As you may or may not know, I have a macabre side to myself. And hence, the long anticipated new post is very macabre.
The title “L’Empire de la Mort” is french “The Empire of the Dead”, and is part of an inscription over the entrance to the Catacombs of Paris. You’ve surely heard of it, the vast ossuary beneath the city in the old tunnels of the limestone quarry. Other than a final resting place for more than 6 million parisians, the tunnels have been used by the French resistance during the Second World War, as well as the Germans, who used part of the tunnels as a bunker. Not to mention bandits, sorcerers and urban explorers.
And I know what you’re thinking; “What, more holes? Seriously?” You should probably ask Freud what this all could mean.
Anyhow, the first to mine limestone from this place were the Romans, in 60 B.C.E. However, they only used the limestone that was easily available in open air quarries. But in 1180 C.E; Philippe-Auguste was building ramparts outside the city to protect it, and since Paris was already taking place over the landscape, tunneling became the only way to get any limestone out of those mines. And it is doubtlessly a vast tunneling system that took form under his rule.
They kept digging around freely until the weight of the city eventually caved in on the hollow chambers underneath, and on April 4th in 1777, the Inspection Générale des Carrières was formed and sent down into the underground maze to reinforce, and close off the sections deemed too dangerous.
So when did they decide to fill the tunnels with bones? Well, in the 1800’s the parisian cemeteries were getting full. The corpses were piling up high. Cimetière des Innocents (Cemetery of the Innocents) held 30 generations of human remains by the ends of it’s use. On top of this families paid the priests to bury their relatives on the burial grounds close to the curches, and in the end the ground was swelled up 10 feet against the cemetery walls. Some walls even crumbled under the pressure and rotting bodies fell out into the streets. I’m not kidding. And they even had special little charnel houses built in the graveyards in order to stuff the bodies in there. The stench was likely horrid. And people started getting sick from the pestilence spread from the corpses.
This is when people decided to bother the dead and move the remains for the sake of the living. Seeing as disturbing the dead is considered a bit of a taboo in most places of the world (even though there’s actually, at the time of writing; October 3rd 2011, still certain places where you eat your dead relatives) this happened in long, black, silent processions during the night.
In 1785, you could in the dark of the night se wagons, covered in black cloth, filled with bones, pulled by horses walk the streets, accompanied by priests. This image tickles my macabre side greatly.
The moving of remains carried on until at least 1814, and the catacombs were even before then a tourist attraction (though not as frequently visited by people just wishing to see the sights as today). The first part of the tunnel to receive any bones was named; “Carrière de la Tombe Issoire”.
Throughout the catacombs there are signs marking where the bones came from, as well as the year they were set there, at least through the tour part of the tunnels, in other parts the bones are simply piled on top of eachother, and going through the passages forces you to crawl over bones and skulls from countless dead.
Official documents claim that the tunnels stretch out for 300 km (aside from the catacombs) but although I cannot confirm my sources I have heard that there’s far more.
Today, you can, as previously mentioned, take tours through parts of the catacombs, exploring the rest of the enormous system is illegal, but that, along with the risk of falling down seemingly endless shafts, getting lost, or just dying of pure fright down there just isn’t enough for some people.
August 23rd the police even found an underground cinema in the catacombs, put there by an urban explorer group called “La Mexicaine de Perforation” (The perforated Mexicans, called so after a bar called Le Mexico which the members frequent). Much like an underground amphitheatre with a fully functional cinema projector, telephones, internet access, a bar and restaurant, and even toilets. The entrance was hidden behind a sign which said there were some kind of construction going on, with a hidden camera taking pictures of whoever passed by, and a tape recorder playing the sound of a barking dog, to scare off intruders.
When the police returned to the location they found a note which said “Ne cherchez pas” – “Do not try to find us” or “Do not search”, and all the equipment had been removed as well.
A photographer who claimed to be close to the group said that it was a shame that the cinema was found, but it was not the end of the world. “There were plenty where that came from. […] You guys have no idea of what’s down there.”
And I get pretty damn curious to find out what lies there in the bowels of the Earth, in the underbelly of Paris.
However there are plenty of other underground tunnels under several other grand cities, but I shall try to regain focus of the actual theme of this post. Holes and bones, ossuaries.
Besides this huge complex of tunnels in paris, you have plenty of other ossuaries all over the world;
Finally, some links to some pages which I found helpful or very interesting on the subject(s);
An article from Ghostvillage
An article from Parisloque
An article on the underground cinema from the Guardian
And another one from CBS News
As well as a little something from an urban explorer through National Geographic – http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/travel/paris.html
All the pictures in this post came from http://www.wikimedia.org/ !