What is Les Catacombes?
Les Catacombes is a network of underground ossuaries that encompasses 300 kilometres of tunnels and houses the remains of over six million people (with a 1.5-kilometre circuit open to the public).
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Les Catacombes History
Beneath Paris lies another city: the metropolis of the dead. If you wish, you can descend from the city into an 850-hectare necropolis that extends through 300 kilometres of tunnels. This subterranean labyrinth is stacked high with row upon row of bones and skulls. Tibiae alternate with crania to form carefully designed walls of human remains; the macabre arrangement – an interminable line of glaring eye sockets – is a chilling, unforgettable sight. When you enter the Catacombs of Paris, you pass underneath the words ‘Stop! Here is the Empire of the Dead’ and this is no understatement: you are surrounded by six million deceased human beings.
Les Catacombes’s current ossuary is in fact only a small portion of the underground network. Tunnels have been dug here since the 14th century as quarries (the carrières de Paris) for the Lutetian limestone from which much of the city was built. In the 18th century the capital was facing two problems: overcrowding in the city’s cemeteries and the collapse of the medieval mines. In a horrific coincidence, decaying bodies were emerging upwards through the ground in the centre of Paris while to the south houses were suddenly falling deep into the earth.
Of Paris’ medieval cemeteries, Cimetière des Saints-Innocents was by far the most dysfunctional. Right in the centre of the city, adjacent to the main market at Les Halles, the church was already struggling for space in the 12th century. To make the most efficient use of the graveyard, corpses were exhumed and placed in specially constructed galleries attached to the cemetery walls. By the 1770s, the burial ground was two-metres-high, filled with centuries of remains. Louis-Sébastien Mercier, a prominent social commentator, complained of the cemetery’s foul stench and warned that the ‘cadaverous miasmas threatened to poison the atmosphere’ of Paris; the food and wine sold nearby was likely to be deadly. (In the 18th century, it was believed that most disease was caused by inhaling air that was infected through exposure to corrupting matter.) In 1780, after heavy rainfall, decomposing body parts started to erupt out of the earth and the distinctive odour of disintegrating flesh infiltrated the surrounding houses. Residents were having spontaneous violent fits of vomiting and the city’s health inspector confirmed that the living were now living with the dead. Burials were prohibited and the cemetery closed.
In 1786, wagons began to be filled at night with the excavated dead and transported to the old mines. This lugubrious procession continued for two years. The underground structures were reinforced and became charnel houses for the two million remains at the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery and various other overfull urban graveyards. In the early 19th century, the mess of skeletons was arranged artistically, rooms were designed in the styles of Antiquity and Ancient Egypt, and educational cabinets of curiosity were added. From 1809, the Municipal Ossuary, known as the Paris Catacombs, was opened to the inquisitive public and it has grown in popularity ever since. Today, over half a million tourists visit the ‘Empire of the Dead’ each year.
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