Sixty-five feet beneath the streets of Paris . . . Les Catacombs (aka The Empire of the Dead).
Our theme for the Weekly Photo Challenge this week is: Creepy.
Our instructions: This week, share an image of something creepy. Unsettling. Eerie. Disgusting. Give us some heebie-jeebies!
As far as creepy things go, walking through a labyrinth of underground tunnels, among the skeletal remains of six million people is pretty creepy. It’s got both heebie and jeebie covered!
Les Catacombs are a 186-mile network of underground tunnels, created from ancient Roman limestone quarries, located beneath the city of Paris. The limestone from those quarries was used to build much of Paris. Today, the tunnels function as an ossuary, housing the skeletal remains of six million people.
Yes . . . 186 miles and six million people. That’s a lot of bones.
Historical Background: By the 18th century, the city of Paris was the largest city in the world. There were people everywhere. The main burial ground (St. Innocents) was smack-dab in the middle of the city, next to a market. Over time, St. Innocents ran out of space for new residents. The cemetery became wildly overcrowded, but since the church received a fee for each burial, they weren’t in a hurry to stop burying people there. They just buried them improperly, in graves that were too shallow, or left open altogether. And well, this kinda stunk. Literally. And when a spring rainstorm caused a cemetery wall to collapse, spilling a bunch of corpses into the market, the neighbors complained.
What to do? What to do??
The solution was to transfer the contents of St. Innocents (and really all of the city cemeteries) into the old limestone quarries, and away from the city center. It took the city of Paris twelve years to move all of the bodies into the tunnels. The last bodies went into the catacombs in 1860.
Only a small portion of the catacombs are open to the public. However, there are people, who call themselves Cataphiles, who make it a hobby to explore the other parts of the tunnels, accessing them through secret entrances, located all over the city. It’s an illegal and dangerous hobby — people have gotten lost and died while exploring the Catacombs. During World War II, the French Resistance hid in Les Catacombs, and the Nazis built bunkers there. I would love to see those parts of Les Catacombs, but not enough to risk getting lost and dead, or being arrested and detained in a foreign country (hey, I’ve seen Locked Up Abroad).
Every time I show someone this photo, they ask, “What did it smell like down there?” Honestly? A wet basement. A wet basement full of dead people. Kidding. It doesn’t smell like dead people. It smells like a wet basement. And a plaster cast. Which isn’t as strange as it sounds when I tell you the catacombs were once mined not only for limestone, but also gypsum, the key ingredient in Plaster of Paris.
It is somewhat disconcerting how quickly you get used to walking around next to the stacked bones of six million people. It’s shocking at first, but as you keep walking through the cold and humid maze (it’s 55 degrees and damn near 100% humidity down there), you become almost numb to it. I kept thinking, “So that’s it, then. You live your life, you die, and then your femur ends up part of one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris.”
ISO 800 | 4.3mm | f/3.0 | 1/8 sec