April 04, 2010

Catacomb Museum of Paris

There is one Paris museum that’s as haunted as it is macabre. You won’t find it on the Champs-Elysees; in fact, you won’t find it above ground at all. To get to the Catacombs, you’ll be traveling more than 20 meters below the city streets in the Montparnasse section of Paris. Opened in the late 18th century, the underground cemetery became a tourist attraction on a small scale from the early 19th century, and has been open to the public on a regular basis from 1867. Following an incident of vandalism, they were closed to the public in September of 2009 and reopened 19 December of the same year. There are human bones stacked in the tunnels under the city—a lot of them. The Catacombs of Paris are a network of tunnels and caves that run for more than 300 kilometers under the city. To build a city, you need materials. The Romans were the first to quarry the limestone in the area in 60 B.C.E.; however, those quarries were the open-air kind—the Romans just dug out the rock that was exposed. As the city grew and covered the landscape, tunneling would be required to get more building materials.

In 1180 C.E., Philippe-Auguste became King. He was a major proponent of tunneling to quarry in order to build ramparts to protect the city, and it was under his rule that this tunnel network was truly born. The quarries grew in size and complexity and produced building materials for centuries to come. Quarrying continued with reckless abandon until problems began to arise. In the 18th century, the city of Paris (and the weight of its buildings) continued to grow as the ground became more hollow underneath. Some buildings began to collapse and fall into the earth that was opening up below them.

On April 4,1777, the Inspection Générale des Carrières was formed to manage, fill in, or close sections of the tunnels deemed dangerous. It was during the 18th century that a second problem arose for Parisians: The graveyards were getting full—very full. The Cimetière des Innocents (Cemetery of the Innocent) alone held more than 30 generations of human remains. The government had been searching for and consolidating long abandoned stone quarries in and around the capital since 1777, and it was the Police Lieutenant General overseeing the renovations, Alexandre Lenoir, who first had the idea to use empty underground tunnels on the outskirts of the capital to this end. His successor, Thiroux de Crosne, chose a place to the south of Paris' "porte d'Enfer" city gate (the place Denfert-Rochereau today), and the exhumation and transfer of all Paris' dead to the underground sepulture began in 1785, when the bones were moved to the underground network en masse, the quarries became the Catacombs.

Disturbing the dead is a bit of a universal taboo. It’s understood across many cultures that one should leave the dead alone, and many go through great care to perform rituals and ceremonies to see off their departed loved ones to the afterlife. However, the living will usually take precedence over the bodies of their kin who have passed on.

Located off the Denfert-Rochereau Metro stop, the Catacomb Museum exists to oversee the tunnels and bones, to teach the history of why the bones are there, and to provide the only means to visit the mortal remains of more than 1,000 years of Parisians. For €5 (euros), visitors can descend into the Catacombs. A spiral cement staircase leads visitors down 130 steps, to 20 meters below the surface. At the bottom of the stairs, there are two rooms full of photographs of ancient graffiti from within the Catacombs as well as some of the below-ground structures. After passing through the two small rooms, you’ll enter the actual Catacombs.

The ceiling of the tunnel is as low as 6 feet and as high as about 12 feet on average, though some sections have an almost cathedral-looking structure high above your head. The lighting is very low, but your eyes adjust. The limestone walls are tan in color and cool to the touch. The fine gravel under your feet crunches with each step, and the only other sound is an occasional drip-drip from somewhere in the tunnels. Parts of the ceiling collect water in an upside-down puddle, and when the water gets too heavy, it drips on an unsuspecting passerby or to the ground.

Along the walls there are dated carvings and graffiti spray-painted in French. The tunnel makes 90-degree right and left turns, and in this part of the Catacombs, the environment feels like a tunnel in the rock—nothing more. After a few more long tunnels, rights, and lefts, visitors will approach some painted pillars surrounding a narrow doorway. The sign on top reads: “Arrete! C’est ici L’Empire de la Mort”—”Stop! Here is the Empire of the Dead.”

Due to the difference in darkness between the two rooms, you can’t see what is in the tunnel beyond until you walk through. It’s a good idea to pause here for a moment before passing into the Ossuary of Denfert-Rochereaux, what lies on the other side is overwhelming. In a passage no more than 6 to 8 feet in width are stacks of human bones and skulls. At the doorway they are stacked about four feet high. The skulls greet those who enter with empty but powerful stares. All around you there is nothing but the ornate patterns of bones and skulls as far down the tunnel as light will allow you to see. Within the entire Catacombs, there are more than 6 million bodies stored— only bones now. Though some bones can be found in the Catacombs in other parts of Paris, most of the bones are housed in the 1.7-kilometer stretch that the Catacomb Museum manages.

In different sections, the skulls form patterns within the stacks of arm and leg bones. There are skull crosses, hearts, arcs, and other groupings. The stacking of bones is intricate, symmetrical, and very macabre. Dumping millions of human remains down a 20-meter hole is not very respectful of the dead. Perhaps the meticulous care in the arrangement of the remains was the workers’ way of trying to give some dignity and beauty to the deceased. In different lengths of tunnel, there are signs marking which cemetery the particular bones came from, along with the date they were placed. The process started in 1785, and the oldest year marked in the museum is 1859.

Though the movement of bones to the Catacombs wasn’t a nonstop process, for at least seven decades bones were being transferred below ground. The lights are very dim in the tunnels, and as your body blocks the sparse lighting, shadows dance around the bones. Water drips and echoes in the distance, and sounds carry as they bounce around the limestone walls. The skulls certainly add to the very supernatural mood.

In a cavern just before the exit stairway leading to a building on the rue Dareau (former 'rue des Catacombes') above, one could see an example of the Quarry Inspection's work in the rest of Paris' underground caverns: its roof is two 11-metre high domes of naturally degraded, but reinforced, rock; the dates painted into the highest point of each bear witness to what year the work to the collapsing cavern ceiling was done, and whether it has degraded since. These "fontis" were the reason for a general panic in late-18th-century Paris, after several houses and roadways collapsed into previously unknown caverns below.

Near the end of your Catacomb tour, it’s worth reminding yourself that these people all had names. Every one of them was a person. Those 6 million people sacrificed their eternal resting ground so the city of Paris could grow and thrive. Noblemen’s bones are intertwined with peasants, families’ skeletal remains may be crushed with their ancestors’ bones, and visitors walk through all of it. There are 30 generations speaking to each passerby, forced into a single collective voice. If you listen closely, you may just hear some of those voices.

Sources :
The World’s Most haunted Places by Jeff Belanger;

Pic Source :


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