Top 10 Unusual Things Found On Ancient Surfaces

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Top 10 Unusual Things Found On Ancient Surfaces


Ancient surfaces swing from dusty old clay to opulent metals and dyes. Whether they belong to breathtaking artifacts or boring pots, surfaces can tell a missing story as much as the artifact itself.

Sometimes, what hides in the cracks can solve sticky secrets or confound the experts further. Myths can be scientifically supported or old beliefs banished. Remarkably, at times, the unexpected shines through—the personality of an ancient artist or the cringeworthy ingredients used to create dyes.

10The Smiley Pot

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It is not often that one encounters an ancient potter with a sense of humor. A 4,000-year-old pot has archaeologists smiling because of an unexpected discovery on its surface.

In 2017, when it was unearthed in Turkey near the Syrian border, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It was another shattered vessel from a site that has seen seven years of excavations and plenty of artifacts. The restoration team pieced together the big-bellied pot and noticed something very familiar to people today.

A smiley face.

Sometime around 1700 BC, somebody dotted a pair of eyes into the wet clay and underlined it with a smile. The white vessel with its single handle was used to drink sherbet, a sweet liquid. While its purpose was clear, it might never be known why the artist added the happy expression.

Even so, the image is now considered history’s oldest smile. The site, Karkamis, once belonged to the Hittites, a Canaanite nation. It was also there that the Battle of Carchemish was fought. This clash, which occurred in 605 BC, was recorded in Jeremiah 46:2.


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In the 2000s, Brazilian geologists began finding strange caves. Most had level floors and long, arched tunnels that wound into complex underground networks of exits, chambers, and passageways. They did not appear to have been made by any natural geological event.

Something found on the ceilings and walls offered a clue. Massive grooves crisscrossed the surface, and closer examination determined that these were ancient claw marks.

What makes the whole thing so strange is the scope of the so-called paleoburrows. They are huge, even for the extinct giant sloths or armadillos that are the suspected architects. The biggest burrow was found in Rondonia in the Amazon. The combined length of its passages was 610 meters (2,000 ft). The primary tunnels were once 1.8 meters (6 ft) high and, at most, 1.5 meters (5 ft) wide.

Over the course of its creation, which took generations of diggers, thecreatures removed 4,000 metric tons from the hill. There is no explanation for why the animals needed the elaborate shelters or why there are none in North America where giant sloths and armadillos also roamed thousands of years ago.

8Long-Distance Grave Tar

Photo credit: Live Science

A different sort of ship was found near River Deben in England. While it showed damage from active duty, the 27-meter (90 ft) ship was used as atomb. The discovery happened eight decades ago at Sutton Hoo, an ancient cemetery and one of Britain’s most important burial sites.

Packed with precious metals and jewels, the ship is believed to be the tomb of King Raedwald, who died in AD 624 or 625. But none of this was as intriguing as a black substance found throughout the craft. It was initially thought to be Stockholm Tar, a waterproofing agent.

With better technology available in 2016, tests returned a surprising result. The tar-like material was a rare kind of bitumen exclusive to the Middle East. What the petroleum-based asphalt was doing on the ship is not definitely understood.

However, the sought-after product fit with other valuable grave goods. Some were also imported, including from Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Sutton pieces also bore impressions as if once fastened to now-gone material like leather or wood. The concentric marks indicated turning, either from the attached object or the bitumen being used as a tool.

7A Coffin Artist’s Fingerprints

Photo credit: BBC

In 2005, a restoration team worked on an Egyptian casket at the Cambridge Fitzwilliam Museum. The coffin belonged to a priest named Nespawershefyt who died around 1000 BC. Somebody peeked underneath the lid and found the fingerprints of a kindred spirit—a coffin artisan.

These did not belong to the dirty fingers of a colleague but the craftsmen who finished the coffin 3,000 years ago. For some reason, the ancient workers handled the inner lid before the varnish had dried. As a result, their impatience left a couple of fingerprints behind for posterity.

However, the researchers were delighted with this personal touch. Another snippet about the carpenters came to light after the artifact underwent a CT scan at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. It turned out that they added extensive readjustments to the coffin’s original shape.

The fingerprints were only made public 11 years later in 2016 when they were included in the first major exhibition that focused on Egyptian artists and how their styles evolved over 4,000 years.

6Green Magic For Children

Photo credit: NBC News

Egyptians took colors seriously and assigned meaning and qualities to each one. Researchers knew that green represented growth, crops, and health. It was important enough to be placed as a scarab carving near a mummy’s heart.

But nobody had an inkling why green also featured prominently when it came to Egyptian children. According to ancient records and hieroglyphics, youngsters even wore green makeup.

A recent discovery suggests that Egyptian parents believed that the shade would protect their offspring. While examining a child mummy, a bag was found on the body. Poking through the bag’s leather was a bright green amulet. Oddly, the stone was chrysocolla.

When the child died 4,700 years ago, Egypt was forming its early history and malachite was the most available green mineral. Chrysocolla was a rare commodity available only in the Sinai and the Eastern Egyptian Desert.

A previous grave find, a chrysocolla statuette depicting a youngster, supports the theory that the mineral (like the color green) “belonged” to children. Several experts agree that the amulet found on the toddler, who died of malaria, was probably meant to provide health and safety in the afterlife.

5Confirmation Of Scythian History

Photo credit: National Geographic

When archaeologist Andrei Belinski cleared a burial mound, he found something that he kept secret for years. Located in Russia, the mound was a kurgan, a Scythian grave.

The Scythians were fearsome nomads who left nothing but thousands of kurgans behind. Any new information about their culture is prized. In 2013, Belinski’s team found a hidden chamber full of gold jewelry and vessels. The 2,400-year-old treasure was a complete surprise. To avoid looting, the discovery was kept quiet.

The beautiful vessels revealed tantalizing history, myths, and behaviors of the Scythians. On the inside, a sticky black residue was identified as cannabis and opium. This brings the first confirmation of ancient Greek historian Herodotus’s claims that the nomads used drugs during rituals.

On the outer surface, scenes showed what could be their violentunderworld. Another vessel depicted Scythian men battling each other, the old killing the young. This could be Herodotus’s “Bastard Wars.”

The historian wrote that after 28 years away fighting the Persians, the men returned home to find the grown children of their wives, who had been fathered by slaves. The fine details of the slaughter gave researchers their first good look at Scythian haircuts, shoes, weaponry, and even the sewing work of the clothes.

4Bread Of Saint Francis

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In Italy, the Friary of Folloni faced a harsh and hungry winter. One night, according to a 700-year-old legend, an angel delivered bread and left it on the doorstep of the friary.

The monks’ benefactor was not the angel. They believed that the food was sent by Saint Francis of Assisi, who was in France at the time. The monks even kept the alleged bread bag for seven centuries.

Scientists wanted to find out if the relic was indeed that old and, if possible, find traces of what was really once inside it. The cloth’s age placed it somewhere between 1220–1295, perfect for the year of the miracle in 1224.

Next, the researchers examined the inner surface of the textile and found ergosterol. This biomarker appears in mold linked to baking, brewing, and agriculture. Chances are that the medieval material came into contact with bread.

Together with the relic’s age, the data backs up the myth. The researchers graciously admitted that the bread could have been delivered to the struggling friary in 1224. However, since the bag was used as an altar cloth for 300 years, it could also have picked up ergosterol from bread that way.

3New Testament Dyed With Urine

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Another religious artifact from Italy, this time from the town of Rossano, is a partial Bible called the Codex Purpureus Rossanensis. Containing only the gospels of Matthew and Mark, the 1,500-year-old book is among the most ancient New Testament illuminated manuscripts.

Scholars have long wondered about the lovely purple pages. Back in the day, dyes were difficult to make. It was assumed that the parchment had been treated with a known technique of the time involving a snail extract that produced Tyrian purple.

In 2016, X-ray fluorescence could not detect bromine in the pages. Bromine is the identifying thumbprint of Tyrian purple. Taking a chance, scientists turned to the Stockholm papyrus, a dye recipe book penned around AD 300.

After whipping up several mixtures, a chemical match was found. The manuscript’s dark lavender came from orcein. This was extracted from the lichen Roccella tinctoria with fermented urine. The process needed ammonia, and there was no source other than the urine.

The same study also disproved claims that certain drawings in the 188-page codex were added centuries later. Tests revealed that it was impossible. All the ornate images were created with the same palette.

2Tutankhamen’s Hasty Burial

Photo credit: Live Science

In 2010, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities experienced panic. Something was happening in Tutankhamen’s tomb that they could not explain. Brown blotches marred nearly every surface, invading paintings, plaster, and even silver.

Concerned that tourists’ breathing encouraged the growth of microbes, the council called experts from Los Angeles. The spots were indeed microbes but long dead. The organisms sparked a double mystery.

DNA analysis failed to identify the matter apart from the possibility that it was a fungus. Secondly, its presence added a twist to an already-mysterious pharaoh. Tutankhamen had died suddenly around 3,000 years ago. Now it seems that he was buried just as quickly.

The most educated guess is that Tutankhamen died without his own tomb. Pharaohs prepared their graves long before death. In this case, one was commandeered, hastily prepared, and sealed while the paintings and plaster were still wet.

This moisture, combined with the skin cells and breathing of the artists, allowed the microbes to populate. Indeed, the blotches have been found in no other Egyptian tomb. This leaves a tantalizing riddle: Why was the king buried so fast?

1Spontaneous Color In Manuscripts

Photo credit: Live Science

Another purple pigment damages scrolls all over the world. The ancient scribes never added the color, which spontaneously obscures ancient writings and destroys parchment.

To get to the bottom of the angry spots, researchers studied an affected book from the Vatican Secret Archives. The goatskin scroll is a 5-meter-long (16 ft) petition written in AD 1244. Its margins are bruised purple, and some pages are completely blocked out.

Suspecting microbes, researchers took flakes for gene sequencing. Unlike the mysterious strain in Tutankhamen’s tomb, this type could be identified. When the marine bacteria showed up, however, everyone was stunned. The scroll’s history did not include any time near the ocean.

But the afflicted manuscripts had one thing in common—they were made of animal hides. This was the clue that cracked the case. Hides were cured with sea salt, which added the marine organisms, including purple-producing species.

These bloomed in the goatskin scroll whenever the temperature and humidity became just right. Unfortunately, some snacked on the hide’s collagen, causing pieces to fall off. The damage is irreparable, but researchers remain hopeful that they can safely remove the remaining pigment one day.

Top 10 Infamous Wartime Prisons

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Top 10 Infamous Wartime Prisons


Keeping prisoners of war is a fairly new practice. Prior to the Hundred Years’ War between England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries, armies killed enemy prisoners of war or just turned them into slaves. Richer or more valuable prisoners of war were sometimes ransomed, depending on their skills and importance.

However, with the emergence of keeping enemy combatants came the problem of where to keep them. This led to the construction or conversion of several prisons that were used to hold enemy combatants while the wars raged on.

10Camp Sumter
Georgia, USA
US Civil War


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Camp Sumter was the biggest Confederate-operated prison of the US Civil War. It was also called Andersonville Prison Camp and opened in February 1864 after the Union and the Confederacy suspended prisoner swaps over the treatment of black prisoners.

Living conditions at Camp Sumter were terrible. The prison was overcrowded, the water was bad, hygiene was nonexistent, and disease was rife. There were no structures, and prisoners had to do with makeshift tents made from wood and blankets. They also peed and pooed inside the small creek that served as their only source of water. Several prisoners teamed up to form “raiding groups” and attacked other prisoners to get whatever they could.

At one time, Captain Henry Wirz, the prison commander, wrote a letter to the Union requesting the return of prisoner swaps. The letter was signed by almost all the prisoners at Camp Sumter and was delivered to the Union by five prisoners.

The Union rejected the request, and Camp Sumter continued holding prisoners until it was closed in April 1865. By then, about 14,000 of its 45,000 prisoners were dead. Captain Wirz was tried and executed for war crimes after the end of the war.

9Norman Cross Prison
Norman Cross, United Kingdom
Napoleonic Wars

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Norman Cross prison is the world’s first purpose-built prisoner-of-war camp. It was constructed to hold French soldiers and politicians captured during the Napoleonic Wars fought between Britain and France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The prison opened in April 1796 and was run by the Royal Navy. Prison authorities provided their captives with education and entertainment to keep them busy and less interested in escaping. The authorities also encouraged prisoners to make small models of whatever they could and sell them to the English populace. Most prisoners were French, so it was no surprise that they had a knack for making guillotines.

For some hilarious reasons, many prisoners also lacked clothes. Apparently, at that time, individual governments were responsible for clothing their soldiers imprisoned in other countries. So the British government paid France to clothe British prisoners in France, and the French government paid Britain to clothe French prisoners in Britain. However, the French prisoners had bad gambling habits and many lost all they had, including their clothes.

Diseases were common, but most of the casualties happened between 1800 and 1801 when 1,021 prisoners died during a typhus epidemic. Some also committed suicide because they were unable to bear the conditions of the prison. The facility was closed after the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. Approximately 1,770 prisoners perished in its 17 years of operation.

8Geoje-do Prisoner Of War Camp
Geoje Island, South Korea
Korean War

Photo credit: Kang Byeong Kee

Geoje-do was a Korean War–era prison jointly run by the South Korean government and the United Nations Command. It opened in January 1951 and held over 170,000 Chinese and North Korean prisoners. It was the scene of a series of violent riots and brazen actions rarely seen in prisoner-of-war camps. On one occasion, the army needed six tanks to quell arebellion.

Prisoners generally belonged to one of two groups: those who remained loyal to North Korea and communism and those who did not. Both groups clashed at night, leaving a trail of corpses that were picked up by United Nations ambulances in the morning.

One time, the pro-communist group captured the prison commander, US General Dodd, and put him on trial for abusing prisoners. They released him after negotiations with other prison officials. Another time, the pro-communist faction put rival prisoners on trial and executed 15 of them.

After the war, the prison was in the news again when North Korea and South Korea bickered over returning captured prisoners. North Korea and China wanted all prisoners returned home, while South Korea and the United States wanted the prisoners to decide whether they wanted to stay in South Korea or return home. In the end, the prisoners were allowed to choose whether to leave or stay.

7Camp 020, Latchmere House
Ham Common, Britain
World War II

Photo credit: KenBailey

The famous Latchmere House in Ham Common, Britain, served as a prison and interrogation center during World War II. It was called Camp 020 and was under the control of the Security Service (aka MI5). Unlike other wartime prisons, it held only enemy civilian officials, especially German spies.

Camp 020 was led by Lieutenant Colonel Robin Stephens, whose love for wearing a monocle earned him the nickname “Tin Eye.” He forbade the use of torture as he believed that it would make spies tell lies. In his words: “A prisoner will lie to avoid further punishment, and everything he says thereafter will be based on a false premise.”

Stephens employed psychological pressure to break the hardest of prisoners. He bugged their cells, deprived them of sleep, and kept them in a continued state of suspense. With this, he was able to convert at least 12 of the over 500 inmates at the prison into double agents. He also used over 120 for counterespionage against Germany and executed 15 who refused to break.

6Hoa Lo Prison
Hanoi, North Vietnam
First Indochina War And The Vietnam War

France built Hoa Lo prison in 1899. At that time, it was used to hold political prisoners and was called Maison Centrale (“The Central Prison”). However, the Vietnamese preferred to call it Hoa Lo (“fire stove”) after the village that was destroyed to allow construction of the prison. That village specialized in trading pottery from “fire stoves.” Also, many stores sold coal-fired or wood stoves there in precolonial times.

Hoa Lo Prison had a maximum capacity of 500 inmates, although it held about 2,000 Vietnamese prisoners during the First Indochina War and 600 US prisoners during the Vietnam War. It was heavily fortified and defended, complete with concrete walls that were 0.61 meters (2 ft) thick, electrified fences, and iron doors. Its US prisoners were exclusively downed pilots, who later renamed it the “Hanoi Hilton” after the famous Hilton hotel chain.

One of Hoa Lo’s most famous inmates was John McCain, who later became a US Senator. His flight suit and parachute remain on display at the prison, which was converted into a museum in 1993. It is a walk-through museum, complete with life-size statues that depict the cruelty meted out to Vietnamese prisoners by the French. Propaganda videos and photographs show that the US prisoners were treated well.

5HMS Jersey
New York, USA
American Revolutionary War

Photo credit: Bookhout, Edward

HMS Jersey was the deadliest of several warships converted into prisons during the American Revolutionary War. The ships held American soldiers, merchant navy personnel, and civilians who refused to swear loyalty to the British Crown.

Living conditions on these ships were terrible, especially on HMS Jerseywhere 12 of its 1,000 prisoners died daily. This was probably why it was nicknamed “Hell.”

Food served to prisoners aboard the Jersey was not even fit for animals. The bread was moldy, the meat was putrid, and the soup was cooked with water from the copper-contaminated East River. The prisoner cabins were waterlogged, and the entire ship became so hot during the day that prisoners stripped themselves naked.

It was normal for rats to feed on dying prisoners. More Americans died on these prison ships than in the war itself. It is estimated that 8,000 Americans died in the war while 11,000 died on the ships.

4Colditz Castle
Saxony, Germany
World Wars I And II

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Colditz Castle was built in the 11th century. It was first used as a watchtower and later, a zoo, workhouse, hospital, and prison. It was converted into a prison during World War I and again during World War II when it was called Oflag IV-C.

It was one of the most feared of all Nazi prisoner-of-war camps and was intended for inmates who had escaped from other prisons. However, it did hold some important prisoners like Giles Romilly, a journalist and nephew of Winston Churchill.

Life at Colditz Castle was okay on average. Prisoners spent their days organizing shows, plays, and games. They even held a prison Olympics in 1941. They also created a version of rugby, which they called “stoolball” because players needed to knock the opposing goalkeeper off the top of a stool. Despite the facility’s status, some prisoners still managed to escape from Colditz Castle.

The major problem was not escaping but reaching friendly territory. Unlike other POW camps, Colditz Castle was deep in Nazi-controlled territory and was 645 kilometers (400 mi) from the closest Allied-controlled territory.

Inmates escaped by making duplicate keys, maps, and fake identification papers. Some also pretended to be ill or mentally challenged so that they could be sent to hospitals. It is speculated that 32 prisoners escaped, although only 15 managed to reach friendly territory.

British Lieutenant Airey Neave escaped on his second attempt. He was disguised as a German soldier and walked out through the gates. In another incident, three Frenchmen escaped while seeing a dentist in town. Today, Colditz Castle has been converted into a museum.

3Con Son Prison
Con Son Island, South Vietnam
Vietnam War

France built Con Son prison in 1939. However, it came under the control of the government of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. South Vietnam used it to hold North Vietnamese prisoners of war and South Vietnamesedissidents, some as young as 16.

The dissidents’ offenses included protesting against the government and refusing to salute the flag of South Vietnam. Con Son prison is famous for its “tiger cages”: cramped 1.5-meter (5 ft) by 2.7-meter (9 ft) cages that were used to hold prisoners as a form of torture.

Rumors about the tiger cages had been making the rounds in the US. They were confirmed by two Congressmen, who deviated from the planned route of a tour. Using a map drawn by a former inmate, they found a secret room hidden between the prison walls.

Inside, they discovered the tiger cages. One prisoner in the cages had three fingers cut off, and another had his skull split open. Many also had smelly, open sores caused by the chains used to bind them by the ankles.

Future Senator Tom Harkin, who was an aide to the Congressmen at that time, took some pictures and had them printed in Life magazine on July 17, 1970. The pictures caused an international uproar that led to the transfer of 480 tiger cage inmates to other prisons or mental institutions.

US Congressman Philip Crane drew the ire of the public when he visited the prison after the Life publication and stated that the cages were cleaner than the homes of most Vietnamese people.

2Morris Island Prison
South Carolina, USA
US Civil War

Morris Island prison was a US Civil War–era facility located on Morris Island,South Carolina. It was operated by the Union and is infamous for holding the “Immortal Six Hundred,” a group of 600 unfortunate Confederate soldiers used as pawns in a dangerous game played by Confederate General Samuel Jones and Union General J.G. Foster.

The problems of the Immortal Six Hundred began in June 1864 when Jones transferred 50 Union soldiers to Charleston, South Carolina, which was under Union artillery bombardment. Jones informed Foster of the development, hoping that he would stop the bombardment.

But Foster did not stop the bombardment. Instead, he transferred 55 Confederate prisoners to a makeshift Union prison on Morris Island, South Carolina. It remained so until both sides agreed to a prisoner swap.

The swap encouraged Jones to transfer another 600 Union prisoners to Charleston. Again, the Union responded by transferring 600 Confederate prisoners (the Immortal Six Hundred) to Morris Island. No swap was initiated this time. In fact, things only got worse.

More prisoners were brought in to Morris Island prison from Camp Sumter, Georgia, which was under the threat of a Union attack. The prison soon became congested as yellow fever raged through the camp and killed prisoners. Jones ended this by transferring the inmates to other prisons without the approval of his superiors, and the Union responded by transferring the Immortal Six Hundred to Fort Pulaski, Cockspur Island.

The Immortal Six Hundred were in bad shape when they arrived at Fort Pulaski. Many had coughs and diarrhea, and 80 were either dead or hospitalized. A few had escaped or were unaccounted for.

However, conditions did not improve. Food was in short supply, and prisoners made do with unlucky cats and dogs that strayed into the camp. Rations were increased in January 1865, and the prisoners were moved to Fort Delaware in March 1865. Only 465 survived.

World War II

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The Rheinwiesenlager was a series of 19 prisoner-of-war camps built along the Rhine River toward the end of World War II. They were constructed in April 1945 to hold two to three million German soldiers who had surrendered to the Allies as they moved into mainland Germany.

Prisoners in the Rheinwiesenlager were kept in conditions way below those required by the Geneva Convention. The prisons were overcrowded, food and water was scarce, and shelter was nonexistent. The Allies also restricted the Red Cross from inspecting the camps.

The Allies justified this by labeling the prisoners “Disarmed Enemy Forces” and not “Prisoners of War.” That way, they claimed that the inmates were not prisoners and not covered by the Geneva Convention. In 1989, writer James Bacque released a book titled Other Losses in which he claimed that General Dwight Eisenhower deliberately starved the German prisoners. Bacque claimed that this led to the deaths of over one million prisoners.

The first part is true. Eisenhower did not want to give the prisoners more food than the civilians displaced by the war. The second part, however, remains controversial. Stephen E. Ambrose claims that not more than 56,000 German prisoners died in the camps.

10 Fascinating Facts About Mongolia

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10 Fascinating Facts About Mongolia


Not many people know much about Mongolia apart from that Genghis Khanwas from there. This is unsurprising given the impact of the Khan and his descendants on the world, but the story of Mongolia goes far further.

Mongolia’s fascinating history includes unexpected inventions, cities that move, rare horses, and the strangest race on earth. To Mongolia, and don’t spare the horse-archers!

10Mongolia Is One of the Oldest Countries in the World

The Xiongnu people who lived north of the Great Wall were a pastoral, nomadic sort. This didn’t prevent them from organizing into a nation a full three years before the founding of the Han dynasty in 209 B.C. After a lengthy period of these early Mongols whipping the early Chinese all over the place, peace finally broke out in 162 B.C. Emperor Wen of the Han is the first to formally recognize Mongolia as an independent power:

“As the Xiongnu live in the northern regions, where the cold piercing atmosphere comes at an early period, I have ordered the proper authorities to transmit yearly to the Shan Yu (the king), a certain amount of grain, gold, silks of the finer and coarser kinds, and other objects. Now peace prevails all over the world.”

Of course, it wasn’t until Genghis Khan united all the tribes that Mongolia, as we understand it today, began to take shape, but the people and cultures were present 1000 years before his reign.

9Mongolians Invented Ice Cream

Mongolia can get pretty cold—cold enough, in fact, that the ice cream sellers today can happily hawk their wares directly from cardboard containers, with no need for a freezer. The story goes that, sometime before Marco Poloreturned to Italy with the delicacy, horsemen on a long journey across the Gobi desert in winter carried with them cream, in containers made of animal intestine. As they rode, the liquid cream was shaken vigorously in the sub-zero temperatures, causing the cream to freeze and be mixed all at once.

It is unknown as to whether the Mongols had Rocky Road or ate ice cream while crying after being dumped for a better horseman. What we do know is that when the Mongol Empire expanded and conflicted with the Chinese, ice cream followed in their footsteps, allowing Polo to nick the idea—and for Italians to proclaim how clever they are for centuries afterward.

8A Nomadic Capital City

For almost 150 years, Ulaanbaatar was a mobile capital. As one might expect of a people with millennia of nomad lifestyle, sitting around in one place was pretty boring. So, when the Khan moved, so did his entire city. Originally known as Örgöö (translated as Palace-Yurt) the city moved 25 times before finally settling at the meeting of the Selbe and Tuul Rivers. The reason for the permanent settlement is likely to be that the city just got too big to shift easily. According to Scottish traveler John Bell in 1721:

“What they call the Urga is the court or the place where the prince (Tusheet Khan) and high priest (Bogd Jebtsundamba Khutugtu) reside, who are always encamped at no great distance from one another. They have several thousand tents about them, which are removed from time to time. The Urga is much frequented by merchants from China and Russia and other places.

By the time the city finally put down roots, it is estimated that as many as ten thousand monks inhabited the temples.

7Genocide! Again!

It certainly seems that almost every country on Earth has a few million skeletons in the closet, and it would be remiss to neglect to mention the contribution to the noble art of exterminating humans of the great Khan. Second only to the Armenian Genocide for unmechanized mass killing (see our article on Armenia for details), the Mongols posted a high score unmatched by any before the advent of firearms and chemical weapons.

At the Persian city of Merv, Genghis defeated his enemies, but the people still refused to submit. So he led them all outside, which took 13 days, and then each of his warriors was instructed to kill 400 of them. Historians put the death toll in excess of a million people.

6The Last Wild Horses

Przewalski’s horse, named after the Pole who “discovered” the breed in the 19th century, is known in Mongolia as the Takhi. Because of their rarity, and humans being kind of monsters, the horse was driven to near extinction in Mongolia as really smart people rushed in to catch the horses for zoos and things. Cool! It gets better.

At the start of World War II, Kazakh soldiers fleeing the Chinese army were starving and freezing to death. So they ate whatever they could find, including lots of Takhi. Subsequent freezing winters (-40c) and boiling summers (+40c) and an explosion in the indigenous wolf population finished off the last Takhi by 1968.

Fortunately, the Western European horse collectors had inadvertently saved the species, and in 2004, twelve of these rarest of horses were re-introduced to Mongolia. Today, 300 live wild there, in addition to an unknown number who have taken up residence in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and to be honest, who is going to want to go and count those ones. They have probably got two heads and are eating meat by now.

5Communism is Cool (Again)

If ever there is a land that proves that not all systems work in all nations, Mongolia is it. After being tied onto the USSR in 1924, becoming the world’s second Communist state, Mongolia had a degree of autonomy. This was allowed for a few reasons. The leader of Communist Mongolia was a Stalin devotee. China was on the southern border, and trade and diplomacy could easily be run through the Mongolians.

After Perestroika, the Mongolians decided to give this newfangleddemocracy a try, but apparently haven’t enjoyed the experiences granted by neoliberalism. The Mongolian People’s Party won a landslide in the 2016 elections, although they run on a platform stripped of hardline communist policies.

Despite fears of social repression, Mongolian politician Nambariin Enkhbayar insists that his communists are a different breed. “These are not some monsters that have come to power but people who speak the same language,” he said. “We just want to live in a civilized, developed and democratic society.”

4A Good Place to Get Away From . . . Everyone

With just two people per square kilometer, Mongolia is a great location for recluses, hermits, antisocial weirdos, and writers for Listverse, who are usually reclusive, antisocial, weirdo hermits. The only problem is what to do about That Other Guy in your square kilometer. Kill him? Leave him to freeze to death in -30 degree winters? Chase him away on your Battle-Yak? The choice is yours.

Fortunately, the neighbors are quite friendly when you can find them. It is a tradition in Mongolia to always have warm, slightly salted milk tea in case of visitors, which makes sense because it can be a long way to the next ger (nomadic tent). Imagine trying to borrow a cup of sugar.

3Huge Statue of a Great Leader/Genocidal Maniac/Your Ancestor

Just outside Ulaanbaatar, sits a 131-foot tall statue of Genghis Khan. We can understand why, he did found the country—but he also killed millions. It would be kind of like finding a Statue of Lenin in Seattle. Sure, everyone in the area thinks the guy is cool, but . . . the mass murdering is problematic, surely.

Anyway, we must, of course, remind ourselves that the 12th century was a very different time, and shooting bows from horseback is just too cool to ignore. So, an hour from the coldest capital city on Earth, you will find the tallest statue of a horse anywhere on the planet.

“All Mongolian people are proud of this statue,” said Sanchir Erkhem, 26, a Mongolian sumo wrestler living in Japan who was posing for photographs on the platform during a trip home in 2009. “Genghis Khan is our hero, our father, our god.”
“He was a cruel man but he led our country to greatness,” said Toguldur Munkochir, 25, “If you look at Lincoln, Hitler, and Julius Caesar, it’s kind of the same thing.”

2The Weirdest Rally on Earth

Forget gumball or Paris-Dakar. Forget Wacky Races. The wildest race on Earth is from wherever you are right now to a pub in Mongolia. The rules are odd—your engine must be less than one liter unless you are in a comedyvehicle. Like an ambulance or something. You can ride a motorbike, but it has to be less than 125cc.

For comparison, when film stars Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman traveled across Mongolia, they did it on all terrain BMW bikes with ten times the power, and they still nearly failed to cross the country.

In short, if you take part in the Mongol Rally, you are insane and deserve to die. Which, surprisingly, only two people have since the start of the competition in 2004. On the upside, the rally has raised millions of pounds for charity, so that’s nice.

1The Steppes

For those of us who are unfortunate enough to live in so-called modern countries, there are few things more romantic than the sight of the Kazakh people in Mongolia hunting with eagles—Golden Eagles, at that. Themassive birds have been tamed and hunted with by the peoples of the steppes for over 4500 years. As an example of the enduring power of tradition and culture, it is incredible.

An anecdotal story runs as follows: A hunter reunited with his one-time eagle, honorably discharged after eight years of service. Years after her release, the hunter was out riding with his friend, and they looked up and saw two eagles circling high overhead. The hunter said, “that’s my eagle.” His friend scoffed, but the hunter gave a high-pitched whistle and, sure enough, the bird came down and landed right on his arm!