Journalists Giuseppe Cadili and Valeria Giarrusso knew their charming apartment was rich with history from the moment they bought it. But when they decided to knock down a wall back in 2013, they learned just how rich it was. A close inspection revealed tiny scribbles that hinted something was hiding behind the plaster. They just had no idea what it could be — or what it meant for their home.
Giuseppe Cadili and Valeria Giarrusso first moved into their charming Via Porta di Castro, Sicily, flat in the early 2000s. The old apartment building is located on land that was once the Kemonia river, nearby the Palazzo dei Normanni, AKA the Royal Palace of Palermo.
Palickap / Wikimedia Commons
They had big plans for the Palermo place, hoping to knock down a wall and open up the space. But their renovation project would be met with… complications.
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See, when Giuseppe and Valeria began, they noticed the plaster was oddly damp. “There was a leak inside of a wall,” said Giuseppe. But after wiping down the walls a bit, they noticed something even more peculiar.
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They then detached the wet upper layer of plaster to reveal something nearly magical. “Cleaning it up a bit I realized that there was Arabic writing on it,” he continued. Giuseppe detailed the gold and silver lettering was painted over a blue background in a little room hidden inside the apartment.
“I would never have imagined that the writing covered all four walls,” Giuseppe said. Due to costs, Giuseppe and Valeria waited before getting a restoration expert to assess the mystery behind the walls, but when they eventually did, the couple was astonished by the finding.
They had Gaetano Basile, a connoisseur in Palermo history, assess the golden wall scratches, which included tughra-shaped designs. He described the writing as “artisan versions” of the decorative calligraphy popular in the 1700s.
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He went on to tell Salvatore Ferro of the Giornale di Sicilia newspaper that these markings aren’t of the religious or spiritual variety, but rather they’re simply decorative. “This is a well-known part of our culture, marked by the invention of ‘rabbisco,’ an entirely Sicilian legacy of arabesque design,” he stated.
“The Sicilian artisan, who did not know Arabic, mistook calligraphic verses for decoration, and emulated them. Sicilian carts were full of ‘rabbischi.’” Gaetano continued. Well, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!
Corriere della Sera
“It is likely that the house belonged to a North African nobleman or merchant who had made his home in Palermo around the later 1700s. The owner basically had a mosque built in his house. There are clear indications of this,” said Gaetano. And there you have it… right?
Giornale di Sicilia
As you could imagine, Giuseppe and Valeria were stunned. There was an assumed Islamic place of worship in their very own apartment. And though it’s odd that the supposed mosque was hidden in plain sight, based on the Islamic history in Sicily, it isn’t so odd that it exists.
Today, Palermo holds more than 25,000 immigrants, many of which come from countries with large Muslim populations, such as Bangladesh. Its Arab-Norman architecture only adds to the multiculturalism.
Savin Mattozzi / Al Jazeera
The Imam of Palermo, explained the past of Sicilian religious establishments. “Every church here used to be a mosque, which used to be a synagogue, which used to be a church which was a mosque. This is the history of Sicily.”
Savin Mattozzi / Al Jazeera
As for the couple’s secret mosque, Gaetano explained “it faces east,” towards Mecca, and “the walls are of an identical size – 3.5 by 3.5 meters.” The more they searched, the more they found.
Luca Mancuso / Facebook
“It has doors located in such a way as to prevent the placement of furniture, and the ceiling has a repeating lamp pattern.” But since the people who built the room aren’t around to confirm its initial intentions… there’s been quite a bit of debate.
After mainstream media declared the room to be a mosque, researchers from the University of Heidelberg and the University of Bonn, both of which are German, decided to do a bit more research on the mysterious blue space.
According to Professor Werner Arnold of Heidelberg, the wall text appeared to include a mix of Syriac and Arab letters, completely lacking logical sense. But Chiara Riminucci-Heine of the University of Bonn on the other hand… suggested the room was intended for a magician’s occult practices in relation to “Islamic masonry and esoterism.”
Iqbal Ahmed / The Atlantic
And then Giulia Gallini, an expert in the history of Islamic art and architecture, threw in her two cents, saying the blue room is missing one super important thing to be considered a mosque: the mihrab, or the “semicircular prayer niche.” Either way, the journalistic duo was in awe.
Heparina1985 / Wikimedia Commons
The couple cared too much about respecting deep-seated culture to turn it into a fancy powder room. “We wanted to give the proper weight to this discovery and convey our love for the historic center. Too often things from our past are destroyed instead of bringing them back to life,” Giuseppe explained.
“This is why we decided to keep it as we found it: we put in a sofa and a desk and, out of respect for the Muslim culture, we do not serve alcoholic beverages in this room,” Giuseppe Cadili continued.
Though there’s still much debate surrounding the nature of Palermo’s blue room, sometimes called the “Arab Decor Room,” or more whimsically, Palermo’s “chamber of secrets,” it’s undeniably beautiful. This isn’t the first time a chunk of history has been hidden behind the face of a modern residence.
Lucas Asicona Ramirez made such a historic discovery while fixing up his own home. He and is family live in Chajul, a Guatemalan mountain village surrounded by rich history. Within just miles of the humble town lay endless attractions.
Mount Pleasant Granary
All around Chajul are ancient ruins, colorful cemeteries, bustling flea markets, and so much more. To make a new discovery in such a historic hub of Central America is impressive feat. Once Lucas told the world what he’d found, news crews came running.
Lucas had torn away at the layers of paint on the centuries-old wall. Yes, centuries. Look inside their 300-year-old home and you’ll notice the aged foundation, well-used stove, and recently-installed wood and piping. The Ramirez family mistakenly thought their house was typical for their impoverished village.
Once Lucas reached the final layer, he knew his home was special. At first, he thought he’d found some old damage covered with layers of plaster. But as he explored along the wall, Lucas realized that these markings were intentional.
Casey Fleser / Flickr9
There were colors, lines, shapes, figures… it was an image! Lucas kept chipping until more of the hidden picture was revealed. He saw figures with patterned cloaks, heeled shoes, and strange instruments in their hands. He stopped in fear of causing damage to his amazing discovery!
Photograph by Robert Slabonski
Lucas ran to tell his family about the images, and they gathered around to see. Word quickly spread, prompting the arrival of professional archaeologists to finish off the excavation. It took them weeks to uncover the entirety of the hidden imagery! And it wasn’t just the kitchen.
Painted throughout the Ramirez family’s home was an epic mural. It depicted the people of an ancient Ixil Mayan civilization that once ruled Mesoamerica. That meant the piece was hundreds of years old! However, as historians examined the figures’ clothing, they noticed something strange.
While some of the people in the paintings were sporting traditional Mayan garb, there were many dressed in very uncommon clothing. At least, uncommon to the region. And yet, the clay used to paint the scenes was indigenous to the area. Who could’ve painted it?
Photo by Hallje405
As far as execution, all signs pointed to the Mayans. The artwork’s lines and distinctive shapes had that traditional Mayan flare, which chemical analysis later confirmed. Whoever created the work was tasked not only with capturing the fashion of the time, but also the dance moves.
Photo by Jeanne Menjoulet
The paintings depicted men and women shaking around in a blend of dance styles. Some wore feathers and performed traditional moves while others with long beards banged on drums. Historians quickly realized what they were seeing.
Photo by Cliff
The mural depicted the Mayans interacting with the Spaniards who were brutally colonizing the Americas in the early 1500s. The indigenous people were swiftly enslaved and the original name of the country, Cuautehmallan, was reinterpreted as “Guatemala.” So then… why all the dancing?
You don’t just go into a country, conquer it, and wipe your hands of responsibility. People will fight back if you don’t convince them to join your side. With this in mind, Christian missionaries from Spain attempted to convert the indigenous population using a language they’d understand.
The Spanish missionaries learned the traditional dances of the region and adapted them as tools for conversion, successfully shifting the local belief system to Christianity. Some of the dances in Lucas’s home were long-lost Mayan traditions. Others were just blatant propaganda from Spanish missionaries.
Photo by Christian Ender
There was the Dance of the Conquest, depicting the Spanish invasion of the local Mayans. And then, there was the Dance of the Moors and the Christians, where Spain was shown conquering Muslim kingdoms. But why would local Mayans paint these propagandist murals in the Ramirez family’s home?
Photo by Dan Kitwood
It wasn’t long before the indigenous people fought back against Spain. Despite conversion attempts, the Europeans found the Mayans to be “infidels” who needed to be put down by force. This terrible insult to the cultural and mathematical brilliance of Mayan culture sparked a rebellion.
In an interview with Ruptly, Lucas explained what his family had been told by researchers. One of his great-grandfathers was a key member of a secret group known as the cofradías, or “brotherhood.” They were responsible for organizing religious meetings with an inspiring message that no one could resist.
Ruptly – Youtube
The cofradías sought to capture every event in their lives, including the dances and traditions of both Mayan and Spanish culture. With the rebellion well underway, many residents were eager to bring back the influence of their indigenous past. Since Lucas’s discovery, similar murals have popped up in other parts of Guatemala!
Photo by Jynus
Throughout Chajul and the surrounding area, people began hacking away at their walls in hopes of making similar discoveries as the Ramirez family. Many had enormous success! Ivonne Putzeys, an archaeologist from the University of Guatemala in San Carlos, explained why these finds were so incredible.
“We consider these murals to be very unique,” says Ivonne. “It’s tangible heritage that represent[s] real scenes from history.” To work out the entire history, experts needed to communicate with the people who could help them most: the Ixil.
Without the local Ixil people, researchers never would have never been able to identify the key components of these murals. As the paintings now fade from light exposure, photographs are all we have left to remember this chapter of Mayan history. Meanwhile, experts are desperate to uncover other evidence from the region.
Photograph by Robert Slabonski
When archeologist Guillermo de Anda and his crew arrived in the ancient city of Chichén Itzá on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, their original mission was to better understand the ancient Maya civilization.
More specifically, they wanted to access and study what is called a cenote, a sinkhole the ancient tribes believed were portals of access to the underworld. The cenote they sought was allegedly beneath the Temple of Kukulka.
Their plans changed, however, when a local told them about “The Cave of the Jaguar God.” Besides a totally awesome name, the cave was steeped in a history Guillermo couldn’t ignore.
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See, archeologist Víctor Segovia Pinto had visited the cave in 1966 and, in an apparently unspecific report, noted “extensive amounts of archeological material” hidden inside. Instead of excavating it, however, he curiously ordered the cave sealed up.
Over the next 50 years, most locals of the former-Mayan settlement forgot about Jaguar God. So Guillermo and his crew were delighted by the opportunity to find what Víctor had ignored. They knew what caves meant to the Mayans.
As Mayan expert Holley Moyes said, because of their believed connection to the underworld, “Caves and cenotes… represent some of the most sacred spaces for the Maya, ones that also influenced site planning and social organization.”
So, refocusing their energies on the potential of Jaguar God, Guillermo and his crew recruited a Mayan priest to conduct a 6-hour purification ritual. This would ensure their safe journey into the potential holy hot spot.
Their offering to the cave guardians was modest: honey, a fermented drink called pozole, and even tobacco, but it got the job done. Officially protected in the eyes of Maya, they entered the long-sealed cave.
Kayla Ortega via NPR
Inside was a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare: for well over an hour, Guillermo crawled on his stomach through narrow, twisting tunnels, only a headlamp illuminating the pathway.
Guillermo didn’t seem to mind. “I’ve analyzed human remains in [Chichén Itzá’s] Sacred Cenote,” he said. “But nothing compares to the sensation I had entering, alone, for the first time in that cave. You almost feel the presence of the Maya.”
After an hour-and-half of painstakingly slow crawling, his helmet finally illuminated something curious.” I couldn’t speak,” Guillermo recalled of the moment he finally understood what he saw. “I started to cry.”
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It wasn’t that he’d finally reached a chamber with enough room to stand up in that made him cry, either. Rather, he’d stumbled upon the archeological equivalent of a winning lotto ticket.
Piles of ancient artifacts lay before him: grinding stones, decorated plates, and more, all in “an excellent state of preservation,” despite looking like they were caked in a few billion years’ worth of mud.
Impressively, thanks to centuries of dripping water, stalactites formed around some of the ancient artifacts and ritual objects, like this incense burner. All in all, there were about 150 well-preserved items in that cave!
Kayla Ortega via NPR
“Thinking about Maya in ancient times going there, through those passageways, crawling with a big incense burner and a torch,” Guillermo said, “you see how important these caves were for them.”
Along with giving Guillermo newfound respect for the Maya, the cave and the items inside, he knew, would provide invaluable information on the tribe’s rituals — and more.
Karla Ortega / Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History
“Jaguar God can tell us not only the moment of collapse of Chichén Itzá,” Guillermo surmised. “It can also probably tell us the moment of its beginning.”
Viajes National Geographic
“Now we have a sealed context,” he continued, “with a great quantity of information, including usable organic matter, that we can use to understand the development of Chichén Itzá.”
More than that, though, experts believe further study of the area will shed some light on the region’s climate, and how disastrous droughts possibly led to the Maya’s mysterious first demise.
“By studying these caves and cenotes,” National Geographic archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert said, “it’s possible to learn some lessons for how to best use the environment today, in terms of sustainability for the future.”
NPR via Karla Ortega
For this reason, Guillermo believed his work in archeology was truly saving the world. By studying Maya, he said, “we can understand the footprints of humankind’s past, and what was happening on Earth during one of the most dramatic moments in history.”
But Guillermo’s profession was noble for reasons beyond that which he listed. Thousands of miles from Jaguar God, for instance, archeologists used science to answer a 14,000-year-old question about some of our earliest ancestors.
Specifically, the Heiltsuk people, the First Nation indigenous to British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, have laid claim to the remote Triquet Island for nearly 5,000 years. But archaeologists dismissed their claim of ownership at first for one glaring reason.
Simon Fraser University
The continental glacier that formed over Canada during the last Ice Age would’ve also covered Triquet Island, making it uninhabitable. But even with the facts stacked against the Heiltsuk, a small group of researchers took it upon themselves to uncover the truth once and for all.
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The archaeologists began an extensive excavation of the remote island in the hope of discovering traces of a past civilization. What they found there not only shocked the entire archaeological community, but it also changed history forever.
Beneath several layers of earth, they found remnants of an ancient, wood-burning hearth. But how could this be? According to researchers, it would’ve been impossible for humans to dig their way through the glacial ice to get to the soil below.
As they continued digging, researchers unearthed additional artifacts, including tools and weapons. This discovery stumped the team as the Heiltsuk people traditionally didn’t use tools of this kind.
The Heiltsuk people had derived their food source from fishing and smoking salmon, utilizing small, precise tools to harvest the fish. The tools and weapons found were much larger and likely would’ve been used to hunt large sea mammals, such as seals, sea lions, and walruses.
What’s more, the team also uncovered shards of obsidian, a glass-like rock only found in areas of heavy volcanic activity. This discovery also puzzled the archaeologists, as there were no known volcanoes near that part of British Columbia. So, how did this rock — and these people — get there?
The historians deduced that whoever left these artifacts must have traversed the land bridge that existed between Siberia and Alaska during prehistoric times. Yet researchers still needed cold-hard facts…
Luckily, a closer inspection of the hearth revealed ancient charcoal remains, which the archaeologists quickly brought to the lab for carbon dating. When they received the results, the researchers couldn’t believe their eyes: everything they knew was a lie.
According to the carbon dating report, these bits of charcoal were an astonishing 14,000 years old, making them the oldest carbon remains ever to be discovered in North America.
Even by global standards, this was an extraordinary find. After all, these simple pieces of charcoal were older than the Great Pyramid of Giza and even predated the invention of the wheel! But that’s not the most remarkable fact about this discovery.
The 14,000-year-old discovery placed the earliest Heiltsuk at Triquet Island 2,000 years before the end of the ice age. Therefore, the island couldn’t have been covered by the massive continental glacier. And that’s not all.
Since Triquet Island was surrounded on all sides by water, the early Heiltsuk would’ve used boats to traverse the open waters. Boats, however, were not believed to have been invented until centuries later.
This meant that the Heiltsuk settled the area 2,000 years before initially believed. If this was the case, then these early men likely crossed paths with some of history’s most formidable beasts.
As the Heiltsuk people made their way south from the land bridge, they likely had to fend off giant creatures like mastodons, woolly mammoths, and giant sloths. But somehow, these humans survived, and it’s likely for one crucial reason.
Thanks to the Pacific Ocean itself, the sea level at Triquet Island remained constant for over 15,000 years. So as the sea gradually eroded the surrounding islands, the great beasts of the Pacific Northwest were kept at bay, leaving the Heiltsuk to a peaceful, secluded existence.
The most astounding realization that’s come to light is the fact that the Heiltsuk people were able to preserve their history orally for nearly 14,000 years. However, they are still being deprived of their history’s legitimacy.
When the media caught wind of the story, they seemed to focus more on what the discovery meant for the scientific community rather than acknowledge the rich history of the Heiltsuk. To many, the media’s portrayal of the nation was seen as highly disrespectful.
As a result, University of Victoria student Alisha Gauvreau — who was present during the excavation — has dedicated herself to shifting the focus of the dialogue toward the Heiltsuk people.
The Heiltsuk claim to Triquet Island stands as one of the oldest land-ownership claims in the world. Not only does this discovery speak volumes about the strength of the Heiltsuk people, but it also represents the indomitable spirit of mankind.
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