The Hidden Side of Some of the World's Most Famous Monuments

Editorial Feature

By Google Arts & Culture

Mt. Rushmore (1940-07) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

A behind-the-scenes peek at some of the secrets hiding in plain sight

Though you most likely have at least heard of — and may have even visited — many of the monuments on this list, what you probably didn’t know are some of the remarkable secrets that lie behind and beneath them, just waiting to be discovered.

A secret door behind Lincoln’s Head on Mount Rushmore


Tucked just behind the face of ‘ol Honest Abe on the massive Black Hills, South Dakota sculpture known as Mt. Rushmore is a hidden room 75 feet long and 18 feet tall that has been blasted into the side of the mountain.

Mt. Rushmore, Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1940-07 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Known as the “Hall of Records” by its creator, Gutzon Borglum (the enigmatic sculptor who also carved all those famous Presidential faces), the room was originally intended to be a repository for all the important founding documents and history that would explain the significance of the monument to future generations.

South Dakota (1940) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

South Dakato, Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1940-07 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

In 1938, Borglum ordered workers to begin blasting away at the rock to make room for more busts of famous Americans and their writings.

Tiny police station hidden in Trafalgar Square


Another “secret room” next to a sculpture (in this case, Admiral Horatio Nelson, who sits atop a pedestal there) can be found inside a hollowed-out lamp post on the site of London’s famous Trafalgar Square.

Built in 1926 and looking like the TARDIS from Dr. Who, “Britain’s smallest police station” once held up to two prisoners — or, more typically, just one police officer, whose job it was to scan the Square for trouble from protesters. Today, the police station has been closed, leaving space for its current use: a broom closet.

The Sainsbury Wing, The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, Westminster, Greater London (2015-01-19) by Chris Redgrave, Historic EnglandHistoric England

The Sainsbury Wing, The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, Westminster, Greater London, Chris Redgrave, Historic England, 2015-01-19 (From the collection of Historic England)

Gaudí’s final resting place


Longer in construction time than the Great Pyramid in Egypt, Antoni Gaudí ‘s famous cathedral, the Sagrada Familia (which to this day remains unfinished), is a marvel of modern architecture.

Gaudi’s approach to design was so simple and organic — focusing on the most basic of geometric forms — that he felt any architect who came after him would be able to follow his blueprints. In fact, it was his very “democratic” intention to allow future architects to put their own stamp on the building.

Inside the Sagrada Familia

Beginning in the early 1910s, Gaudi had grown so devoted to his work on the Sagrada Familia that he moved into his workshop in the cathedral, neglecting his personal hygiene and - by 1914 - devoting himself exclusively to the project.

In fact, so unrecognizable had he become at the time of his death on June 10th, 1926 - which occurred as a result of injuries sustained when he was struck by a tram a few days earlier. The 73-year old Gaudi was at first mistaken as a beggar and given substandard care, a fact that may have contributed to his death.

He was eventually recognized by the chaplain of the cathedral, however, and given a hero’s burial in the crypt of the very cathedral that would become a lasting-but-to-this-date-unfinished monument to his fame. The completion date for the beloved basilica is set for 2026, which would be the 100th anniversary of his death.

Great Wall of China considered as world’s longest cemetery


At over 4,000 miles long and often billed as being visible from space, the walls, battlements, and beacon towers of the Great Wall of China are remarkable by any measure. But did you know the Wall is also frequently referred to as the “Longest Graveyard (or ‘Cemetery’) on Earth”? That’s because over the centuries of its construction, which began as early as the 3rd century and accelerated during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), close to 1 million people are said to have died in the building process. “Bricks” and stones can definitely break one’s bones.

The Great Wall (1985) by Qian SongyanHong Kong Museum of Art

The Great Wall, Qian Songyan, 1985 (From the collection of Hong Kong Museum of Art)

3000-Year-Old Temples of Abu Simbel Were Moved in 1960


The Temple site of Abu Simbel is one of the most remarkable architectural achievements of ancient times. The largest of the two temples at the site contains two seated statues of the famous pharaoh Ramesses II (1303-1213 BCE) that stand at 69 feet tall a piece and the smaller temples at nearly 33 feet high.

[Nubia - Temple of Abu Simbel] (1880–1889) by Antonio BeatoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Nubia - Temple of Abu Simbel, Antonio Beato, 1880 - 1889 (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Egypt (1947) by Eliot ElisofonLIFE Photo Collection

Egypt, Eliot Elisofon, 1947 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Even more remarkable than these figures, however, is the fact that both temples were moved in 1968 to make room for a modern-day, more practical kind of monument: the High Dam at Aswan, to protect the landmark from rising tides and water damage.

At a cost of nearly $42 million dollars, five years, and the labor of nearly 3,000 people, moving the Temple of Abu Simbel constitutes one of the great wonders of world in its own right, involving cutting and moving pieces weighing between 3 and 20 tons.

By Terence SpencerLIFE Photo Collection

Terence Spencer, 1966 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

By Terence SpencerLIFE Photo Collection

Terence Spencer, 1966 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

The Pope’s Secret Underground Passage


Known as the Passetto di Borgo and stretching some 2,600 feet from Vatican City to the Castel Sant’Angelo, there is a secret passage that served as a papal escape route for several popes over the centuries.

Construction on the tunnel began in 850 CE and achieved its current form in 1277 under Pope Nicholas III. Pope Alexander VI completed the wall just in time to use it to flee an invasion by the French in 1492, the same year Columbus sailed to America.

2Nd Vatican Council (1965) by Carlo BavagnoliLIFE Photo Collection

2nd Vatican Council, Carlo Bavagnoli, 1965 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

The last pope to use it for the purpose of escape was Clement VII in 1527, who fled nearly 20,000 troops who had mutinied against Charles V (many of the famous Swiss Guard were not so lucky, with 147 of 189 perishing). Today, tourists can “escape” the heat of summer by touring the cavernous passetto when it is opened to the public.

View of the Castel Sant'Angelo (1690/1710) by Gaspar van WittelMusei Capitolini

View of the Castel Sant'Angelo, Caspar van Wittel, 1690/1710 (From the collection of Musei Capitolini)

The Taj Mahal: A Palace of Illusions


The architects who designed the Taj Mahal built several optical illusions into the Taj to create a sense of mystery befitting such a magnificent structure. One such illusion is the fact that, paradoxically, the structure actually appears closer and larger from farther away at the main entrance, then seems to recede and grow smaller as you approach. In addition, the pillars which flank the mausoleum appear upright, while actually leaning outward so as to fall away from the palace in the event of an earthquake.

This brief tour of the mysteries to be found at the sites of several monuments illustrates perfectly the truth of the famous saying that there’s “more than meets the eye” when it comes to the stories that lie behind some of the world’s most famous monuments.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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