WikiFave: The Empire of the Dead Under the City of Lights ~ By Dr. Hilana Omer

Catacombes de Paris


L’ossuaire municipal was incorporated on the 1st of January 2013 in the public institution Paris Musees .

It’s one of the 14 museums in the city of Paris.  Earlier in the 4th century, Parisians’ burial grounds were to the southern outskirts of the Roman-era Left Bank city. After the Frankish invasions and the Roman Empire’s fall, Parisians abandoned this settlement for the marshy Right Bank. Their first settlement was in higher grounds of Saint-Etienne church and burial ground, by the 10th century these marshlands were at its fullest, thus instead of burying their dead away from inhabited areas, the Paris Right Bank settlement began its life with cemeteries at its center. Their most central cemetery was a burial ground  at Notre Dame de Bois church, which became a property of Saint-Opportune parish after the original church was destroyed in the 9th century by the Norman invasion, it then became its own parish under the Saints Innocents church from 1130, this burial ground is filling the land ,today, between Rue de la Lingerie and Rue Berger, had become the city’s main cemetery.

By the end of the same century, Saint Innocents was already filled and overflowing, in order to make room for more burials, the long-dead were exhumed and their bones packed into the roofs and walls of Charnier galleries built to the inside of the cemetery walls, by the 19th century, the central burial ground was a two-meter high mound of earth filled with centuries of Parisian dead, diseased, famine and the remains of the Hotel Dieu hospital and morgue. The condition in Les Innocents cemetery was by far the worst of all cemeteries in Paris.

The Left Bank is centered on rich limestone deposits, this stone built much of the city, and because of the digging of the post-12th-century haphazard mining techniques of digging wells down to the deposit and extracting it horizontally along the vein until depletion, many of these mines were uncharted and thus forgotten. During the 17th century, a collapse of a number of houses along the Rue d’Enfer led king Louis XVI  to start the investigation of the Parisian undergrounds. This led to the creation of inspection Générale des Carrières (Inspection of Mines) service.

The need to eliminate Les Innocents gained urgency from the 30th of May 1780, when a basement wall in a property adjoining the cemetery gave way under the weight of the mass grave behind it. The cemetery was closed to the public and all Intramuros (Latin for “within the walls”, as of a city) burials were definitely forbidden by the end of the same year, but the problem of what to do with the contents of the Intramuros cemeteries remained. After deciding to further renovate the ‘Tombe-I’oussoire’ passageways for their future role as an underground sepulchre, the idea became a law in late 1785. A well within a walled property above one of the principal subterranean passageways was dug to receive Les Innocents’ unearthed remains, and the property itself was transformed into a sort of museum for all the headstones, sculptures and other artifacts recuperated from the former cemetery. The first opening started on the 7th of April of the same year.

Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, head of the Paris mine inspection service from 1810, undertook renovations that would transform the underground caverns into a visitable museum, they started by stacking the skulls and femurs into a pattern as seen in the picture above, and used the rest of the bones as decorations to the walls of the catacomb. They also dedicated a room to display the various minerals found under Paris and another room for bone deformaties found during the renovation and creation of the catacomb. He also added monumental tablets and archways bearing inscriptions (that some found of questionable taste) that were warnings, descriptions or ‘poetic light’ about the nature of the ossuary, and for the safety of eventual visitors, it was walled from the rest of the Paris Left Bank already-extensive underground tunnel network.

The catacomb of Paris became a curiosity of Parisians’ own creation. the first known visitor, the Count of Artois, who later became France’s King Charles X, 1787. At first it was only allowed to be visited few times a year, after its renovation, with a permission from an authorized mines inspector, then frequently visits led by any mine overseer, a flow of often unscrupulous visitors degraded the ossuary to a point where the permission only rule was restored from 1830. In 1833, the catacomb was closed because of church opposition to exposing sacred bones to public display. Opened again for four visits a year, in 1850, public demand made the government to allow monthly visits from 1867, to weekly by 1878. In 1900 it became part of the world’s fair expositions.

The entry to the catacombs is in the western pavilion of the former Barrière d’Enfer city gate. After descending a narrow spiral stone stairwell of 19 meters to the darkness and silence broken only by the gurgling of a hidden channeling local springs away from the area, and after passing through a long (about 1.5 km) and twisting hallway of mortared stone, visitors find themselves before a sculpture that existed from a time before this part of the mines became an ossuary, a model of France’s Port-Mahon fortress created by a former Quarry Inspector. Soon after, they find themselves before a stone portal, the ossuary entry, with the inscription Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort (‘Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead”).

Beyond begin the halls and caverns of walls of carefully arranged bones. Some of the arrangements are almost artistic in nature, such as a heart-shaped outline in one wall formed with skulls embedded in surrounding tibias; another is a round room whose central pillar is also a carefully created ‘keg’ bone arrangement. Along the way one would find other ‘monuments’ created in the years before catacomb renovations, such as a source-gathering fountain baptised “La Samaritaine” because of later-added engravings. There are also rusty gates blocking passages leading to other ‘unvisitable’ parts of the catacombs – many of these are either un-renovated or were too un-navigable for regular tours.

Although the catacombs offered space to bury the dead, they presented disadvantages to building structures; because the catacombs are directly under the Paris streets, large foundations cannot be built and cave-ins have destroyed buildings. For this reason, there are few tall buildings in this area.



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