The Paris Catacombs: Empire of the Dead

The Catacombs of Paris are “a maze of tunnels and crypts underneath the city streets containing the bones of more than 6 million dead Parisians, arranged in aesthetically designed patterns and shapes and designed to be a tourist attraction”.

Call me morbid but the Paris Catacombs tour totally appealed to my macabre side and was something I was not going to miss –even if it meant lining up in the heat for an hour and a half.

Paris Catacombs

In the late 19th Century, Paris was running out of places to bury its dead. The cemeteries were full, the water ways were becoming infected with the putrid mass of dead people, and disease was rife (oh what a pretty place Paris must have been then). So the decision was made to exhume the remains of the dead and move all their bones to disused underground quarries. The process, took over two years to complete and was evidently a dismal and depressing task. To alleviate their misery, and to transform the bone repositories into a visitable mausoleum to the cities former residents, some artistically inclined soul (Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury) had the brilliant, though rather creepy, idea of arranging the bones in their new tomb into pretty patterns.

Paris Catacombs

The vast network of subterranean tunnels and caverns stretches more than 700 kilometres (though only a small section is included in the public tour), and is almost continuously lined on both sides with thousands of skulls and femurs, tibias, fibulas and scapulas in geometric patterns and shapes. Dates, street names, and other ancient graffiti that dates back centuries are carved into the walls of the Catacombs. As you walk through the cold dank tunnels, you also encounter old Christian crosses and other religious artefacts, tombstones and old cemetery decorations that add to the saturnine ambience. The result is a decidedly eerie, but beautiful experience, and probably one of the strangest tourist attractions I’ve ever been to.

Paris Catacombs

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