The World's Strangest Monuments
A sculpture of a dead horse strung upside down, with Saint Wenceslas mounted on its belly: that’s the odd sight that greets visitors to Prague’s Lucerna Palace. In a city revered for its Gothic beauty, this supine equine—with its tongue lolling out of its mouth and its tail hanging lifelessly—catches most people off-guard. Yet its subject and placement are hardly random: in 1999, artist David Cerny created it as a spoof of the right-side-up Wenceslas horse sculpture nearby.
Typically, of course, monuments are built to commemorate a significant event or celebrate an extraordinary life. But not all of them are heroic paeans to military victories; plenty, like Cerny’s dead horse, tend toward the bizarre. Some are created to shock and disturb, while others are meant to make a statement, tell a story, or just entertain. Still others have unknown origins. Either way, these strange creations are often worth seeking out, as they can help visitors get to know a place through its quirky traditions and local oddities.
Quirky tradition, in fact, is the entire reason that a number of travelers visit the Duke of Wellington statue in Scotland. The monument itself is so typical as to be unremarkable: a poised aristocrat rides atop a regal steed. But for the last 20 years it has been a magnet for pranksters, who scale the statue most nights to top the nobleman’s head with traffic cones. Though it started as a weekend prank for locals wandering home after a few drinks, the coning of the Duke soon escalated into a year-round game.
But strange monuments can reflect a more serious side of history as well. Statues like Cerny’s horse in previously Communist countries are often meant to demonstrate the sense of humor that survived in spite of an oppressive regime. Others reconfigure Soviet-era relics to serve as a reminder of the painful past, like the collection of cast-off Communist statues in Budapest’s Memento Park. Not surprisingly, visitors here find an unending parade of grandiose monuments saluting the red regime. But one of the park’s more unique pieces is a colossal pair of boots standing alone on an even larger pedestal—a replica of what remained after a mob toppled a 27-foot-tall Stalin statue in 1956.
For some unconventional statues, sheer size is what sets it apart. And size was clearly the point of the 131-foot-tall, 250-ton Genghis Khan statue unveiled in 2008 in the remote Mongolian steppe. The stainless steel giant—an epic symbol of the rapidly growing Mongolian nationalist movement—is visible from miles away.
Charge your camera batteries before visiting these monuments: You might need photographic evidence to prove that they’re not just a figment of your jet-lagged mind.
Saint Wenceslas Riding a Dead Horse, Prague
What It Commemorates: Saint Wenceslas, Bohemia’s patron saint.
What Makes It Strange: For almost 100 years—even during the dark days of Communist rule—the grand sculpture of Saint Wenceslas in Prague’s Wenceslas Square has been a source of national pride. But today, even the revered saint isn’t spared from the Czechs’ irreverent senses of humor. Sculptor David Cerny’s parody of the St. Wenceslas statue, hanging in the Lucerna Palace mere yards from the original, is of Wenceslas mounted atop the belly of a dead horse that’s been strung upside down.
Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue, TsonjinBoldog, Mongolia
What It Commemorates: The infamous founder of the Mongolian Empire, known locally as Chinggis Khaan.
What Makes It Strange: The 131-foot-tall, 250-ton stainless steel statue, unveiled in 2008 and located an hour’s drive from Ulaanbaatar, is the world’s largest equestrian statue. Visitors can take an elevator to the viewing deck on the horse’s head and look out on the expansive Mongolian steppe. Until 20 years ago, Mongolia’s Communist government banned any celebration of the military leader, but in a surge of nationalism, Mongols have slapped his image and name on everything from an airport to a university and bottles of vodka. The statue is part of a planned theme park featuring nomadic lodging and restaurants serving horsemeat.
Duke of Wellington Statue, Glasgow
What It Commemorates: Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington and commander of the British forces that defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.
What Makes It Strange: For the past 20 years, this innocuous statue—erected in 1844 on Glasgow’s Queen Street—has been a magnet for late-night pranksters, who scale the statue and top it with traffic cones. Locals argue that the cones are an integral part of the statue, as well as the city’s identity. The government doesn’t agree. City workers knock off the cones with a high-powered water jet, and police have threatened to prosecute the pranksters. But since the public has ignored these warnings, anyone caught putting cones on the Duke is simply told to move on.
Kindlifresser (Child Eater) Fountain, Bern, Switzerland
What It Commemorates: Legends abound, but no one is sure what it means.
What Makes It Strange: Though it sounds like an outlandish piece of modern art, the Kindlifresser, or “Child Eater” fountain, has scared the children of Bern since 1546. Dressed in vibrant red and green robes, the rotund Kindlifresser is munching on an infant’s head, while more distraught babies await their grim fate in his knapsack. Some postulate that the statue served as a warning to Bern’s Jewish community, because the cannibal’s hat resembles the yellow pointed version Jews were forced to wear in that era. Others say it is Kronos the Titan from Greek mythology, who ate his children to prevent them from usurping his throne. Most likely, though, the fountain was created as a sort of boogieman to remind the town’s children to behave.
Fengdu Ghost City, Fengdu, China
What It Commemorates: This necropolis is modeled after the Chinese version of hell.
What Makes It Strange: During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), two court officials named Yin and Wang moved to Mount Mingshan to obtain enlightenment. Combined, the surnames of this mystical pair sound like “King of Hell” in Chinese, and ever since, locals deemed this a gathering place for spirits. The Ghost City that developed is a complex of Buddhist and Taoist temples adorned with macabre demon statues dismembering humans as they guard the entrance to the netherworld. Landmarks bear frightening names, such as “Last Glance at Home Tower,” “Nothing-to-Be-Done Bridge,” and “Ghost Torturing Pass.” Ironically, the area is literally a ghost city now because of the massive Three Gorges Dam project, completed in 2009, which flooded the town and forced the region’s residents to relocate. Mount Mingshan is now a peninsula that is visited mostly by tourists on Yangtze River cruises.
Mannekin Pis, Brussels
What It Commemorates: There are many legends, none of which can be confirmed.
What Makes It Strange: An icon of Belgium, this diminutive statue of a boy peeing has been stolen several times by invading armies and rival cities in Flanders; today it attracts hordes of tourists. The most popular legend about its origin tells of a boy who disappeared; a few days later, his father found the boy relieving himself and was so happy he built a monument.
CalderMercury Fountain, Barcelona
What It Commemorates: The siege of Almadén, one of the largest mercury mines in the world, by Franco’s troops during the Spanish Civil War.
What Makes It Strange: Keep your hands away from this one. Poisonous liquid mercury pours through a series of iron and aluminum troughs, splashes against a metal piece that sets a mobile in motion, and cascades into a circular pool of deadly metal. American sculptor Alexander Calder designed the fountain as an anti-fascist tribute for the Spanish Republican government for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris (where it was displayed opposite Picasso’s Guernica). Calder eventually donated his fountain to the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, where it is encased behind glass.
Headington Shark, Headington, Oxfordshire, England
What It Commemorates: The dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
What Makes It Strange: Officially called Untitled 1986, the 25-foot-tall beast known commonly as the Headington Shark appears to have crashed headfirst through the roof of a quaint British home. House owner Bill Heine commissioned the work as a reaction to nuclear power and as an expression of someone “ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation.” Made of metal, polyester resin, and plaster, among other things, the shark was originally viewed as an incongruous eyesore that the city council desperately tried to remove. Today it is accepted as a landmark.
Georgia Guidestones, Elberton, GA
What It Commemorates: The monument serves as a set of directions for rebuilding civilization after the apocalypse.
What Makes It Strange: Designed and commissioned by an anonymous group, the Georgia Guidestones consist of five 16-foot-tall granite slabs, arranged in a star-shaped pattern, that function as a compass, calendar, and clock (drawing comparisons to England’s Stonehenge). Some local Christians deem the creations the “Ten Commandments of the Antichrist” for their unsettling nature. (One guide reads, “Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.”) The stones have their fans though, including covens of witches and Yoko Ono.
Memento Park, Budapest
What It Commemorates: Hungary’s Communist past.
What Makes It Strange: Most Eastern European countries ceremoniously destroyed Soviet-era relics once they gave occupying forces the boot. However, rather than demolish all vestiges of a painful past, the city of Budapest removed 42 statues from prominent locations and placed them in a suburban park. Statues of Lenin, Marx, and Engels are all displayed, along with the Boots, a 1-to-1 replica of the remainder of a 27-foot-tall Stalin statue that an angry crowd tore down in 1956.
Underwater Gallery, Grenada
What It Commemorates: Reef ecosystems.
What Makes It Strange: This series of sculptures in the clear, shallow waters off the coast of Grenada has one highly unusual characteristic: it is accessible only to divers (though it can also be viewed through glass-bottomed boats). Sculptor Jason de Caires Taylor created the works, a series of human figures in various groupings and settings, as the world’s first underwater sculpture park, which also serves as an artificial reef to promote conservation awareness.