Empire of the Dead: the Catacombs of Paris
Stepping inside from the cold wet rain our tour started with us heading down a winding staircase that eventually began to feel like it was never going to end. The constant motion of walking in a counterclockwise direction without a break has a sort of dizzying effect. The interesting thing about enclosed spiral staircases is that their repetitiveness, along with the general lack of ability to see your surroundings to gain perspective, makes it impossible to determine just how far down you're actually going. 131 steps to be precise (approximately 8 stories?)
Through tight walls lit by electric lamps, from there we walk single file through a series of dimly lit tunnels. I hunch my shoulders to avoid hitting my head on the low uneven ceilings. This place isn't exactly an ideal spot if you're claustrophobic.
Eventually the tunnels open up into some much larger clearings. In some locations the massive slab ceiling sits upon a few worn out stone columns. You might ask yourself "How much earth is above my head right now? And then wonder what that might weight. But sometimes it's best not to think of such things.
It was raining prior to us taking the tour, and still damp from being outside I began to wonder if this place had ever had any issues with flooding.
"How deep are we again?" Images of drwoning rats popped into my mind. Sometimes it's best not to think such things.
My wife and I linger back a bit to check out a large hole in the ceiling. The hole is about 3 feet across at the bottom where we're standing. It's impossible to tell just how high up the shaft goes, but judging from the basketball sized hole at the top letting down a bit of light, I'd say that it's pretty high. Somewhere around 8 story's I suppose.
A short woman in a bulky coat walking on her own slowly passes us. She makes an eerie high pitch humming noise and then continues to do so randomly and periodically for the remainder of the tour. The strange high pitch echo she creates really added a level of creepiness to the overall environment. I don't think that she even realized that she was doing it. Some sort of nervous tick. People are strange that way sometimes.
The catacombs were created in the 18th century after a major public health concern. The cemetaries within the city had long since reached their capacity and were begining to overflow. Mass graves were no longer enough to solve the issue and after a wall collapsed under the weight of the bones the city decided to move the bodies of the deceased to a location deep underground. An abandoned quarry (located outside the city capital at the time) that extended over 8 square km, was chosen as the site to house the bodies.
Starting in the year 1780 the bones of the deceased were removed from the local cemetaries and transferred to the quarry by covered horse drawn carriages. The work took place at night to avoid hostility and backlash by the catholic church and the public in general.
The bones of the deceased were dumped down two large quarry wells (remeber that hole in the ceiling?) to workers below who then gather them and piled them whithin the tunnels. The work continued this way for over 35 years.
In 1786 the site became known as the "Catacombs," in reference to the Roman Catacombs.
In 1809, under the direction of Louis Étienne Héricart de Thury, the bones (which were previously just strewn in piles) were arranged into the sort of monumental structure that we see today.
Also in 1809, soon after the the bones were rearranged and organised, the site was opened to the public by appointment only. At the time, and forthe remainder of its history, it was visited by many prominant french figures - including Napolean.
As you can see in the photographs, facade walls were constructed out of skulls and the larger straight bones (tibiae). Smaller loose bones that were often damaged when they were dumped down the well, were then piled loosly behind the facade.
Translation: Stop! Here is the empire of the dead
The skeletal bodies of more than 6 million people are housed within the catacombs.
You might notice that the skulls and bones are covered in a shiny coating that gives them a glossy like finish. Presumably its some sort of resin or preservative meant to stop further decay and degradation and also to make them safe for the public to touch and come in contact with.
You might also notice that some of the skulls have a small perfectly circular hole in them that very much resembles a fatal gun shot wound. The bones of many men who fought in battle are housed within the tunnels of the Catacombs.
Eventually we come to the end of the one and half kilometer walk through the tunnels. We begin our 8 story ascent up to the surface via another winding circular staircase. Eventually we see day light outside. A security gaurd checks our backpacks for stolen bones before sending us on our way. We head back into the rain, it's cold dampness acting as a reminder that we are still alive and lucky to be so.