22 November 2014
The walk to objective number two took us through two more small parks one after another, Jardin des Grands Explorateurs and Jardin Marco Polo. We passed the Fontaine de l’Observatoire, designed by Gabriel Davioud and opened in 1874. The four female sculptures by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux represent Europe, Asia, Africa and America and the horses bursting out of the fountain were the work of Emmanuel Frémiet, but the thing that really drew my attention were the turtles sitting in the water. These gentle images full of movement and life were in stark contrast to the dank tunnels filled with old bones that lay ahead. Follow if you dare!
When we came to the end of Avenue Denfert-Rochereau we were slightly dismayed by the size of the queue at the Catacombes. The line stretched from the entrance half way around the block, not quite as bad as the line for Sagrada Familia in Barcelona but, unlike that queue, it didn’t look to be moving. This is mostly because just two hundred people are allowed inside at a time, a quick look at the people waiting in front of us told us we had a long wait.
In the end it was about one and a half hours before we got to the front of the queue. Luckily the time flew past aided by the interesting American family who fell into line behind us. They were at the end of an eight day tour of Europe and we shared stories of the different places we’d visited. They came from California and were suffering a little with the cold while we were positively basking in the late autumn Paris sunshine. Close to the entrance a little added interest came from a minor car accident on the road beside us. We watched amused and pieces of car were picked up and forcefully shoved back into place.
The left bank of Paris is rich in limestone deposits. The Catacombs of Paris began life in the twelfth century as les carrières de Paris, a network of tunnels where this was mined. Many of the city’s buildings were built from this stone but, as the veins of limestone became depleted, the mines were abandoned and, in many cases, forgotten. After a series of cave-ins in the seventeenth century King Louis XVI created the inspection Générale des Carrières to inspect and chart them.
We began our tour of the catacombs by descending one hundred and thirty steps down a narrow spiral staircase. We walked quickly, single file, along a twisting tunnel lit only by the occasional light affixed to the wall. The tunnel seemed to go on and on and, from time to time, we passed barred gateways leading to side tunnels and signs carved into the walls.
About fifteen minutes into our walk, as the air began to feel thin and stale, we came to two galleries sculpted most beautifully into models of Port-Mahon fortress. These were created by a former quarry inspector and the care and detail in them is astonishing.
Shortly after this we passed a deep shaft with water at the bottom. A sign in lights told us this was the foot bath of the miners. After this the tunnels became more ornate, the rough stone walls gave way to a series of arches made from limestone bricks. On a small table we found fossils dug out with the stone, one a huge fossil shell I’d have liked as an ornament at home.
Exactly twenty two minutes after we’d entered the catacombs we came to the main attraction. Over a roughly hewn stone portal the inscription Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort (Stop! This is the Empire of Death). Commando was ahead of me but he turned in the shadow of the doorway. In the photograph I took he has a most sinister look. We were entering the ossuaries, dubbed the world’s largest grave.
During the twelfth century the cemetery of the Saints Innocents Church was the main burial ground for the expanding city of Paris. By the end of the century the graveyard was filled to overflowing and, to make room, the oldest bones were exhumed and placed in galleries built into the cemetery walls. In the spring of 1780 a basement wall in a building next to Les Innocents collapsed under the weight of all the bones behind it. The cemetery was closed, three new burial grounds were created on the outskirts of the city and all burials within the city walls forbidden.
Closing the cemeteries within the city stopped things getting worse but didn’t solve the problem. The Police Prefect, Police Lieutenant-General Alexandre Lenoir, dealing with the cemetery problem was also involved with the renovations of the abandoned mines. The solution was obvious, the bones could be moved to the newly renovated mines. By 1785 a well had been dug above one of the principal passageways to receive the remains. In the spring of that year a nightly procession of wagons covered with black cloths carried the disinterred bones from the cemetery to the mine. The task of emptying the graveyard took two years.
At first the bones were basically dumped anyhow in the disused mines. Things changed when Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury took over as the head of the mine inspection service in 1810. He directed the stacking of skulls and femurs into patterns and used some of the cemetery decorations he found to add further interest along with plaques caved with details of when the bones were reinterred, where they had come from and poetic quotations. Some thought this was all in questionable taste.
From the outset the Catacombs were a curiosity visited by the rich and privileged. After the changes wrought by Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury public visits were allowed a few times a year led by mine overseers. Apart from a brief closure due to church opposition between 1833 and 1867 and again in the autumn of 2009, following an incident of vandalism, the catacombs have been open to the public ever since.
There was a strange silence amongst the crowds that joined me slowly walking past the walls of bones. The only noise came from footsteps echoing on the stone floor. People stopped now and again to take photographs. This is allowed, although flash photography is not. The photos I took have a slightly surreal quality due to the dim light. Some people seemed to hurry through, unnerved by what they saw, others dawdled, stopping now and then. Before long the group had thinned to such an extent I was alone, the people behind me and in front out of sight.
The catacombs contain the remains of around six million people. It was a very humbling experience to stroll slowly amongst them. Each skull was an individual in the same way that each living face is and certain skulls seemed to call out as if they wanted me to notice them. The variations in the colour and shape of the bones seemed to give each an expression and a personality. Some just wanted to be seen.
As I walked deeper into the tunnels the air that had once been dry and dusty became dank and damp. In places water seeped through the stone of the ceiling and small stalactites had begun to form, some dripping down onto the bones. As someone who is not at all at home in small enclosed spaces I was surprised that I didn’t feel the familiar tightening in my stomach. In fact, surrounded by the centuries old bones I felt no fear at all, just a strange sense of awe and peace.
All too soon the wet floor began to slope upwards. My two kilometre walk in the underworld was coming to an end and I was sad to be leaving. There are eighty three spiral steps of stone to the surface, stairs between the world of the dead and that of the living. I climbed them slowly, thoughtfully. It felt like a great privilege to have been allowed to walk there for a while.
Commando was waiting for me as I came, blinking, out into the Paris sun. The bright, noisy world seemed strange and alien after the cool dark of the quiet tomb. Hand in hand we walked in silence back into the world of the living.