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Secrets of the Tower of London

For almost 1,000 years, the Tower of London has been an intimidating fortress on the River Thames. Originally designed as a castle for William the Conqueror in 1078, it’s hardly a cozy palace like Buckingham or Kensington. In the centuries that followed, a stone wall was erected around the gleaming Caen stone residence, and later a moat. An additional wall and series of towers rose up around the complex, making it virtually impenetrable by 1350.

During the Tudor Dynasty, the Tower of London gained its notorious reputation as a torture chamber. While the residence functioned as a state prison, it was also where Henry VIII imprisoned two of his six wives (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard) and where conspirator Guy Fawkes was tortured and executed. Even the Duke of Gloucester, best known as Richard III, is said to have held captive and murdered his nephews, 12-year-old Prince Edward and his younger brother, 9-year-old Richard. Skeletons found beneath a staircase in the tower in the 1600’s are thought to be those of the two young royals.

Only 22 total executions took place at the Tower of London, but the citadel’s dark and bloody reputation precedes the historic site. Today, visitors to London flock here in droves to see the Crown Jewels, and the display of antique suits of armor (like Charles I’s gilt, gold leaf-armor) at the Line of Kings: the world’s longest-running visitor attraction, which dates back to 1688.


Royal treasure isn’t the only thing hidden inside the Tower of London. For more surprising facts and well-kept secrets, read on.

The Tower of London doubled as the Mint

For 500 years, beginning in 1279, the Tower of London guarded the country’s Mint. Until 1663, coins were hammered by hand.

It protects $32 billion worth of treasure

The dazzling Crown Jewels—a priceless collection of historic ceremonial objects—have been on display since the 17th century. Among the most prized items is the Star of Africa, a single diamond worth $400 million, and the Imperial Crown, which sits protected in a bullet-proof glass case, and is embedded with exactly 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 5 rubies.
Animals once called the Tower home

Before the Tower was a prison, it was a zoo for exotic animals. Founded by King John as a royal menagerie in 1210, the gallery’s various residents included lions, ostrich, elephants, and even a polar bear. Supposedly, the poor creature hunted fish in the River Thames. 

A sorcerer was imprisoned in the 1500’s
One of the tower’s more unusual inmates was an innkeeper from Bristol named Hew Draper. This being the 1500s, authorities incarcerated Draper for the gravest offense: sorcery. Evidence of his occult practices can still be seen today in the Salt Tower, where Draper left a cryptic astrological sphere, labeled with the twelve zodiac signs, inscribed on the stone wall of his cell.
It wasn’t as deadly as it sounds

Despite all the infamous tales of torture, only 22 people were actually executed inside the Tower’s walls. Josef Jakobs, a German spy, was the last person to be killed on the property. He was shot by a firing squad on August 15, 1941.

The ravens are the Tower’s guardians
Charles II insisted that the resident ravens—six in total, plus one spare—should be protected. He foresaw that if the ravens departed, the kingdom and the Tower would fall. Perhaps more out of respect for tradition, the ravens are housed and cared for to this day. According to the Raven Master, they are fed raw meat and blood-soaked bird biscuits every day.


Eight Secrets of the Taj Mahal

One of the world's greatest memorials to love remains a place of mystery
(Elena-studio / iStock)
For first-time visitors to India, it’s almost impossible to skip the bucket list-worthy Taj Mahal. The mausoleum in Agra is India’s most famous monument, and a sublime shrine to eternal love. Built from between 1632 and 1647 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the Taj Mahal was dedicated to Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during childbirth. But despite its iconic stature, much of its history is still shrouded in mystery. Here are a few things about the marble-clad marvel you might not have known.

Optical illusions can be spotted everywhere 
The architects and craftsmen of the Taj Mahal were masters of proportions and tricks of the eye. When you first approach the main gate that frames the Taj, for example, the monument appears incredibly close and large. But as you get closer, it shrinks in size—exactly the opposite of what you’d expect. And although the minarets surrounding the tomb look perfectly upright, the towers actually lean outward, which serves both form and function: in addition to providing aesthetic balance, the pillars would crumble away from the main crypt in a disaster like an earthquake. 

The most famous myth is probably false 
According to a popular legend, Shah Jahan wanted desperately for the mausoleum to be an exquisite masterpiece without an equal. To ensure no one could recreate the Taj Mahal’s beauty, Shah Jahan supposedly severed the hands and gouged the eyes of the artisans and craftsmen. Despite the prevalence of this gruesome tale, historians have found no evidence to support the story—though it does heighten the drama of the romantic tragedy.

Both of the cenotaphs are empty
Tomb in Taj Mahal (IVANVIEITO / iStock)
Inside the Taj Mahal, the cenotaphs honoring Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are enclosed in an eight-sided chamber ornamented with pietra dura (an inlay with semi-precious stones) and a marble lattice screen. But the gorgeous monuments are just for show: The real sarcophagi are in a quiet room below, at garden level. 

It’s (almost) perfectly symmetrical 
The Taj Mahal is the pinnacle of Mughal architecture, constructed with impeccable symmetry according to the doctrines of the period’s style. Minarets flank the domed tomb, and a central pool reflects the main building. The gardens—an earthly representation of paradise—are divided into quadrants, and twin red sandstone buildings (an east-facing mosque and a west-facing guesthouse) give the mausoleum complex a balanced harmony. There is, however, one exception. Shah Jahan’s cenotaph is peculiarly positioned west of the central axis, throwing off the equilibrium. The odd placement has led many to believe he never meant to be buried there at all. 

The Taj gets regular facials 
Age and pollution has taken a toll on the Taj Mahal’s gleaming white marble façade, which has turned brownish-yellow under the sooty conditions. Occaionally, the monument is given a spa day. Specifically, a mudpack facial called multiani mitti. This traditional recipe used by Indian women to restore radiance is applied, and then washed off with brushes, after which the Taj’s blemishes vanish, and its glow returns. 

It changes color throughout the day

One of the allures of the Taj Mahal is its constantly changing hue. From dawn to dusk, the sun transforms the mausoleum. It may seem pearly gray and pale pink at sunrise, dazzling white at high noon, and an orange-bronze when the sun sets. In the evenings, the Taj can appear translucent blue. Special tickets are even sold for full moon and eclipse viewings. 

A second, black-marble 
Taj Mahal was being planned Remember the haphazard placement of Shah Jahan’s cenotaph? Local lore says that Shah Jahan wanted to construct a shadow image across the Yamuna River—an identical, but opposite Taj Mahal hewn from black marble—where he would be entombed. It was said that construction came to a halt after Shah Jahan was deposed by his son (ironically, a child of Mumtaz Mahal) and imprisoned at the nearby Agra Fort. Some historians have dismissed this story as folklore, too. 

It was as much of a symbol of power as it was of love 
Accounts have shown that, as a leader, Shah Jahan was more ruthless than romantic. For all its associations to devotion and ardor, the Taj was also a source of propaganda. The complex’s ordered symmetry symbolizes absolute power—the perfection of Mughal leadership. And its grand scale and extravagance (crystal, lapis lazuli, makrana marble, turquoise) only brought glory to Shah Jahan’s reign.

Watch a Lava "Firehose" Spew Out of a Hawaiian Cliff

Lava is among the most dangerous—and intriguing—of substances. Drawn by its weird properties and its promise of revealing Earth’s deepest outpourings, scientists have long studied its different forms and even tried to make their own. But sometimes it’s enough to just stand back and be astonished. A new video of a “firehose” of lava spewing from a Hawaiian cliff is a great chance to do just that.


The astonishing flow you see above was captured at of a Kilauea cliff in Hawaii, the Associated Press reports. The “firehose” flow of lava was created when a large section of the volcano’s lava delta collapsed at the end of last year. Now lava is flowing through the newly exposed tube. Once it gets to the edge of the cliff, it shoots out toward the Pacific Ocean, falling 70 feet to the water.

The New Year’s Eve collapse of the lava delta was big news in Hawaii, especially after the 22-acre region was designated a viewing area by the National Park Service. Since then, officials have monitored the site for both safety and science. The USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory reports on its website that yesterday, geologists wearing protective garb went into the protected area and measured the crack exposed by the collapse. Though it was a foot wide on January 31, it was 2.5 feet wide yesterday. They heard grinding noises coming from the crack and watched the cliff move—a warning that at any time, the unstable ground could crumble.

Meanwhile, lava is plunging down into the ocean, astonishing viewers and shooting fragments of rock and glass into the air as the molten rock hits the much cooler water. Thermal images of the crack show another perspective on the lava flow; using that imagery, writes the USGS, geologists were able to determine that the lava is up to 428 degrees Fahrenheit.

Even if you can’t view the firehose of lava in person, it makes for impressive YouTubing. It’s not every day that you can watch the roiling insides of a real-life volcano spew toward the sea. The lava flows are technically part of an eruption of the legendary Kilauea volcano, as the USGS notes on its current conditions site. As National Geographic reported in 2009, the seemingly low-key volcano does have a much more dangerous side—but for now, it’s fun to watch nature’s fireworks in the absence of a big explosion.

Researchers Think They've Found a Mini Continent in the Indian Ocean

By Jason Daley
The beautiful Mauritius island may be hiding a chunk of continent. (Sapsiwai via iStock).
About 200 million years ago, the supercontinent of Gondwana—essentially an an agglomeration of Africa, South America, India, Australia and Antarctica—began slowly ripping apart into the continents recognizable today. But a new study suggests that Gondwana spun out another continent that is now lost beneath the Indian Ocean.

As Alice Klein reports for New Scientist, researchers studying the earth’s crust found that parts of the Indian Ocean's seafloor had slightly stronger gravitaitonal fields, suggesting that the crust might be thicker there.

The island of Mauritius exhibited this extra oomph, which led Lewis Ashwal, a geologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and his colleagues to propose that the island was sitting atop a sunken chunk of continent.

The researchers studied the geology of the island and rocks spewed out during periods of ancient volcanism. One particular mineral they were looking for are zircons, tough minerals that contains bits of uranium and thorium. The mineral can last billions of years and geologists can use these to acurately date rocks.


The search paid off. The researchers recovered zircons as old as 3 billion years, Ashwal says in a press release. But the island rocks are no older than 9 million years old. The researchers argue that the old rock is evidence that the island is sitting on a much older crust that was once part of a continent. The zircons are remnants of this much older rock and were likely pushed up by volcanic activity. They published their results in the journal Nature Communications.

According to Paul Hetzel at Seeker, researchers had previously discovered zircons on Mauritius' beaches, but were unable to rule out the possibility that they were brought there by the ocean. The new finding confirms that the zircon comes from the island itself.

One of the 3-billion-year-old zircon crystals discovered on Mauritius (Wits University ) 
Mauritia was likely a small continent, about a quarter the size of Madagascar, reports Klein. As the Indian plate and the Madagascar plate pulled apart, it stretched and broke up the small continent, spreading chunks of it across the Indian Ocean.

“According to the new results, this break-up did not involve a simple splitting of the ancient super-continent of Gondwana, but rather, a complex splintering took place with fragments of continental crust of variable sizes left adrift within the evolving Indian Ocean basin,” Ashwal says in the press release.

Klein reports that other islands in the Indian Ocean, including Cargados Carajos, Laccadive and the Chagos islands might also exist on top of fragments of the continent now dubbed Mauritia.

Surprisingly, this may not be the only lost continent out there. In 2015, researchers at the University of Oslo found evidence that Iceland may sit on top of a sunken slice of crust. And in 2011, researchers found evidence that a micro-continent has existed off the coast of Scotland for about a million years.