Empire of the Dead

Catacombs of Paris
Catacombs of Paris Wikipedia

Just beneath Paris, the City of Light and joie de vivre, lies another city, dark, dead and seemingly as vast as Hades itself. Here, under the 14th Arrondissement, may be found the remains of six million Parisians. They ended up in this subterranean region, which stretches out over an area equal to six or seven blocks, for a very simple reason: there was no other place for them.

Over the centuries as Paris grew, its cemeteries became so overcrowded it was necessary to transfer their contents to underground ossuaries just south of the city center. From those same catacombs had come the limestone used to build much of the city itself. Beginning in 1786, hundreds of cartloads of bones were hauled from burial grounds to their new resting place. Individual identities were lost, but it is likely many French luminaries are interred here, including the instigator of the Reign of Terror, Robespierre, his rival who perished at the guillotine, Danton, and Madame de Pompadour, mistress to Louis XV.

Grim though they may be, the catacombs hold a special fascination for young people known as cataphiles, who enjoy illegally exploring off-limits areas, and for 200,000 tourists a year who wait in line to pay $5 for an unsparing vision of mortality.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.