In the Beginning: Your prayers have been answered!

Well, almost. With just 6 (six!) days to go until our new book's release, mental_floss is happy to present another set of origins. Enjoy!

Holy Architecture!

When it comes to the history of religious architecture, we pray we've got the facts right.

Karnak: One Beautiful Pyramid Scheme

80px-SFEC_EGYPT_KARNAK_2006-002.JPG.jpgNo religious site in Egypt dazzles more than the Karnak. The largest temple ever built, the Karnak is really a complex sprawling across 247 acres of land and constructed over 2,000 years, starting in the 15th century B.C.E. The ancient name of the temple, Ipetisut, means "the most sacred of places," and the main temple was dedicated to Amon, the central god of Thebes.

Unlike other religious structures—dedicated to one or a few deities—the Karnak represents every god and goddess from Egyptian civilization throughout two millennia. As each ruler came into power, he added new images, courts, halls, truncated pyramids (called pylons),and sphinxes. From a design stand point, the different influences created a site without a coherent style, but they also etched the history of Egypt in stone
In ways that we wouldn't usually see. Later generations tend to tear down the work of the civilizations that came before them, but instead the Karnak shows off the work of generations of ancient builders, making it a time capsule of the Egyptian empire.

Stupafly: The Great Stupa at Sanchi

36075-Great-Stupa-1.jpgFor the origin of this religious site, first we'd better explain what a stupa is. The earliest Buddhist religious monument, a stupa is simply a mound of mud, clay, or other materials used to cover relics of the Buddha. But let's back up for a second. After the Buddha passed away some time around the 4th century B.C.E., he wasn't buried immediately. Instead his remains were cremated and divided to be buried under eight stupas (plus two more for the urn and the embers). We don't know which were the original monuments, but the Sanchi is rumored to be an embellishment of one of the mounds.

After the Indian emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism in the 3rd century B.C.E., in a fit of religious zeal, he had the original stupas opened and the remains redistributed to the thousands of stupas he'd built in honor of the Buddha. Ashoka also commissioned the Great Stupa at Sanchi—a half globe structure made of bricks built over the Buddha's ashes with an accompanying obelisk to mark the spot. The interesting part about the decision to build the grand structure was that Sanchi wasn't considered sacred because of any event in Buddha's life—or even the lives of the Buddhist monks. Rather, it was chosen because the Hill of Sanchi was very near the richly populated city of Vidisa, plus two important trade routes and rivers, and because it was visible from a distance (thanks to the height of the hill). Most important, though, it was both quiet and secluded (the best atmosphere for meditation). Location,location,location!

Dome Improvement: The Church of Hagiya Sophia (Ayasofya)

More after the jump!

800px-Aya_sofya.jpgHagia Sophia was the seat of the archbishop of Constantinople, but it was also a church built to withstand disaster, and we'll tell you why. The first church constructed on the same site in the 4th century was destroyed. The second, built by Constantius II, burned down during riots. So, when the Emperor Justinian I rebuilt the church again in 532"“537, he hired a physicist (Isidore of Miletus) and a mathematician (Anthemius of Tralles) as architects to create a fireproof building.

Though they succeeded in protecting the building from fire, they didn't do quite as well with the dome. The architects placed 40 windows around its base, which gave the Hagia Sophia its famous mystical light reflecting everywhere in the central part of the church and also gave the dome the appearance of hovering above. To make the design work, the architects used pendentives (triangular wedges cut from a sphere) for the first time successfully. Unfortunately, despite the cleverly designed dome, the building had weak walls—made with more mortar than brick. So, once the dome was on top of the building, the weight forced the walls to lean out.

Sadly, the dome collapsed after an earthquake in 558,and the replacement crumbled in 563. Eventually, an Armenian architect named Trdat repaired the damage in 989,and the church became a Roman Catholic cathedral during the Latin occupation at the beginning of the 13th century. The Turks Invaded Constantinople two centuries later and turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque, but eventually the building was turned into the Ayasofya Museum in 1935, by order of the Turkish president Kemal Atatürk.

St. Peter's Basilica: Where Cost Isn't an Issue

300px-Petersdom_von_Engelsburg_gesehen.jpgYou simply can't put a price tag on faith. Replacing an earlier St. Peter's Basilica built over the tomb of St. Peter in 323 C.E., the 1506 building was designed for Pope Julius II by Bramante. After Bramante's death, he was eventually replaced by Michelangelo, who built a basilica in the form of a Greek cross with five cupolas (small domes). Of course, the renovations hardly stopped with Michelangelo and continued on far after his death. In the end, all of the additions of the 15th through 17th centuries ratcheted up the price significantly.

So, just for the record, two huge semicircles, 280 columns with 160 statues of saints, two fountains in the square, and an Egyptian obelisk: over $48 million. Building the largest church in the world right next to the residence of the Pope: priceless.

The Parthenon: Virgin 2.0

200px-Parthenon_from_west.jpgThe most famous (and arguably the most structurally perfect) building in Greece is named for a famous ethereal virgin. No, not that one. We're talking about the Greek goddess Athena. Built in the 5th century B.C.E. on the acropolis of Athens, the Parthenon houses the cult statue of Athena Parthenos, which translates to "Athena the Virgin."

Surprisingly, the Parthenon replaced an older temple of Athena, destroyed by Xerxes I of Persia in 480 B.C.E. Under the authority of statesman Pericles, architects and sculptors began work on the Parthenon In 447B.C.E. and finished it a mere nine years later (lightning fast, compared to some temple timelines). The building shows off the delicate harmony of Greek architecture and sculpture, with carefully curved Doric columns and high-relief representations of battles between the gods and the Amazons and even the Greeks and centaurs. Of course, if that wasn't impressive enough, there was always the giant gold and ivory statue of Athena within.

Some scholars claim that the temple wasn't technically a religious site—it was used more as a treasury, which is technically true. Still, the statue and the temple survived as monuments to Athena for almost a thousand years. That is, until the 5th century C.E. when the statue was stolen and the temple was converted to a Christian church in honor of yet another virgin—Mary.

51yai+MKH5L._AA240_.jpgCan't wait the 6 days for In the Beginning? Pre-order your copy at any of these fine stores today: Amazon, B&N, Borders, Books-A-Million. Oh, and if you e-mail us your proof of purchase at newsletters@mentalfloss.com, we'll send you an autographed sticker to place in the book!

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9 Things You Should Keep in Mind Around Someone Observing Ramadan
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To mark the ninth (and most holy) month in the Islamic calendar, Muslims around the world observe Ramadan. Often compared to Lent in Christianity and Yom Kippur in Judaism, Ramadan is all about restraint. For one month, Muslims observing Ramadan fast during the day and then feast at night.

By abstaining from food and water (as well as sex, smoking, fighting, etc.) during daylight, Muslims strive to practice discipline, instill gratitude for what they have, and draw closer to Allah. To be respectful and not annoy observers, here are nine things you should never say or do to someone observing Ramadan.

1. DON'T JOKE ABOUT WEIGHT LOSS.

A traditional iftar meal.
A traditional iftar meal.
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Although it might be tempting to joke about Ramadan being a good excuse to lose weight, it is a time for spiritual reflection and is a serious matter. Observers undertake the challenge of fasting for religious and spiritual reasons rather than aesthetic ones. And, once the sun sets each night, many Muslims prepare a hearty iftar (the meal that breaks the fast) of dates, curries, rice dishes, and other delicious foods. The suhoor (the pre-dawn meal) is often fresh fruit, bread, cheese, and dishes that are high in fiber and complex carbohydrates. So the idea of a cleanse is pretty far from their minds.

2. DON'T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS.

An Indian Muslim student recites from the Quran in a classroom during the holy month of Ramadan.
NOAH SEELAM, AFP/Getty Images

There are approximately 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, but not all of them observe Ramadan the same way. Although most observant Muslims fast for Ramadan, don't assume that every Muslim you meet has the same methods, traditions, and attitudes towards fasting. For some, Ramadan is more about prayer, reading the Qur'an, and performing acts of charity than merely about forgoing food and drink. And for those who may be exempted from the daily fasting, such as pregnant or nursing women, the elderly, or those with various health conditions, they might not appreciate the reminder from nosey busy-bodies that they aren't participating in the traditional way.

3. SAY "RAMADAN MUBARAK" INSTEAD OF "HAPPY RAMADAN."

A sign which reads
A sign which reads "Ramadan Kareem" in Arabic is seen pictured in front of the Burj Khalifa in downtown Dubai.
GIUSEPPE CACACE, AFP/Getty Images

Rather than wishing someone a happy Ramadan, being more thoughtful with your choice of words can show that you understand and respect the sanctity of their holy month. Saying "Ramadan Mubarak" or "Ramadan Kareem" are the traditional ways to impart warm wishes—they both convey the generosity and blessings associated with the month. The actual party comes after Ramadan, when Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, an up to three-day festival that involves plenty of food, time with family, and gifts.

4. DON'T BE A FOOD PUSHER.

Muslim woman saying no to an apple.
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Even if the idea of not eating or drinking all day might be unfathomable to you, don't push food onto anyone observing Ramadan. While fasting all day for a month can cause mild fatigue, dehydration, and dizziness, don't try to convince participating Muslims to eat or drink something—they are fully aware of any side effects they may feel throughout the day. Instead, be respectful of their decision to fast and offer to lend a hand with something like chores, errands, or anything unrelated to food.

5. ACCEPT THAT WATER ISN'T ON THE MENU.

Dates and a glass of water.
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Muslims who observe Ramadan don't sip any liquids during daytime. No water, coffee, tea, or juice. Zilch. Going without water is even harder than going without food, so be aware of the struggle and accept it. It's all part of the sacrifice and self-discipline inherent in Ramadan.

6. RESPECT PEOPLE'S PRIVACY.

Pregnant woman doing yoga.
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Some Muslims choose not to fast during Ramadan for medical or other personal reasons, and they may not appreciate being badgered with questions about why they may be eating or drinking rather than fasting. Children and the elderly generally don't fast all day, and people who are sick are exempt from fasting. Other conditions that preclude fasting during Ramadan are pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menstruation (although, if possible, people generally make up the days later).

7. BE MINDFUL OF ENERGY LEVELS.

Woman running on the beach.
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Eschewing food and drink for hours at a time can cause lethargy, so be aware that Muslims observing Ramadan may be more tired than usual. Your Muslim friends and coworkers don't stop working for an entire month, but they may tweak their schedules to allow for more rest. They may also stay indoors more (to prevent overheating) and avoid unnecessary physical activity to conserve energy. So, don't be offended if they aren't down for a pick-up game of basketball or soccer. We can't all be elite athletes.

8. DON'T OBSESS OVER FOOD AND HUNGER.

Family playing in the park.
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One of the worst things you can do to someone on a new diet is to obsess over all the cheeseburgers, pizza, and cupcakes they can't have. Similarly, most Muslims observing Ramadan don't want to have in-depth conversations about all the food and beverages they're avoiding. So, be mindful that you don't become the constant reminder of how many hours are left until sundown—just as you shouldn't joke about weight loss, you shouldn't call attention to any hunger pangs.

9. DON'T BE AFRAID TO EAT YOUR OWN FOOD.

Coworkers discussing a project on couches.
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Although it's nice to avoid talking about food in front of a fasting Muslim, don't be afraid to eat your own food as you normally would. Seeing other people eating and drinking isn't offensive—Muslims believe that Ramadan is all about sacrifice and self-discipline, and they're aware that not everyone participates. However, perhaps try to avoid scheduling lunch meetings or afternoon barbecues with your Muslim colleagues and friends. Any of those can surely wait until after Ramadan ends.

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9 Common Misperceptions About Religious Observances
A view of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on May 18, 2018.
A view of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on May 18, 2018.
AHMAD GHARABLI, AFP/Getty Images

Religion can be confusing. Not only do many religions have similar philosophies and holidays, for many of the world's most widely practiced religions, the details for observing certain holidays or rites can differ based on location, denomination, or modernization. And for those who are less familiar with a particular religion, the details can be easy to overlook. From Ramadan to Advent to Bathing the Buddha, we break down nine common misconceptions surrounding popular religious observances.

1. WHAT'S WRONG: RAMADAN IS A HOLIDAY.

A Muslim man reads from the Koran at a Mosque in Nairobi on May 17, 2018 during the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
SIMON MAINA, AFP/Getty Images

"In American thinking, we think of [Ramadan] as a holiday because that's the way we associate important religious dates as holidays," Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, told NPR. "It's not a holiday in the sense that life goes on. The last day of the holy month, which is Eid ul-Fitr, is a holiday and there are periods in between that are holidays. But as a whole, it's not a holiday."

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar (which is a lunar calendar, which explains why the date moves in relation to the Gregorian calendar). It's significant because the Qur'an was first revealed, and the gates of Heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed, during this time.

Lailat al Qadr is the actual night of the revelation of the Qur'an, and praying on that night is said to be "better than a thousand months." But no one knows what night it actually was, only that it was probably in the last 10 days of the month. As such, the last 10 days of Ramadan are generally treated as special days.

The main holiday associated with Ramadan is Eid al-Fitr (or Eid ul-Fitr), which marks the end of the month and the end of fasting.

2. WHAT'S WRONG: THE RAMADAN FAST IS ALL ABOUT NOT EATING.

A Muslim family sits around an iftar meal during the month of Ramadan in a park outside a mosque in Turkey.
A Muslim family sits around an iftar meal during the month of Ramadan in a park outside a mosque in Diyabakir, Turkey
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In the West, much of the attention is focused on how, for the month of Ramadan, Muslims don't eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. But that's only part of the story—Muslims are also supposed to abstain from sex, fighting, smoking, bad thoughts, and sometimes even TV during the time of the fast. According to Nasr, "It's a period of spiritual reflection," of which not eating is a part.

But not all Muslims abstain from eating during Ramadan. Some Ismaili Muslims abstain from eating on only a handful of days throughout the year, and during Ramadan focus instead on those other forms of fasting.

3. WHAT'S WRONG: THE RAMADAN FAST IS ALWAYS FROM SUNRISE TO SUNSET.

The suun setting over mountains.
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The majority of the time, this is true. But for Muslim communities in the far north, fasting from sunrise to sunset can be a problem—in the summer, the sun might not set for days or weeks, and in the winter the sun may never rise. Some tough it out, while others follow the time of the nearest major city, nearest Muslim country, or Mecca.

4. WHAT'S WRONG: ADVENT STARTS ON DECEMBER 1.

A child pulls a drawer out of an advent calendar.
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Virtually all the Advent calendars available in the market start on December 1, but this is only rarely correct. Advent actually starts on the Sunday nearest the Feast of St. Andrew, which is November 30. It's believe that the misconception can be traced back to a German man named Gerhard Lang. Lang, inspired by the Advent calendars his mother made him as a boy, began mass producing the calendars in the early 20th century; he eventually decided to standardize the calendar as starting at December 1.

5. WHAT'S WRONG: LENT IS THE 40 DAYS BETWEEN ASH WEDNESDAY AND EASTER.

A palm cross in a dish of ashes on top of a green palm leaf.
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According to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, "Strictly speaking, Lent ends with the beginning of the Triduum on Holy Thursday. The Ordo [the official book that details such issues] notes: 'Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord's Supper exclusive on Holy Thursday.'" [PDF]

The change to Holy Thursday only dates to the 1960s and is only true for Roman Catholics (who point out that a distinction is made between liturgical Lent and the Lenten fast), but even among other Western churches the definition of Lent being the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter isn't quite right. There are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter (not including Easter, as traditionally Lent ended on Easter Saturday). The other six days are on Sundays, when fasting is forbidden.

6. WHAT'S WRONG: THE HAJJ IS THE WORLD'S LARGEST RELIGIOUS GATHERING.

The Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
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Every year in the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, 2 to 3 million Muslims gather for the Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. Despite that number, it is not the largest religious gathering in the world. Kumbh Mela brings Hindus together every three years at one of four alternating sites, with the main Kumbh Mela occurring in Allahabad; In 2013, it counted approximately 120 million people. According to the BBC, the story of Kumbh Mela is that gods and demons fought over a pitcher of nectar and a few drops fell on each of the four cities that now host the festival, and during the festival the water becomes the nectar.

7. WHAT'S WRONG: BATHING THE BUDDHA IS A UNIVERSAL CELEBRATION.

An Indonesian Buddhist bathes the Buddha statue during a Vesak ceremony in Mojokerto, Indonesia.
Robertus Pudyanto, Getty Images

One of the most well-known Buddhist celebrations in the West is Vesak (or Wesak), and one of the most well-known components of the day is Bathing the Buddha, where water gets poured over the Buddha to purify the mind.

But in reality the day is more complex than that. Vesak is a day that commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha in Theravada Buddhism. But Mahayana Buddhists view these three events as happening at three separate times, with only the Buddha's birthday occurring the same time as Vesak. In modern Western cities that have multiple Buddhist groups, the Mahayana tradition of Bathing the Buddha often gets combined with the Theravada celebration of Vesak, so much so that one Theravada Buddhist writing for the Huffington Post noted that he had never even heard of the Bathing the Buddha tradition as part of Vesak before college.

8. WHAT'S WRONG: RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCES ARE ALWAYS SPECIFIC TO THE RELIGION.

A Muslim man reads from the Koran at a Mosque in Nairobi on May 17, 2018 during the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
SIMON MAINA, AFP/Getty Images

While most of the time a religious holiday is exclusive to its religion, there are certain festivities that span across religions. The Muslim day of Ashura originated when Mohammed arrived in Medina and saw the Jews fasting in honor of Moses. Mohammed then ordered a fast as well. Today, scholars debate whether the Jews of Medina were celebrating Passover or Yom Kippur, but Ashura was originally based on a Jewish holy day.

9. WHAT'S WRONG: ALL MEMBERS OF A RELIGION CELEBRATE THE SAME HOLIDAYS.

Four burning candles for Diwali.
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Just as some holidays can spread across multiple religions, some holidays are not universally followed within the religion. Quakers, which are a denomination of Protestant Christians, have traditionally not celebrated Christmas or Easter because they consider every day a holy day. Traditionally, the people of Kerala in the south of India don't view Diwali as a major celebration, for reasons that are debated. And on the flip side, groups within a religion often have their own holidays, such as the Old Believers (a group of Eastern Orthodox Christians who split from the main branch) who celebrate holidays such as the Transfer of the Relics of St. Nicholas, commemorating the movement of the relics from Turkey to Italy.

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