Ellen Lloyd - AncientPages.com - Beneath the streets of Paris there is a huge underground labyrinth with dark galleries and narrow passages. It’s a gruesome place of great historical value. The Paris catacombs contain skeletal remains of some 6 to 7 million former Parisians. The bones were deliberately arranged in a macabre display of high Romantic taste.
Entrance to the catacombs in Paris. Image credit: Wikimedia
Graveyards were closed and bones were moved during the night
Situated south of the former gate "Barrière d'Enfer" beneath Rue de la Tombe-Issoire, the ossuary was founded when city officials were faced with serious problems.
Image credit: travelier.mx
In 1774 a series of cave-ins started and cemeteries were flooded. Something had to be done and it was decided to move the corpses. The graveyards were closed because of the risk they posed to public health. The first of these was the Saint Innocents graveyard in 1786 in what is now the district of Les Halle.
Image credit: Flickr ragamoffyn
Nightly processions of bones from 1786 to 1788 transferred remains from cemeteries to the reinforced tunnels, and more remains were added in later years.
Many of the underground tunnels date back to Roman times
The Catacombs represent the interface between the history of Paris and the Earth's geological evolution. Forty-five million years ago, Paris and the surrounding area were covered by a tropical sea. Dozens of meters of sediment accumulated on the sea bed, forming over lime the limestone deposits visible in the Catacombs today. Geologists worldwide call this period in the history of the world the Lutetian period, alter Lutetia, the Gallo-Roman name for Paris.
Les Innocents cemetery in 1550.
As early as the first century AD, the Gallo-Romans were using this limestone to build Lutetia. From the thirteenth century onwards, the open quarries on the slopes along the river
Some 200 miles of labyrinthine tunnels are believed to exist and many of them have been there since Roman times.
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The Paris catacombs contain remains of many famous people
Many famous people rest in the catacombs of Paris. Among them we find the writers François Rabelais (between 1483 and 1494 -1553), Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1698) and Charles Perrault (1628 - 1703), the sculptor François Girardon (1628 - 1715), the painter Simon Vouet (I590 - 1649), the architects Salomon de Brosse (1571-1626), Claude Perrault (1613 - 1688) and also Jules Hardouin-Mansart (1646 - 1708).
Arranged ossements in the Paris Catacombs. Image credit: Djtox
During the Revolution, people were buried directly in the Catacombs, including members of the Swiss Guard killed in the storming of the Tuileries palace on 10 August 1792 and victims of the massacres in September 1792. The remains of victims of the guillotine transferred there from their original burial pits include Lavoisier (1743 - 1794), Madame Elisabeth (1764 - 1794), Camille and Lucile Desmoulins (1760 - 1794 and 1771 - 1794), Danton (1759 - 1794) and Robespierre (1758 - 1794).
A popular tourist destination
The Catacombs of Paris became a "curiosity" for more privileged Parisians from their creation. Many famous people visited the underground labyrinth and the first known visitor was the Count of Artois who later became France's King Charles X. In 1814, Francis I, the Emperor of Austria living victoriously in Paris, visited them. In 1860, Napoleon III went down with his son.
Image credit: Flickr Adelcambre
Due to their old age, the quarries not part of the official Catacombs have been deemed unsafe by Parisian officials. However, this has not prevented secret societies, thieves, artists and the curious public from entering the dangerous network.
Image credit: Flickr John Kroll
The Paris Catacombs re-opened on June 14th 2005, after several months of closure for building work. The lighting has been adjusted, the vaults strengthened and the walls of bones put back.
Written by Ellen Lloyd – AncientPages.com
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