The Bone Church

I like a good centuries-old building. But sometimes these old structures can get a bit dank and gloomy inside. So it’s good to decorate them, with whatever you happen to have at hand — flowers, throw pillows, millions and millions of bones.

That’s how they do things at the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic. The ossuary (a final resting place for bones) sits just underneath an old Roman Catholic church and cemetery. Here’s a picture of the decorated interior.

photograph by By Pudelek (Marcin Szala)
photograph by By Pudelek (Marcin Szala)

The cemetery became a popular site in the 13th century, after a monk from Sedlec was sent to Jerusalem and returned home from the Holy Land with a jarful of its holy soil. This, he scattered across the cemetery grounds. And suddenly everyone wanted to be buried there! According to the ossuary’s website, people travelled to Sedlec when they felt death approaching, so that they could be buried amid a small piece of the Holy Land.

As years passed, the cemetery’s popularity grew and soon older graves had to be dug up to make room for the more newly dead. Then, in about 1400, a gothic church was built near the cemetery, and during its construction even more graves were unearthed. That left a lot of bones just lying around. So the basement of the new church became a designated ossuary.

A mostly blind monk was given the task of organizing all the bones, but he didn’t do anything particularly creative with them. It wasn’t until a few hundred years and a few hundreds of thousands of bones later that a man, a woodcutter, was hired to better arrange the disordered bones. And this guy, well, he really took to the task! He came up with some striking arrangements. Here, for example, is a coat of arms.

photograph by kostnice03
photograph by kostnice03

The ossuary’s website has some more good photos of his work, including a bone chandelier that apparently features at least one of every kind of human bone. In fairness, the woodcutter did have a lot to work with. Wikipedia estimates that the ossuary holds something like 40,000 – 70,000 skeletons.

This place is now a popular tourist haunt (ha!), one of the biggest attractions in the Czech Republic. It brings to mind the whole idea of dark tourism or grief tourism, a pretty big industry, which involves visiting places that have been marked by death or tragedy. Chernobyl, Auschwitz, Hiroshima. Prisons, battlefields, dungeons. A good many studies have been done in the field of dark tourism, from a range of perspectives (economic, anthropological, philosophical, etc.). But the most interesting to me is the psychological. What draws us to these places? Do they bring about a necessary reflection over life and death? Do they help us understand and move beyond tragedy? Or is it something less noble? A cheap voyeurism? A giddy thrill? Hard to say, hard to say.


To the Depths of the Great (Freshwater) Blue!

Obviously, the best part of summer is swimming. Lake swimming in particular. Nothing like floating around in the middle of a lake, imagining the many creatures and mythical monsters that are quietly going about their business right below you.

But if you’re swimming in Lake Baikal, over in Russia, you couldn’t possibly imagine all that exists beneath you. It’s the deepest lake in the world, dropping down about 5000 feet. This lake is so deep that although it’s only the 7th largest in terms of surface area, it holds about 1/5 of the world’s fresh water. Which, by the way, puts its volume way above that of Lake Superior. Which is surprising to me. Because I always thought that Lake Superior, being the largest lake on Earth*, would hold the most water. Or at least second most. But not so. And in terms of depth, Lake Superior doesn’t even make it onto a list of the top 20. Or even the top 30! Or 35! Our greatest Great Lake comes in at a disappointing 36th place.

Here’s Lake Baikal on a google map. It sits in southern Siberia, just north of Mongolia.

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And here’s a picture of it from space! Looks small, no?

*Photograph by SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE
*Photograph by SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE

Lake Baikal also happens to be the world’s oldest lake, formed about 25 million years ago. That’s a lot of time to develop a pretty cool ecosystem — with interesting fish and snails and thistles and other things. But maybe the coolest fauna/flora fact is that the lake has its very own species of seal. Here’s a picture of the Baikal Seal.

*Photograph by Per Harald Olsen
*Photograph by Per Harald Olsen

Like anything really old, Lake Baikal is probably haunted. At the very least, it’s the site of some chilling tales. Over the years, there have been countless weird sightings — UFOs, ghosts, all the usual paranormal fare. There’s also one particular patch of the lake that functions like a mini-Bermuda Triangle —  it disappears ships, it warps time. This Pravda article details some of the strange phenomena associated with this part of the lake. The author explains: “Locals claim that this is the opening of a chasm through which the souls of dead sinners go to hell.” Yikes!

Of course it’s not like the entire lake is a portal to hell. A few years ago, and a little south of the hell-chasm, Russian submariners descended to the depths of the lake, accompanied by no less a man than Vladimir Putin (during that stint he was shirtless everywhere and being very macho). They reported no signs of souls squirming in eternal distress. Nothing hellish at all, in fact. Just some murky waters. This telegraph article quotes Putin as saying, “The water, of course, is clean from an ecological point of view but in fact it’s a plankton soup, or so I called it.”

But the lake’s cleanliness has been threatened in recent years. Environmentalists are concerned that sustained pollution is causing an overgrowth of algae that’s slowly turning the lake into a swamp. You can read about that here. On the plus side, if Baikal officially becomes a bog, I suppose Lake Superior will inch its way up those lake rankings. Go Team Superior!

*Lake Superior is the world’s largest lake discounting the Caspian Sea, which is sometimes considered the largest lake, when it isn’t being considered a self-contained sea. 

The Thirty Years’ War…But Different

This is a picture of Hiroo Onoda, an imperial Japanese soldier during World War II.


In 1944, Onoda was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines to conduct guerrilla warfare. Which he did. But when the war ended, he was supposed to come home. Which he didn’t do. Why not? Because Onoda, along with the 3 other soldiers he was camped out with, just didn’t believe the war was over.

When they found leaflets telling them otherwise, they assumed these had been scattered as part of an American trick to get them to surrender. When search parties came looking for them, they thought the enemy was closing in, so they hid in the jungle. They foraged for food, occasionally raided local farms, stole the odd cow. And sometimes they did a little light battling with the locals. Altogether, they seem to have killed about 30 people, under the mistaken impression that these locals were enemy soldiers in disguise. This went on for decades. Decades!

By 1974, Onoda was the only remaining member of his crew (the others had either surrendered or been killed). That year, a travelling Japanese student went down to the Philippines to look for Onoda. And he found him! But even then, even once Onoda had made meaningful contact with a Japanese person for the first time in decades, he still refused to come out of the jungle and surrender. Not until he received official word from his commanding officer.

So this student went back to Japan to collect Onoda’s one-time commanding officer, Major Taniguchi, who in the meantime had set up a very respectable life as a bookseller. A Japanese contingent — including Taniguchi — went back to the Philippines and presented Onoda with official orders to surrender. He finally did. He surrendered himself to Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines, who, given the circumstances, pardoned Onoda for any crimes (like murder) that he committed while still believing he was at war. This article has some cool pictures of his 1974 surrender. Onoda was flown home, where he was greeted as a hero, a man who encapsulated the idea of unfailing loyalty and obedience. Great stuff.

But you know, this story makes me wonder. Maybe because I’m not very good at following orders myself. Or maybe because I’ve never really, fully, unconditionally believed in a cause. But I can’t help wondering what Onoda was thinking all those years. Obviously, he was asked this very question, and this NY Times article quotes him as replying “Nothing but accomplishing my duty.” Uh-huh. Ok. But still. It’s a lot of time alone, a lot of time for reflection. You’ve got to wonder what exactly was going through his head all those nights he spent lying in a self-built bamboo hut in the jungle, eating the last of his found bananas, watching the years pass. Did some part of him not want the war to be over? Did he like having something to fight for? Or had he maybe come to like life in the jungle?

Back in Japan, Onoda discovered a very different society from the one he remembered. TVs everywhere, cars everywhere, tall buildings everywhere. And so, even though he’d spent decades fighting so steadfastly for his homeland, he decided not to stay there! Instead he moved to a cattle ranch in Brazil the year after his return. Interesting, that. Eventually, he returned to Japan, where he died earlier this year, at age 91.

What’s neat about this story is that it’s not even so original. Wikipedia has a whole list of Japenese holdouts from the Second World War. As late as the 1980s, there were rumours of guys still hiding out on the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, unaware that the war had ended. They haven’t been found.


Basking in Sunlight and Forced Worship

What’s the world’s best monument featuring a rotating dictator? Is it the Arch of Neutrality in Turkmenistan? Of course it is!

The Arch of Neutrality was commissioned by longtime Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov. After the split-up of the Soviet Union, Niyazov became president and zany dictator of Turkmenistan. He proclaimed himself “Turkmenbashi” or Father of All Turkmen. He renamed the months of the year after himself and his mother. The Ruhnama, his autobiography, became required reading in schools. Gold statues of him popped up all around the country. Opposition was crushed. Human rights violations were racked up. It was a real old-fashioned personality cult.

This Atlas Obscura entry lists some of Niyazov’s whimsical laws, including the banning of opera, ballet, circuses, and the use of make-up by television presenters. Late in his reign, he decreed men shouldn’t have beards or long hair. He outlawed smoking in public after heart surgery forced him to quit the habit. And this BBC article discusses his stern condemnation of gold teeth (popular in Turkmenistan) as a dental care option, advocating instead the chewing of bones. Direct quote: “I watched young dogs when I was young. They were given bones to gnaw. Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not gnaw on bones. That is my advice.” And his advice, of course, was effectively law.

But the Arch of Neutrality — a monument to the country’s policy of neutrality toward its neighbours — was a real crowning achievement. Over 75m tall and shaped like a rocket ship, this monument stood in the centre of Ashgabat, the capital, for over a decade. It was erected in 1998, coming in at a cost of about $12 million. A big chunk of that cost was surely the 12m tall gold statue of Niyazov himself standing on the very top of the monument, his arms held open and aloft. The statue rotated slowly over the course of the day, so that the great Father of All Turkmen would always face the sun. Splendid.

A few years after Niyazov died (in 2006), his successor had the arch taken down. A new and bigger version of the arch was erected in the suburbs. Here’s the revamped Monument of Neutrality in its new location:

photograph by ILMur
photograph by ILMur

The statue of Turkmenbashi was set back atop this new monument, but the old leader doesn’t rotate anymore. He just stands there, very still, letting the sun hit his face at less direct angles. Poor guy. What a humbling.

The Most Successful Slave Revolt in History

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. The only really successful slave rebellion in history was the Haitian Revolution. Other slave rebellions certainly had an impact. The War of Spartacus, obviously. The 1811 German Coast Uprising in the American South. The Zanj Rebellion in Persia. There’s a long list. But those rebellions were all eventually crushed. The rebellion in Saint Domingue (as Haiti was then known) instead led to the establishment of a free republic.

Here’s the guy who led most of it, Toussaint L’Ouverture.


The social and political factors that contributed to the 1791-1804 revolution are many and complicated, and I won’t pretend to have a proper grasp of them all. Here and here are some more detailed articles on the matter. But the French Revolution certainly had a lot to do with it.

In 1789, ideas about equality among men were brewing in France. That year, Revolutionary France published The Declaration of the Rights of Man, in which all men were declared free and equal. It wasn’t an abolition of slavery, but it was something. Down in the colonies, plantation owners weren’t all keen to acknowledge this declaration. But slaves in Saint Domingue weren’t keen to ignore it. The slaves revolted and a civil war broke out in 1791.

By the following year, the former slaves controlled about a third of the island. Then on February 4, 1794, France officially abolished slavery in its colonies. Hooray! But hang on now, not so fast. When Napoleon came to power in 1799, he announced a plan to draw up a new constitution for the colonies. It was generally suspected that this meant he was getting ready to reinstitute slavery. And so Toussaint drafted his own constitution for Saint Domingue, in which he emphasized the liberty of all men and declared himself governor-general for life.

Napoleon then sent thousands of troops, led by General Charles Leclerc, to Saint Domingue to reestablish French authority. But he was sneaky about it. He instructed Leclerc to pretend to go about this business by relatively peaceful, diplomatic means, but then bring down the hammer — disarm all black rebels, reinstitute slavery, and deport the rebel leaders. The plan didn’t go off smoothly. Fighting broke out between the French and the rebels, and lasted for months. But eventually Toussaint was arrested and stuck aboard a ship bound for Europe. That was in 1802. The next year, Toussaint died in a French prison.

Here’s a nice Toussaint quote: “In overthrowing me you have cut down in Saint Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty; it will spring up again from the roots, for they are many and they are deep.”

And indeed, the rebellion carried on after Toussaint was imprisoned. In 1804, the rebels gained independence and established the Republic of Haiti. It was only the second nation in the New World to win its independence. The first was America.

Wikipedia estimates that 350,000 Haitians and 50,000 European soldiers died during the rebellion.



Looking for Gold at the Top of the World

I live by the ocean. Just a few feet above sea level. Sea-level living is all right, I guess — oxygen is easy to come by. But sometimes I wonder what life might be like up at higher elevations. I mean, way up. Like in the very highest city in the world.

That city, as it turns out, is La Rinconada, Peru. Here’s a google map of its location.

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 6.31.18 PM

La Rinconada sits at about 5100m above sea level. To put that in perspective, consider that 5100m is higher than any peak in the Alps or the Rocky Mountains. It’s higher than any point in the contiguous United States. In all of Canada, there are less than a handful of mountains that reach higher into the sky than does this small Peruvian city. Up above the tree line, above the grass line, on top of a glacier is La Rinconada.

So what would compel anyone to migrate so far upward? Well. That’s easy. Gold! Good old-fashioned gold. Decades ago, La Rinconada popped up as a temporary camp for Andean gold miners. But as the price of gold soared in the 2000s, mining seemed like ever more profitable work. La Rinconada’s population swelled, increasing by more than 200% over 8 years. As of 2012, the population is about 50,000.

This National Geographic article reports that the mining companies in the region pay their employees by means of a very old and curious system called cachorreo. Under this system, miners work without pay for 30 days, and then on the 31st, in lieu of cash, they get to keep whatever ore they’re able to carry out of the mountain. Interesting exchange. Whatever traces of gold happen to exist in the heap of rocks you lug out are yours to keep! Sometimes you strike it rich. Other times you don’t. It’s lottery tickets instead of a paycheque.

Because of La Rinconada’s remote location, there hasn’t been much infrastructure development. No garbage dump. No plumbing. No police station. The city is often described as lawless, because there’s no one there to enforce any laws. But there is electricity — there has been since 2002. So that’s nice.

Here’s a picture of the city. And this multimedia essay has some more neat photographs and detailed description of life at the top of the world.

*photograph by Hildegard Willer
*photograph by Hildegard Willer

Research suggests that the vertical human survivability limit is about 6000m. Beyond that, sustained human survival just doesn’t work. And even in the 5000-6000m range, the scarcity of oxygen can lead to various illnesses and physiological deterioration that hasten death. Life is tough going in the highest city in the world. But on a bright sunny day, up on those peaks…well, there must be some pretty views.

The Very Long Story of Oliver Cromwell’s Head

Most human heads have a pretty simple story. They spend a few decades on top of a body and then, when death arrives, they’re buried or cremated or entombed along with the rest of the corpse. And that’s usually where things end for the average head. But that wasn’t where things ended for the head of Oliver Cromwell. Not even close.

A few years after the overthrow of the English monarchy in 1649, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. He remained as such until his death (of natural causes) in 1658, upon which he was embalmed and honoured with a very fancy funeral. How nice for him.

But without Cromwell running things, the monarchy was soon reestablished and Charles II was brought back from exile to assume his place on the throne. One of King Charles’ first orders of business was to get his hands on Cromwell’s dead body in order to properly desecrate it as punishment for treason. Charles had the body exhumed and dragged through the streets of London on its way to a public posthumous hanging. For several hours, Cromwell’s long-dead body dangled from the gallows, and when it was finally taken down, his head was severed and set atop a tall spike at Westminster. That head just stayed there for years, for decades. I imagine old Cromwell’s decrepit head looking down on the people of London, serving as a revolting reminder not to challenge the divinely-sanctioned authority of the king. Here’s an 18th century sketch of the head on a spike.

cromwell's head on spike

Sometime in the late 1680s, a big bellowing storm broke out in London and snapped the spike upon which Cromwell’s head was impaled. The story goes that a sentinel found the fallen head and took it home, where he squirrelled it away in his chimney. After the sentinel’s death in the early 1700s, his family sold the head to a collector of weird and macabre artifacts. Over the next century, the head passed through the hands of several different collectors and freak show entrepreneurs, and in 1812, it was sold one last time to Josiah Henry Wilkinson. While in the Wilkinson family’s possession, the head underwent various scientific tests to verify it as Cromwell’s. After all, the authenticity of a centuries-old head that’s just been kicking around the realm isn’t easily guaranteed. The most conclusive of these studies — performed in the 1930s — declared that the head was indeed that of the Lord Protector.

The head stayed with the Wilikinsons until 1960 when someone in the family thought, hey maybe we should put this thing to rest once and for all. It was finally buried — over 300 years after Cromwell’s death! — at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where Cromwell had once matriculated. There was, however, some concern that royalists still angry over Cromwell’s role in the abolishment of the monarchy would dig up the head and screw around with it. So the burial was performed as a very private ceremony, and wasn’t even announced until two years after the fact. The specific resting spot of Cromwell’s head has been left unmarked. What exists at Sidney Sussex College is just this plaque offering the vague assurance that the head is somewhere nearby.


Only a few people in the world know exactly where Cromwell’s head is now. And they’re not telling.