Myth in France: Paris Catacombs and Cataphylls

Myth in France: Paris Catacombs and Cataphylls

18th century Paris. It was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the western world of that time. However, it grows so fast in itself; The population of the city increased and in direct proportion to this situation, it caused pollution and epidemic diseases. The increase in deaths due to this problem caused the city’s cemeteries to literally overflow with the bodies of the dead. The unavoidable deaths indicated that this trend would become even more dire.

Accordingly, one of the most disturbing aspects was the heavy smell of rotting flesh that pervaded the entire city. This heavy smell had reached epidemic proportions in several other busy districts of the city, including the area in the main food market area of ​​Les Halles, which was a busy district at the time. With the health of the people of Paris at such risk, something had to be done; but few people knew that the solution would create one of the most mysterious and terrifying attractions in the world.

This solution was an incredible achievement of an architectural genius and ethically “ugly” work that helped bring the city out of the violent chaos of the Middle Ages into one of the most decent and beautiful cities in Europe. It was a story of clever foresight and hard work, of terrifying interior design. This story was an example of an architectural genius advanced for its time. Here are the Catacombs of Paris…

Skulls lined up at the entrance to the catacombs
Skulls lined up at the entrance to the catacombs

An Extraordinary Moving Story
When all cemeteries within the city limits of Paris were included, the number of bodies that had to be buried and transported exceeded 6 million. Even in the Cemetery of the Innocents, the largest cemetery in the city, there were 2 million corpses alone. Given the sheer number of these corpses, these corpses could not simply be dug up and scattered around. One of the largest human remains in history; It had to be systematically and carefully reburied in a place far from the city in terms of location, large and complex in size. There were several places within the city district that fit these characteristics; but none of them had the capacity to carry 6 million corpses. Therefore, these places were no different from the city cemeteries.

While the people and administrators seeking a solution were in this impasse, a person had a plan that was close to impossible in mind, but would solve the whole problem radically if he could put it into practice. The owner of this near-impossible plan was none other than Charles-Axel Guillaumot, the chief architect of the king of the time. This ingenious plan of Charles would work as follows:

Paris of the time sat just above some 320 kilometers of limestone tunnels that were carved to provide the stones that would be used during the initial construction of the city. These tunnels, which were also used as mines, were so deep and wide that in the early 1800s, the weight of the city above was creating huge sinkholes in which all buildings and structures were collapsing. Charles also had in mind to use these enormous and deep tunnels to bury the bodies again.

The king of the time tasked Charles with stabilizing the entire underground mining system in order to save the city from total collapse. The mine tunnels were the most suitable place for the reburial of the dead, but the fact that the upper floor was not solid and was too old made this stabilization a must before the reburial process started. Despite the difficulty, Charles succeeded in this task by consolidating the tunnels in a period of 8 years. By 1785 the tunnels were now intact and the process of digging and burial of bodies had begun.

The dead remains of Parisians were dug up and carried there every night by the officials. The excavation and re-burial process was carried out only at night. The fact that it was not considered ethical as an image and the possibility that it would have negative effects on the public had made the king take this decision.

It took two years of night work to empty most of the Paris cemeteries and reassemble the remains from the catacombs. However, moving all the bones would take a total of eighty years.

From a Desolate Catacombs to a Touristic Attraction
The city’s centuries-old tunnels ultimately helped to solve a major problem. The tunnels now had another name: Paris Catacombs…

And the fate of this cemetery was about to evolve into a completely different path. The person who started this process was the famous king of France, Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoleon came to power after the Revolution, he inherited a rapidly modernizing medieval city. He also supported this modernization attack with the new regulations he implemented in the city and the innovations he brought. Another plan Napoleon had in mind was to turn this thriving medieval city into a tourist attraction. Within the scope of this plan, certain points of the city were determined and work had already begun there. One of these places was the city’s famous catacombs.

According to Napoleon, the city’s catacombs had a structure that could attract a lot of attention due to its mysterious and attractive feature. As an example to this; Rome, Europe’s foremost monumental city, had a much-lauded network of catacombs and was a focal point for intrepid tourists for its attractions. And Napoleon knew that France needed such an attraction.

In the same year, Napoleon appointed the governor of the city and the general inspector of the quarries, Héricart de Thury, to turn these underground burial tunnels into a structure that people would want to go down and see.

The quarry workers under Héricart de Thury began to arrange the excavated and reburied bones as bone ornaments. They cut all the work according to their own tastes and wishes.

Although the bones were arranged according to a ritual during the first move, almost most of them were thrown into the tunnels in large piles. This made the decoration process a little difficult. The quarry workers, however, continued their work slowly but surely. The walls of the tunnels were lined with tibias and femurs formed by the skulls of corpses as we see them today. They arranged and shaped bones with symbols such as hearts, circles and death heads to create an environment that would impress those who visit the cemetery and convey religious messages about death. They erected signs that served as commemorative plaques at the entrance and exit of the cemetery and at the main places of the cemetery and put arrows on the ceilings.

To further increase the mystery and dread of the cemetery, they dug up secret chambers in the catacombs and filled it with labyrinths. Finally, various exhibition rooms have been installed in the catacombs to attract more visitors. Among these rooms, there was also a section where skeletons with various physical deformities were found. Perhaps the most memorable and mysterious figure in the Paris Catacombs is a series of stone carvings shaped by a figure named Decuré. The reason why this stone carving is called mysterious is that it is hidden in one of the secret rooms opened in the underground cemetery and has not yet been found.

These adjustments and additions, with technology and work ahead of their time, eventually allowed the catacombs to quickly establish a reputation as one of the most impressive and certainly the scariest places to visit in the city. The catacombs of Paris, which still have a reputation that continues even today, are waiting for you, the explorers…

Mysterious Visitors of the Catacombs: Cataphiles
Cataphiles are Parisian city explorers who, by word definition, roam the catacombs under Paris illegally. Since the late sixties, Parisians, called Cataphils, have begun illegally entering these cemeteries, restoring some of these areas to their liking and arranging bones to open up more creative spaces. Although this situation was noticed and banned by the state, the cataphiles could not be prevented.

Based on currently up-to-date data, it is estimated that at least 300 catapults visit the Paris Catacombs illegally per week and use secret entrances throughout the city as entrances to the cemetery.

A small part of the catacombs are open to the public. Officially, access to this burial network is limited. Access to other parts has been illegal since 1955, as some passages are very low, narrow and in danger of flooding. Catafils are not only found in the part of the catacombs that are open to visitors, but it is also stated that they enter the rooms and labyrinths where visitors are not allowed. Cataphiles are tolerated by the local population and are punished with a small fine when caught.

Catafils can be seen as a “community” in a sense, since they share the same space for the purpose, even if they are divided into certain networks and underground neighborhoods as a group. And every member of this community has three strict rules to follow:

  • “What goes down must also go up.” This is a rule that applies to garbage disposal and is fully respected and enforced by the catapults.
  • “Never talk about what happened above.” Almost all cataphils find a nickname for themselves. Who a person is in the above life, what job he is engaged in remains completely confidential. These questions are never asked by other groups or individuals.
  • “Never trust anyone.” Not only is it necessary to have a sense of adventure and above-average navigational skills to be a good cataphile, but there is an agreed-upon idea that one has adequate exposure to the groups that regularly visit this catacombs. In short, since the catacombs are a complex network system covering the whole city and there are a limited number of entrances and exits; It is recommended that you do not trust anyone, any signage, or any map.
Source:  Cihan Mert Yardım



Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.