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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 converted into a cemetery during the 18th and 19th centuries. An eerie yet celebrated city of the dead, the Catacombs lie silently in stark contrast to the bustling streets of Paris above. 

Paris Catacombs Timeline

1st century: Seine River banks mined to build Paris by Romans.

1774: King Louis XVI commissions underground tunnels to be strengthened after multiple mine cave-ins.

18th century: Effluents from overcrowded graves started to contaminate water.

1780: Basement wall in a building next to the Saints-Innocents cemetery collapsed under the weight of the mass grave behind it. 

1785-1787: Millions of bodies from the graves were carried to the strengthened tunnels in nightly processions.

1809: The Catacombs became the new home for millions of bodies from more than 150 cemeteries.

Post-French Revolution: The Catacombs opened to mourners and visitors.

History of the Paris Catacombs Explained

The history of the Paris Catacombs can be traced back to when the banks of the Seine River 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, contaminating the water. There was no place left to bury the dead. The worst among them was the Saints-Innocents cemetery, which 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 the Catacombs to mourners and visitors.

These tunnels have played a 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.




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Paris Catacombs Today

While the Catacombs constitute only a section of the vast underground labyrinth beneath Paris, over 6 million Parisians have been buried in these ossuaries, more than the current living population of Paris.

Since 2013, the Catacombs have become one of the 14 City of Paris Museums managed by Paris Musées. Today, the Paris Catacombs remain one of the city's most unique attractions for millions of visitors from all over.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Paris Catacombs History

What is the historical significance of the Paris Catacombs?

The Paris Catacombs gained significance in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a solution to cemetery overcrowding and is today home to the remains of over 6 million people. They feature meticulously arranged bones and skulls, making it a heritage and tourist site.

How old are the Paris Catacombs?

While the underground tunnels date as far back as 1 AD, it wasn't until 1785 that the remains of Parisians began to be transferred to the Catacombs. By 1809, the Catacombs became the final resting place for remains from over 150 cemeteries.

What is the historical context in which the Paris Catacombs were created?

Mined by the early Romans for limestone, the underground tunnels were created during Paris' urban expansion. By the 17th century, Parisian cemeteries were overwhelmed, prompting authorities to relocate human remains into the strengthened quarries beneath the city. Between the late 18th to early 19th centuries, the tunnels were transformed into vast ossuaries housing the bones of millions, as seen today.

What events or incidents have shaped the history of the Paris Catacombs?

Originally Roman quarries, the underground tunnels under Paris expanded during the Middle Ages to meet the growing demand for construction materials. By the 17th century, human remains were relocated from overcrowded cemeteries into the disused quarries, housing millions of bones. During the Napoleonic era, the Catacombs were organised into artistic arrangements of bones and skulls. Today, they are a site for tourism and a reminder of Paris' intricate history.

What are some lesser-known historical facts or anecdotes about the Paris Catacombs?

Legends of secret societies and hidden chambers within the tunnels have persisted over time, adding to their mystique. Despite regulations prohibiting unauthorised access, the Paris Catacombs have been a magnet for illegal exploration by urban adventurers called 'cataphiles'. During World War II, the Paris Catacombs also served as a refuge for French Resistance fighters against Nazi occupation.

Are there guided tours explaining the Paris Catacombs' history?

Yes, you can book guided tours to the Paris Catacombs and learn about its history in detail. You can also book tickets that allow you access to areas restricted to the general public and enhance your experience.