The Catacombs of Paris
The area under vast sections of Paris has been used to mine gypsum, limestone, and chalk.
Historical map of quarries in and around Paris.
In the south of the city, quarries dating from the 15th century were re-purposed to serve as an ossuary. In the late 1700’s, the cemeteries in central Paris were overflowing, so much so that there were stories of both milk and wine going fetid from the decaying bodies being interred in Central Paris.
To combat this, a section of the quarries were sanctified by the various churches in the city and the remains of all the cementaries were moved out of the city into the catacombs. It took two years to finish the job. Each day at dusk, a caravan of carts, draped in black cloth, made a slow precession out of town.
Today, it is a tourist attraction. One that commands quite a line of visitors.
It was a truly inspiring visit. If you go, make sure to buy the “skip the line” tickets (these are done in advance for a bit more $). We arrived just after it opened and the “did not buy the ‘skip the line ticket’ line” was 3 hours long! Also bring your own headphones to plug into the audio. Oh and no flash cameras. Your phone camera is great for this as it has a wide-angle lense and captures a lot in low light conditions.
At the entrance to the ossuary is a sign reading:
Arrete. C’est ici l’empire de la mort.
Here are some images of the vast interior. There are an estimated 6 million individuals (that is 12 million +/- femurs people). All stacked and arranged by Héricart de Thury, who thought that it should be arranged as it would be in a medieval ossuary but with a sense of respect, meditation, and fear to reemphasize the frailty of mortality. *
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One area of particular interest to me was the bones of those killed at the Réveillon factory in Faubourg Saint-Antoine on 28 April 1789 and those belonging to the protesting workers at Château des Tuileries on 10 August 1798. These were some of the first rebellions of the French Revolution. In fact, these actions caused a split in our own newly revolted nation and the support of the people in France fighting against the monarch is what started our political party system. The word “democrat” was originally suggested by the French Ambassador Edmond-Charles Ganêt denoting those people supporting the will of the people in France (who he was secretly funding behind the scenes). It was Alexander Hamilton and his “Federalists” who mocked the democrats led by Thomas Jefferson. *
There is a vast world under the streets of Paris, a fraction of which you can get to these days. Search google for some of the cool things that have been found down here in the dark. We had a great time during our visit.