History of The Paris Catacombs
The Catacombs, the final resting place of 6 million Parisians, are an underground network of tunnels and old-world stone quarries that were converted into a cemetery during the 18th-19th Centuries. An eerie yet celebrated city of the dead, the Catacombs lie silently in stark contrast to the bustling streets of Paris above.
History of Paris Catacombs
The history of Paris Catacombs can be traced all the way back to when the banks of the Seine were occupied by the ancient Romans. The area, rich in limestone, had been mined since the 1st Century and its stones were used to build the city of Paris. Once the quarries were exhausted, they were haphazardly abandoned and forgotten. Continuing this for centuries left a completely unregulated labyrinth of tunnels beneath the city, leading to numerous cave-in disasters. A series of mine cave-ins in 1774, that began with the collapse of a house along the 'rue d'Enfer' caused King Louis XVI to name a commission to map and strengthen the underground tunnels.
The Catacombs occupy only a portion of the tunnels that extend for thousands of miles under the streets of Paris. These tunnels were originally a giant network of limestone quarries; as the city expanded and grew outwards, the tunnels were abandoned, leaving behind a maze of underground tunnels.
At the same time, the cemeteries of Paris were overflowing. The conditions were so abysmal that effluents from the graves would leak into the waters of Paris. By the 18th Century, Paris had sewage deluging the streets which also contaminated the water. There was no place left to bury the dead. The worst among them was the Saints-Innocents cemetery that held over 2 million bodies. To make matters worse, in 1780, a basement wall in a building next to the cemetery collapsed under the weight of the mass grave behind it.
Under these conditions, it was decided that the bodies would be moved to the tunnels that had been strengthened by King Louis XVI. Between 1785 and 1787, millions of bodies were carried out in nightly processions.
By 1809, the Catacombs, the new home for the dead, were home to millions of bodies, from more than 150 cemeteries. The larger passageways were lined with countless skeletal remains and arranged in various artistic patterns. Each room is marked by a plaque that mentions the locations of the cemeteries and the dates on which the bodies were removed and relocated to the Catacombs. After the French Revolution, it was decided to open up the Catacombs for both mourners and visitors.
These tunnels have played an important part in Paris’ history - whether it is inspiring Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables or serving as a base for the French resistance during World War II. While most tunnels have been cordoned off, the portions that the Catacombs occupy are open to the public. Visitors can buy one-way tickets to visit the underground cemetery, entering the black gates at Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy and exiting in a residential alley next to a gift shop.