KFC.

The Guangdong Museum has likewise changed, since writers lined up to admire it. Its high windows are now mostly covered with thick faded velvet curtains. Little light gets in. Some of its collections are still glorious: a tiger-shaped oven, massive bronze bells, incredible carved wood.

Then there are the ironies: a reconstructed traditional house sits in front of a wall-sized photograph of one of the old neighbourhoods of Guangzhou – low-rise, narrow alleys and steep tiled roofs. Old people stop to look, for a while. Neighbourhoods like that, of course, have almost all vanished – bulldozed to make way for this museum, and its exhibition honoring the places it replaced. From the roof of the new-old house, a CCTV camera peers down.

The collections tell one story rigorously: of Guangzhou’s manifest destiny – of a history built on business sense and trade, culminating in the city’s present-day wealth and power. It is very neat (apart from when the absences become too, too conspicuous), but it is the kind of nostalgia which keeps the present much closer than the past.

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Camera-shy and bloodthirsty: Victorian lowlife and the Rogue’s Gallery

Byrnes - Photos
Criminals are not, generally speaking, fond of cameras. They would rather not have their faces on the wall in police-stations, newspaper-offices and bungalows throughout the land. But the criminals of Victorian America took being camera-shy to a whole new level.

Many made a good living going from one town to the next, arriving in a silk hat and a fine suit, staying at the best hotel – and a few months later, vanishing into the night, leaving unpaid bills, dubious stock certificates, and depleted savings behind them. A few hundred miles away, they would start afresh in a new town.

Inspector Thomas Byrnes, of the New York Police, wanted to put a stop to that. Every criminal who came through his doors – and there were more than a few of them – was put in front of a camera. Their pictures went on the wall, and the unsavory collection came to be known as the Rogue’s Gallery.

(Byrnes himself was a nasty piece of work. He rarely investigated robberies unless there was a substantial ‘reward’ for the taking. His pay was low, but he somehow managed to acquire a fortune in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. His rooms at Police Headquarters were outrageously sinister: hung with a triad’s hatchet, an assortment of guns, the hood a man wore when he was hung, and other such ghoulish things. He was known for dropping in on death-row prisoners, to tell them how their coffin was coming along.)

The criminals themselves were not, to put it mildly, keen on Byrnes’ innovation. The pictures, sent across the country, were putting more than a few traveling crooks and confidence-men out of business. So getting the average New York criminal to pose for the camera was quite an undertaking. As the picture above shows, it was generally – at the very least – a four-man job.

(Byrnes is on the left – standing back to watch his latest masterpiece take shape.)

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