The Paris Catacombs (French: Catacombes de Paris) are the dark underworld of the City of Light hiding many secrets. With the remains of over six million people, they have been called the world’s largest grave. The site is a network of old caves, quarries, and tunnels stretching hundreds of kilometers, and seemingly lined with the bones of the dead. Although it is open to the general public today, access is limited to only a small section of the network.
Five interesting facts about the Paris Catacombs:
- Between 1786 and 1859, the bones of the dead were transferred from the overcrowded parochial cemeteries of Paris to the Tombe-Issoire limestone quarries (this natural resource has been in use since the time of the Romans and provided construction material for the city’s buildings – Notre-Dame Cathedral and all the Gothic churches in Paris were built with this stone) turning them into the Paris Catacombs.
- The site was opened to the public visitation in 1809.
- In total, the Catacombs stretch over 300 kilometers (186 miles). Only a small portion of the tunnels is open to visitors.
- Since 2013, the site number among the 14 City of Paris Museums.
- Approximately 550,000 people visit the Catacombs annually.
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Paris Catacombs Tours
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Paris Catacombs History
Between street level and the bottom of the Catacombs, the visitor is taking back nearly 45 million years in time – there is a bed of limestone which corresponds to a geological period called the Lutetian. During this period, the Paris region was gradually invaded by the sea advancing from the north of Europe.
The sea was shallow and warm, with a tropical climate and very diverse flora and fauna including a big sea snail (over 70 cm/2 ft long) called the Campanile giganteum.
The Quarrymen’s Footbath (French: Bain de pieds des carriers) is a well of crystal clear groundwater. The water was used by workers mixing cement required during works in the Catacombs. It is said to be the site of the first geological drilling in Paris.
The Port Mahon fort sculpture was created between 1777 and 1782 by Décure, an old veteran from King Louis XV’s army, who became quarryman in the Catacombs. It represents the Port Mahon fort on Minorca in the Balearic Islands, Spain, where Décure had been imprisoned by the English for five years.
In 1786, an 11000 square meters (120,000 square feet) space was prepared in the ancient quarries to house the remains. After that date, bones and skulls from more than 150 graveyards of monasteries, convents, and churches in Paris were added to the underground ossuary. The transfer of these remains continued until 1859.
At the beginning of the 19th century, burial grounds started to become scarce in Paris, and new cemeteries were created outside the city limits: Père Lachaise (established in 1804), Passy (1820), Montparnasse (1824), and Montmartre (1925).
“They were what we are,
Dust, toy of the wind;
Fragile like men,
Weak like nothingness.”
–Alphonse de Lamartine
The skeletons of dead people on the site are on display for the world to see like paintings in the Louvre – they were placed there quite carefully and respectfully.
The skull of an aristocrat may be resting on the leg of a revolutionary; wealthy and poor, young and old, virtuous and sinful, all are indistinguishable now. It can give you an entirely new perspective on the concept of human equality.
The Paris Catacombs are fascinating from a historical perspective and there are numerous panels (in French and English) explaining the reasons for the existence of the underground ossuary as well as listing the famous people whose remains have been deposited here.
Address: 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 75014 Paris