Reads For The Road: "The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu" by Joshua Hammer

by Lindsay Shapka in , , , ,

I'll admit it.

I definitely judged this book by its cover.

And man, oh man, did the cover make me want to read it! 

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race To Save The World's Most Precious Manuscripts — it sounds like a Dan Brown historic thriller!! But, the coolest thing about this book written by journalist Joshua Hammer, is that this crazy story is one hundred percent true.

Yup, you read that right. 

This is a true story about how thousands of priceless ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts were rediscovered and saved from the elements and human influence in Western Africa.

The book recounts the journey that archivist Abdel Kader Haidera took through the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River to discover these ancient texts that had been passed down in families for generations. He often found these tomes disintegrating in old trunks and had to find ways (often monetary) to convince the owners of these texts to donate them to a library he was building so that they could be preserved. 

His discoveries had shocked the Western World (who, at this point largely considered most of the history out of Africa to be oral and discounted the idea that there could be written texts), and as a result he was starting to receive grants and funding that would help with preservation and with sharing these manuscripts with the rest of the world. 

Everything was going great — and then Al Qaeda showed up. 

Using first-hand accounts from Haidera, former high-ranking officials, the American military, and first-hand witnesses, Hammer tells the captivating true story of how all 350,000 manuscripts in the collection were smuggled to safety in southern Mali under the nose of terrorists who were ready to seize and burn them, not to mention kill anyone who was caught with them. 

It's a dramatic adventure that will have you captivated from cover-to-cover! 

The 10 Most-Visited Museums In The World

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,

Put your hand up if you are one of those people who LOVES to geek-out in museums when you travel! 

Well, I definitely am. 

On every trip I take, I make it my goal to visit at least one well-known and one totally quirky museum (looking at you chocolate museum in Barcelona!) before leaving the city. 

And, according to research conducted by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), I am not the only one — more than 106.5 million(!) people visit the top 20 museums in the world every year.  

Not surprisingly, these havens of history are located in some of the world's most well-known cities — Paris, Washington DC, London, New York, Rome, Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei, and St Petersburg. Here's a look at the top ten most-visited museums in the world.  

1. Louvre
Paris, France
8.7 million annual visitors

Admission: 15 Euros; those aged 18 and under are free
Opening Hours: Mon, Thu, Sat, Sun 9 am – 6 pm; Wed, Fri 9 am – 9:45 pm; Closed on Tuesdays

The Louvre is huge, impressive, and houses some of the most well-known art in the world — Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, ancient Greek vases... But, it's not only the art and artifacts that are impressive. The museum is housed in the former royal palace where famous historical figures like the Marie Antoinette and Napoleon once lived (not together, of course), and blockbuster films like The Da Vinci Code were filmed. 

2. National Museum of China
Beijing, China
7.3 million annual visitors

Admission: FREE
Opening Hours: Open daily 9 am – 5 pm; Closed on Mondays

This enormous building is located on the east side of Tiananmen Square and covers a staggering 192,000 square meters. You will find a vast array of historic Chinese art, artifacts, porcelain, traditional furniture, and more! There are also regular travelling collections on display like a recent showcase of the works of Rembrandt. 

3. National Museum of Natural History
Washington DC, USA
6.9 million annual visitors

Admission: FREE
Opening Hours: Open daily 10 am – 5:30 pm

A part of the Smithsonian Institution, this green domed structure is one of the world's top research complexes and museums "dedicated to inspiring curiosity, discovery, and learning about the natural world through its unparalleled research, collections, exhibitions, and education outreach programs." Basically, it's huge and full of a lot of really cool stuff! 

4. National Air and Space Museum
Washington DC, USA
6.9 million annual visitors

Admission: FREE
Opening Hours: Open daily 10 am – 5:30 pm

Also part of the Smithsonian Institution, this is the ultimate place for space nuts to geek-out. It is here that you can actually get up-close-and-personal with the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia and the 1903 Wright Flyer! There is also a huge IMAX theatre, an amazing planetarium, and a public observatory. 

5. British Museum
London, United Kingdom
6.8 million annual visitors

Admission: FREE
Opening Hours: Open daily 10 am – 5:30 pm; Fri until 8:30 pm

This museum is home to some of the world's most important artifacts — the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone (not the language software). The building itself is a lovely mix of classical architecture and modern glass (see images above) that you could spend days in and still never see even a fraction of the incredible collection! 

6. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, NY, USA
6.3 million annual visitors

Admission: FREE
Opening Hours: Sun to Thu 10 am – 5:30 pm; Fri to Sat 10 am – 9 p

This sprawling, massive white building is perched on the edge of Central Park on Fifth Avenue in the Upper East Side. That means that views from its many windows are of the beautiful green space, and there are lots of paths for you to stroll if you need to take a break from a full day of wandering through galleries. Founded in 1870, it actually is home to one of the largest permanent collections in the world — more than 2 million objects!

7. Vatican Museums
Vatican, Vatican City, Rome
6.0 million annual visitors

Admission: 16 Euros
Opening Hours: Mon to Sat 9 am – 6 pm (final entry 4 pm); last Sun of the month 9 am – 2 pm

Located in the heart of the Vatican, this complex is made up of multiple museums, archaeological areas, villas, and gardens. The amazing artwork, sculptures, and artifacts are almost as impressive as the ornate rooms that they are housed in. There are multiple tours available including one that takes you into hidden and inaccessible areas of the Vatican. 

8. Shanghai Science & Technology Museum
Shanghai, China
5.9 million annual visitors

Admission: 60 RMB (approx $10)
Opening Hours: Tue to Sun 9:00 am – 5:15 pm

This massive museum celebrates science and tech with permanent exhibitions like the World of Animals, Children's Science Land, World of Robots, Human and Health, the Chinese Ancient Science & Technology Gallery showing off Chinese ancient inventions, and more! 

9. National Gallery
London, United Kingdon
5.9 million annual visitors

Admission: FREE
Opening Hours: Open daily 10 am – 6 pm; Fri until 9 pm

Located on one end of the famed Trafalgar Square in London, this museum contains more than 2,300 masterpieces by Da Vinci, Cézanne, Monet, Rubens, Vermeer, Van Gogh, and many more esteemed artists. This is also the home of portraits of some of England's most famous historical figures. 

10. National Palace Museum
Taipei, Taiwan
5.3 million annual visitors

Admission: 250 NT (approx $10)
Opening Hours: Sun to Thu 8:30 am – 6:30 pm; Fri and Sat until 9 pm

This museum has a permanent collection of more than 700,000(!) pieces of ancient Chinese imperial artifacts and artworks, most of which were part of the Chinese imperial collection started over 1,000 years ago in the Song Dynasty.

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The Most Interesting Discoveries Made In 2016 Using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR)

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,

New technology is completely changing the fields of history and archaeology, as the use of innovations like Ground Penetrating Radar archaeology are resulting in new discoveries all over the world. This tech is even changing the way we look at old discoveries, as new chambers, burials, buildings, and more are being discovered in previously excavated areas. Before I share some of the most fascinating discoveries that have been made recently using GPR, let's start with one very important question. 

What is Ground Penetrating Radar? 

According to Wikipedia, "Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) is a geophysical method that uses radar pulses to image the subsurface." So, in layman's terms, a machine (that usually looks a like an oversized lawn mower) sends a pulse into the ground that can detect what is located under the surface. It can help scientists detect rocks, soil, ice, pockets of water, and man-made structures. 
This technology has been used by the military since around the 1970s, and became available commercially in the mid 1980s. GPR has many uses including finding valuable stones, searching for utilities, finding unexploded land mines, and surveying potential archaeological sites. 

Recent Discoveries Made Thanks to GPR

(image source)

The Remains of King Henry I
Archaeologists announced in September 2016 that they may have located the remains of King Henry I (the youngest son of William the Conqueror) beneath a Ministry of Justice parking lot on the site of Reading prison. They came across the remains while using GPR to scan the parking lot, which sits on top of the ruins of Reading Abby — a huge church that King Henry I built during his reign. What's crazy about this potential discovery is that this is not the first king to be discovered under parking lot pavement in the UK. The ruins of King Richard III were found five years ago under a lot in Leicester!  

The Intact Tomb of Jesus Christ
Located in Jerusalem, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre surrounds the Holy Edicule — the shrine that surrounds the cave tomb of Jesus Christ. It is the only church in the world where six denominations of Christianity worship at the same time, which has lead to constant disagreement on how to preserve and renovate the space. Last year however, the church was closed to the public because some areas had fallen into such disrepair that they had become unsafe. Work began in 2016 on restoring the spaces including the tomb of Jesus. Using GPR, archaeologists discovered that the cave tomb, which was believed to have collapsed more than 1000 years ago, is actually fully intact and about six feet in height! Experts will be entering the cave and documenting it meticulously to share in a National Geographic documentary in 2017. 

Terracotta Warriors Mega-Tomb
This huge tomb, located just outside Xian in China, is visited by thousands of people every year who want to catch a glimpse of the famed Terracotta Warriors. According to Nat Geo, scientists using GPR have discovered that the emperor's massive tomb complex is actually larger than they thought — almost 98 square kilometres larger — and may change the way history looks at the emperor and the time period he ruled in. 

Queen Nefertiti's Tomb (or, maybe nothing at all...)
One of the most publicized "potential" discoveries made thanks to GPR in 2016 were the openings, or voids, that were found behind the West and North walls of Tutankhamen's burial chamber in Egypt. This has led to speculation that hidden behind those walls is the lost burial chamber of the famed Queen Nefertiti (considered to be the most beautiful women of the ancient world). 
I stress the word "potential" in this case, because there has been a lot of argument about whether these voids exist at all, let alone if they are the resting place of Nefertiti. Expect to see more research and many more news stories concerning this "potential" find in 2017. 

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Pantheon Facts: What's The Difference Between The Paris Pantheon and The Roman Pantheon?

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,

Yes, there are two famous Pantheons that you can visit in Europe — one in Paris and one in Rome — but they were both constructed for very different reasons, and were built hundreds of years apart. 

The Roman Pantheon

One of the city’s most well preserved ancient buildings, the Pantheon in Rome was originally built as a temple to the Olympian gods (Pantheon literally means ‘all gods’) as a place where people who had different beliefs could gather and worship together. It was completed under the patronage of the Emperor Hadrian between 125 and 128 CE and was constructed on the spot of a previous temple, built by Agrippa in 27 BCE, that had burnt down a few years earlier.

After passing through a series of massive marble columns, visitors to the temple enter an enormous circular room (called a rotunda) with walls that are 20 feet (!) thick and a floor covered in huge slabs of colorful marble. The marble extends to the exterior of the room where it is joined by decorative columns and pilasters. 

The original 7 niches, once containing statues of the gods, are still there but now either sit empty or hold Christian relics. In 609 CE, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon as the Christian Church of St Mary and the Martyrs. Though this wiped away the building’s original purpose of being inclusive to ‘all gods’, it ensured it’s survival through the Middle Ages when Pagan temples were being destroyed. 

The interior dome of the Pantheon is a staggering 143 feet in diameter and has patterns cut into it that may have once contained gilded bronze rosettes or stars to mimic the night sky. The central opening, called and oculus, is 29 feet wide and lets the sun and rain fall through it equally. Small holes in the marble floor beneath the opening, placed there by the original engineer, drain any water that falls. 

What most visitors don’t know is that there were once gilded bronze roof tiles inset into the remarkable ceiling. Unfortunately, they were looted and removed by an emperor from the Eastern/Byzantine Empire around 500 AD and in the 17th century Pope Urban VIII had them melted down. He then gave some of the bronze to Bernini who created the baldaccino (canopy), that can be currently seen over the main alter in St Peter’s cathedral, and used the rest to have 80 cannons for Castel Sant’Angelo made. 

The facade of the Paris Pantheon is similar to the Roman one, but it is topped by a huge dome

The Paris Pantheon

Also an impressive building, the Paris Pantheon has a very different history than the one in Rome. Located on the south side of the river near the Luxembourg Gardens, the huge, extravagant 18th-century neoclassical structure that exists now was originally built as a church by Louis XV dedicated to St. Genevieve (her body was buried in a basilica that existed on the site in 512 AD) to give thanks for his recovery from a dire illness.

Though it was built to serve as a church, the construction was completed the year that the French Revolution broke out (1789), and two years later it was converted into a mausoleum. 

It is the resting place of some very famous names — scientists Marie (the first woman to be interred in the Pantheon) and Pierre Curie, Voltaire, Jean-Jaques Rousseau, and Victor Hugo just to name a few. 

The building's facade is clearly modelled after the Roman Pantheon, but the interior looks like a grand Gothic cathedral. Arched ceilings, stunning frescos, and imposing architecture make this spot well-worth the visit. It also hosts, arguably, one of the best views in the city from the exterior of the dome (you can visit it on a tour). 

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In The News: Has A Lost Nazi Train Full Of Treasure Been Discovered?

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

(Scroll to the bottom for the latest update) 

During World War II, Hitler was obsessed with tracking down and confiscating treasure in the form or art, relics, jewellery, gold, weapons, etc. He amassed massive secret caches of these items all over Nazi occupied territories, including — according to Polish lore — a train loaded with gold, weapons, and art that vanished into the mountains in Poland at the end of WWII and has never been found! 

In the news this week, it was reported that two men are claiming that they have discovered this mystery train, and for just 10% of its value, they are willing to reveal its location.

But, could it all just be a hoax?

While historians won't confirm that there even is such a train, the local government can't pass up a chance to rediscover something that they have been searching for since the end of the war. The fact that the men reached out through a lawyer is also adding some credibility to the claim, as is the fact that they are only asking for monetary compensation once the train has been salvaged, not before. 

"Local stories say a German train left from the German city of Breslau (today the Polish city of Wroclaw) in April 1945 and headed westward toward Waldenburg (now Walbrzych.) At some point in the 60-kilometre (40-mile) journey it vanished.

During the war, Adolf Hitler had started creating a secret underground system in the area under the Owl Mountains, a project called “Riese,” or “Giant.” The region still belonged to Germany at the time and the project included seven separate tunnel systems. It was probably intended to be a military headquarters, though the project remains shrouded in mystery to this day." 

Vanessa Gera, The Globe and Mail, August 20, 2015

Why should you care? The historical significance of a find like this is HUGE. Akin to the discovery of the Titanic! 

Who are these men? Where is the train? Is there a train at all? If there is a train, what treasures will be found? Well, if all goes according to plan, we will find out soon! 

UPDATE: August 26, 2015. 7:43 pm MST — It is confirmed that a significant find has been discovered in Walbrzych, Poland. The location for the find (the train) places it buried under a field. There has been no confirmation of what is on the train. If it is located in a collapsed tunnel, there is a risk of trapped methane gas or Nazi booby traps. Stay tuned for more!  

UPDATE: August 27, 2015 — This is a copy of the last live update on The Telegraph (a newspaper from the UK) blog from the days events:

"To summarise the day's events:
1. Poland's deputy culture minister says he is "convinced" the train exists.
2. He has warned people not to search for it, because it could be booby trapped or mined.
3. Experts are warning that the gold could be tooth fillings, rather than pristine gold blocks.
4. The identity of the two men claiming the 10 per cent fee remains unclear.
5. The location - or even existence - of the train remains unclear."

UPDATE: August 28, 2015 — According to Piotr Zuchowski, head of conservation at the culture ministry, this is what is known right now: 

1. A deathbed confession revealed the existence of the train. We don't know who made that confession.
2. The train's location was then pinpointed with ground-penetrating radar.
3. The train is along a 4km stretch of track on the Wroclaw-Walbrzych line.
4. The train's contents are not certain. However, it could contain gold, art, jewellery and documents.

UPDATE: August 29, 2015 — There has still been no confirmation about what is on the train, but is has been found by ground penetrating radar. The Telegraph has posted a video of the tunnels that are a part of the complex where the train sits. Check it out here.

UPDATE: August 31, 2015 — There was a fire on the embankment where the train is thought to be located. It has been put out, and authorities are saying that it is not arson. 

Police are carefully monitoring the site, as treasure hunters from all over are coming to try and discover something themselves. People are banned from the wooded area near the site. 

The mayor of Walbrzych (the town where the train is supposedly located) says that he is skeptical over the claims of the train's discovery. This contrasts what the culture minister said just a few days ago. 

UPDATE: September 1, 2015 — And it continues... The latest news is that Russia is now claiming that if the train is found, they should be getting at least a part of what is on it. But, according to Poland, the train belongs to Poland and any items found on it will be returned to the heirs of who the original items belonged to. NOT to Russia. 

The Polish military has been called in to help dig and extract the train (if it is really there), ensuring that it can be done safely. 

UPDATE: September 2, 2015 — There is A LOT of speculation going on. As I mentioned yesterday, the military has been brought in, but they are saying that any serious excavations won't begin until the spring! In the meantime, the area is still being flooded with tourists and treasure hunters. Officials and locals are asking that they just dig it up already, so that the question of what is on the train can be settled and not lead to further speculation over the next 6 months. 

Russia is claiming that their "Amber Room" might be what is on the train, which is why they are so insistent that if any of their property is found that it be returned to them. 

There is a great article here with lots of photos and more information. 

UPDATE: September 7, 2015 — The two men who gave the location for the train, Piotr Koper and Andreas Richter, were members of The Lower Silesian Study Group — one of the leading historical societies in south-west Poland. The two men gave the location, and secured the 10% finders fee of the value of whatever was found, without telling the Group which has led to their expulsion from the society. 

The Polish army has now concluded an initial inspection of the site, and a report of what they found should be released soon.

UPDATE: September 10, 2015 — The local council has claimed that it has received notification that there is in fact a "railway tunnel with a multi-level complex of underground corridors from the days of World War II" (source)

They will be holding a press conference on Friday to reveal the contents of the tunnels and the train!! 

UPDATE: September 11, 2015 — There wasn't really anything new revealed at the press conference today. It was confirmed that explosive experts would be needed to make sure that the entrance to the trains is safe. There was also a suggestion that there could be three trains within these tunnels, as it was documented that three trains never reached their destination and have never been found. 

There was NO confirmation about what is on the trains. But there was a confirmation that they were armoured. 

According to the CNBC, "Officials for the Walbrzych District Council, speaking at the same press conference, said they had no doubt that something was down in the structures. They stated that they would work as fast as possible to discover, using radar, the layout and inspect inside these structures."

UPDATE: September 28, 2015 — Poland's army has begun inspecting the site using mine detectors and ground-penetrating radar. The goal is to ensure that there are no booby traps or hazardous material. The governor has not yet released what the plan for excavation will be. He is waiting to see if the site is safe first. 

There is still no confirmation on what the train contains, though there is A LOT of speculation! 

UPDATE: December 12, 2015 — According to mining,com, Polish mining experts are in the final stages of analyzing data taken from earth-penetrating equipment from the site where the train is alleged to be located. They expect to release their findings before Christmas. 

Whatever they discover, digging on the site will probably not take place until spring due to the cold, harsh winter conditions. 

UPDATE: May 10, 2016 — Not much news has emerged regarding the Nazi Train situation since a mining academy did a geological survey in December and said that (though it wasn't definitive) they didn't think that the train was on the site.

Despite this, the two men who originally made the claim — Piotr Koper and Andreas Richter — are getting ready to start digging!

According to The Telegraph, the two men have received permission from the Polish State Railways (the owners of the land) to begin their excavation and they, and their team, are ready to begin!

UPDATE: September 15, 2016 — It has been just over a year now since news broke that a Nazi Treasure Train may have been located in Poland but, according to news stories, the dig that was started earlier this summer has turned up no evidence that there is anything located at the proposed discovery site. 

Search operations have been shut down at the site that caused the most excitement, though the men who have been digging are planning on starting a new excavation at a site nearby if they can retain the proper permits. 

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Must-See New York: Stunning Egyptian Art And Adornments at The Met

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,

On my last trip to New York, I spent hours (and hours and hours) at The Met walking around in awe at all the incredible artifacts that seemed to appear at every turn. The only place I've seen anything comparable is at the Louvre or the British Museum. One thing I found different from both of these museums, however, was the unique and fascinating pieces that were in The Met's Egyptian exhibits. 

Don't get me wrong, the Louvre and the British Museum have incredible collections, but they are largely big pieces displayed for maximum impact, and seeing painted details, jewellery, adornments, or intricate sculptures is rare. These stunning, smaller detailed pieces are what The Met seemed to have in droves. 

I snapped some shots of some of the pieces that I found the most fascinating — things that I had never seen anywhere else — and thought I'd share them with you!

I know that this isn't the greatest photo (shooting through glass is never a great option), but there was something about the expression of this sculpture that caught my eye and I couldn't look away.

This is a face fragment that was part of a full body statue of King Senwosret III who reigned for a period during 1878-1840 BC. The expression is softer than you normally see in sculptures of Egyptian Kings, but the two grooves in the middle of his forehead still evoke a concentration and seriousness. The sculptor did an incredible job of creating the illusion of flesh out of stone. 

I was SO excited when I came across this wig covered in solid gold tubular ornaments. Though this wig is a modern version of a wig that was found on a mummy (the real artifact is way too delicate to display), the ornaments are authentic and date to some time between 1887-1813 BC.

I had never seen anything like this before other than in movies or painted scenes and it was fascinating to see this type of hair decoration up-close and in-person. 

The collection of jewellery at The Met was unlike anything I have seen anywhere else, and I wanted ALL OF IT. There's something about the colour combinations and use of stone that I love (I'm sure it also has something to do with the fact that every piece is giant).

The piece on the left reminded me of something that I would see at a modern-day High Street shop, which I found really interesting. On the right are gold sandals, toe covers, and finger covers, which are also pieces that I have never seen displayed before. 

Again, not the greatest photo, but there was something about those lips, those sassy, sassy lips, that I just couldn't walk away from. 

I love this shot because in the background you see jewellery and incredible blue masks, and to top it all off, this sassy statue of a nude Egyptian woman was absolutely stunning and just full of so much personality! 

Planning Your Visit

Location: The main branch of The Met in New York City — The Met Fifth Avenue — is located on (you guessed it) Fifth Avenue. It backs onto Central Park and covers more than 2 million square feet! 

Opening Hours: Open seven days a week. Sunday to Thursday: 10 am to 5:30 pm, Friday and Saturday: 10 am to 9 pm.

Admission: (note, that this admission policy is fairly new) Admission is free or "pay as you wish" for New York State residents. For all other visitors: $25 for adults, $17 for seniors, and $12 for students. Admission for all children under 12 and Members and Patrons is free.

Note that any full-priced admission ticket is valid for three consecutive days at The Met Fifth AvenueThe Met Breuer, and The Met Cloisters.

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Stunning Egyptian art at The Met

Lion City: The Chinese "Atlantis" Preserved Under Water For More Than 50 Years!

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,

One of the five preserved entrance gates to the city. Most ancient cities only have four gates, which means that this was an important and powerful place at its height. (image source)

About 130 feet under Qiandao Lake in China sits a perfectly preserved city that disappeared under the water in 1959 when the valley where it sat was purposely flooded to make way for the Xin'an River Dam. Almost 300,000 people were relocated.

It stood at the foot of Wu Shi Mountain or Five Lion Mountain, which is where the ancient city got its name: Shi Cheng or Lion City. Originally built at some point between 25-200 AD, the city was once a powerful center in the eastern province it is located in.

Hidden from the sun, wind and other forms of corrosion, wooden structures like this staircase are almost perfectly preserved in the underwater city. (  image source  )

Hidden from the sun, wind and other forms of corrosion, wooden structures like this staircase are almost perfectly preserved in the underwater city. (image source)

The city lay covered and forgotten until 200l when the Chinese government sent an expedition to the lake to see if there was any trace of it still remaining. What they found was released to the public in 2011 and shows that the massive city of five gates, 265 archways, stonework, incredible carvings, city walls, and wooden staircases has been almost perfectly preserved! 

The city is still being explored, mapped and researched, but if you are trained in deep water and night dives, there are dive operators that may be willing to take you out there!

Click here to see more images of this incredible discovery.

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