“Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead”
When welcoming visitors to an ancient network of abandoned subterranean mineshafts converted to house the disinterred remains of six million people it’s important to set the mood. Thus reads the catchy slogan of the Paris Catacombs, engraved (in French, understandably) above the imposing doorway marking the point at which the narrow entrance tunnel ends and the ossuary begins, smooth limestone walls giving way abruptly to neatly stacked arrangements of time-yellowed skulls and bones. Having waited up to two or three hours in a seemingly interminable line just to get in there’s really no turning back now. With the sounds of the busy city above fading gradually to an indistinct blur take a step across the threshold between the lands of the living and the less so and find yourself immersed in a veritable netherworld, a curious antediluvian boneyard unlike anywhere else on Earth.
Stand atop the Montmartre hill and gaze out over the city sprawling beneath you to the horizon. The vast majority of the buildings that you can see will be made of Lutetian Limestone, the creamy off-white building material that lends Paris its distinctive colour. For centuries this highly valued stone was extracted via a series of tunnels cut through Parisian hillsides which, as demand increased, expanded into a vast, underground network connected together by galleries spread nervelike beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th and 15th arrondissements. The growth of the city above beyond its ancient fortified boundaries led to new neighbourhoods being built atop heavily mined areas and, inevitably, a series of spectacular and deadly cave-ins.
A disaster not far from Place Denfert-Rochereau (incidentally the location of the present day entrance to the visitable section of the Catacombs) in 1774 led to the creation of a government sanctioned team of architects who were tasked with the maintenance and repair of any sections of the mine that passed beneath significant buildings or roadways. The collapses coincided with another major metropolitan headache, that of overflowing cemeteries. Anxious to kill as many birds with one stone as feasibly possible, city officials opted to empty out the overladen gravesites, carting great piles of exhumed remains by dead of night in black-cloth covered wagons from the most saturated cemeteries to their new home in the mineshafts that sat abandoned beneath the city.
It took two years to transfer the vestiges of all six million ex-Parisians, starting in 1776 and ending in 1778. At first the empty tunnels served simply as a repository, bones tossed haphazardly wherever there was space. However in 1810, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, head of the Paris Mine Inspection Service, intent on returning a degree of dignity to the relocated hordes, tasked his workers with the restoration of the site into a visitable mausoleum. Under his direction, the remains were arranged neatly into extraordinary patterns, walls of interlaced fibias, femurs and skulls forming macabrely beautiful corridors and cryptlike antechambers. Tombstones and other decorative items salvaged from the overburdened cemeteries were incorporated into the designs, as well as poetic inscriptions and a gallery of skeletal deformities that the team encountered along the way.
These days, the visitable 1.7km long section of the mines that constitutes the ossuary is more commonly referred to as ‘the catacombs‘. This catch-all moniker has come to be popularly attributed to the entire 180-mile long network of tunnels that, though officially off limits, still attract hundreds of dedicated ‘cataphiles‘ drawn deep below the city’s streets by the unique allure of their labyrinthine sprawl. Guerrilla art galleries, a fully stocked bar and restaurant as well as a makeshift cinema complete with giant screen, projector and audience seating are just a few of the more eclectic contemporary uses of the former quarry. Illegal subterranean raves and clandestine underground meetups occur frequently enough that a specialist team of catacomb-savvy cops (dubbed the ‘Cataflics’) patrol the tunnels on a nightly basis, handing out hefty fines to anyone unlucky enough to cross their path. The discovery in 2014 of a secret Nazi bunker beneath the Lycée Montaigne as well as revelations about the use of the tunnels by the French Resistance, not to mention the more recent occupation of certain parts of the network by a mysterious artistic collective known as ‘UX’ suggest that the history of the Catacombs is perhaps stranger and more colourful than we will ever really know.