The Paris Catacombs, in sight and sound

In January of 2013 I had the privilege of meeting Des Coulam, author of the incomparable Soundlandscapes blog. Our first meeting was such a wonderful experience that Des was among the very first people I contacted when I learned I’d be returning to Paris.

Through our correspondence, I discovered that Des hadn’t yet visited another of my favorite Paris places: Les Catacombes de Paris. I proposed a soundwalk — and to my delight, he accepted. Here’s the result:

I extend a warm thanks to Des for another extraordinary Paris experience.

The Paris Catacombs, in sight and sound

The last time Des and I met, we talked about Notre Dame — one of the places where I feel most connected to Paris and her history. So maybe it’s fitting that our second meeting should take place in the Catacombs: Without these dark tunnels, the City of Light (and my beloved Notre Dame) would not have been possible.

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The tunnels Des and I visited are a municipal museum whose tunnels represent just a tiny fraction of the vast network that is collectively called “Les Catacombes.”

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Today, the Catacombs — which snake under Paris’ 5th, 6th, 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th arrondissements — are most famous as the final resting place of some six million souls.

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Over the centuries, however, these tunnels had many other uses.

When the Romans conquered the Gauls in the first century A.D., Paris — then called Lutetia — became an important trade hub. And because trade can’t flourish without transport, the Romans began quarrying limestone to build their famous roads.

At first these quarries were just open pits. But as the city grew and land became more valuable, the quarries were driven underground. It didn’t take long for the resulting tunnels to be repurposed.

In about 250 A.D., the Christian evangelist Dionysus and his followers met in these tunnels to worship in secret. But poor Dionysus — whom we now know better as Saint Denis — paid the ultimate price and was beheaded for his beliefs.

Legend says that he picked up his severed head, rinsed it off, and carried it under his arm for five miles as he continued preaching what must have been the most disconcerting sermon in history. It’s ironic to think that the statue of the beheaded Saint Denis that today adorns Notre Dame may have been quarried from the very tunnels where he once preached.

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Centuries later, a few enterprising Parisians built a vast brewery in the tunnels under Val de Grâce. Many others also used the tunnels extensively to grow the famous champignons de Paris mushrooms.

During World War II these tunnels found new life yet again: Almost directly under the Place St. Michel are the remains of a Nazi bunker complete with electrical panels, rusty doors, and even latrines. Ironically, the resistance fighters were using another tunnel — separated from the Nazis by only about three meters of stone — to coordinate their assaults on the German occupying forces.

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Remains of the German bunker. Image via gakuran.com

Today, however, the Catacombs are best known as one of the world’s largest ossuaries. But how did the bones end up here in the first place? It’s a tale of two catastrophes, actually.

First, Paris’ cemeteries were filling up. By the early 1700s the Cimitière des Innocents — then Paris’ largest cemetery — was so overcrowded that bodies were popping out of the ground and bursting into people’s basements.

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The Fontaine des Innocents, in the center of Paris’ Les Halles, marks the site of the old cemetery. Photo courtesy of Des at Soundlandscapes.

At about the same time, Paris was expanding into the suburbs, where houses were being built above the old quarries. Buildings — and in some cases, entire city blocks — soon began collapsing into the tunnels below.

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The site of an old collapse, now reinforced (thank God!).

The public outcry was fierce. So, on April 4, 1777 Charles-Axel Guillaumot was charged with the task of mapping and stabilizing the quarries. Ironically, a house on the Rue d’Enfer (literally, “Hell’s Street”) collapsed into a tunnel on the day he took office, but this only strengthened his resolve. He quickly established an inspection corps — which he headed until his death in 1807, and which still exists today — to consolidate and reinforce the tunnels.

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Guillaumot’s men marked the location, depth, and date of their inspection in many tunnels.

Once he’d addressed the concerns of the living city, Guillaumot turned his attention to the dead. On April 7, 1786 the grounds of the Tombe-Issoire were sanctified …

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Black-and-white pillars mark the entrance to the ossuary. “Stop! This is the empire of death,” reads one inscription.

… and over the course of the next few years the remains of an estimated six million Parisians were exhumed from more than 40 cemeteries and moved under cover of darkness into the Catacombs.

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The work was done rather hastily, so unfortunately individual remains weren’t identified. At the entrance to the museum are several plaques that list some of the personaities — including Fouquet, Robespierre, Marat, Rabelais, Danton, Pascal, and even The Man in the Iron Mask — whose bones ended up (somewhere) in the Catacombs.

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Walking through the Catacombs today means literally walking through Paris’ history. You’ll see markers that indicate which cemetery the bones came from, and the year in which they were placed here. Other memorials commemorate individual skirmishes or battles, where some of the skulls suggest a violent death.

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Some skulls bore evidence of horrible injuries.

Throughout the Catacombs are also a few fanciful decorations, such as the sculptures left behind by a quarryman named Décure. He was so proud of the second one that he decided to carve some steps so visitors could get closer — but in the process he caused a collapse, which killed him.

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And although the quarry inspectors still carefully monitor these tunnels …

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Small white labels indicate the inspection date and measurement of developing cracks.

… there have been a few other collapses over the years. One such site is reinforced with arches — which, fittingly, rather remind me of a Roman aqueduct.

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Another one, near the end of the tour, has instead been cemented in place. Its name, “cloche de fontis,” aptly suggests the bell-like shape of the collapse.

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This conical collapse site was reinforced with concrete. Lines were later added to denote the layers of stone and sediment, and the inspection date — 1875 — was inscribed at the top of the cone.

Some people may find all of this a bit macabre. But for me, the Catacombs represent both the foundation of the beautiful city I love so much, and also a repository of her history. They are a testament to the millions of people whose lives helped build and shape Paris. And they’re a reminder that no matter how rich or how poor we may be, how powerful or humble, the same fate awaits us all.

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Two skulls are cemented into place, as if to greet the visitors, at the entrance to the ossuary.

I can’t think of a better reminder to celebrate life — and to seize the day.

Want to read more? Here’s the story of my first visit to the Catacombs.

With enormous thanks to Gilles Thomas for his research into — and truly encyclopedic knowledge of — Paris’ underground. (Most of his extensive publications are in French, but Mr. Thomas is happy to answer questions in English. His wonderful book about the Catacombs is also now available in English.)

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