One of the many entrances to the Catacombs of Paris. Credit: Jumpstory

There’s a Massive Subterranean World Beneath One of Europe’s Largest and Oldest Cities

Would you enter the world's largest catacombs?

The most mysterious and eerie attraction in Paris is the catacombs filled with human bones, or, scientifically, an ossuary. The largest ossuary in the world. Tourists are offered the opportunity to walk through 2 km of tunnels, but many know that the true scale of underground corridors is many times greater.

Paris back in time

A thousand years ago, Paris was still small enough to fit into two central districts. But the city was permanently built and rebuilt, for which a lot of stone was needed. The material was mined in the nearest suburbs. In the south – limestone, in the north – gypsum.

Over time, the development sites entered the city limits. The parks of Buttes Chaumont and Belleville were planted at the sites of open quarries. For a long time, underground mines were simply idle as unnecessary, until it became necessary to disband the overcrowded cemeteries of Paris.

There is not an ounce of fiction in this story. Imagine a thousand-year-old cemetery that cannot grow outside the church territory. In some places, the layer of burials reached 10 m. Under pressure, the walls of the cemetery could not withstand and the contents spilled out onto the street. To put things in order, church cemeteries had to be banned, and all the bones had to be washed and put somewhere where there was a place. Old quarries, for example.

Less than a hundred years later, it turned out that many are interested in visiting the underground necropolis. In 1867, organized excursions were started. And now tourists are lining up hourly queues! Therefore, it is better to buy a ticket in advance.

Cataphiles – Catacomb Lovers

The Catacombs in Paris are practically the largest cemetery in the world. Credit: 360Cities
The Catacombs in Paris are practically the largest cemetery in the world. Credit: 360Cities

Such a “colorful” place, and even shrouded in uncertainty, inevitably attracts attention. Some seek to find something valuable there, others go for the thrills. People who do not suffer from a fear of the dark and closed spaces, and love catacombs, have received the nickname cataphiles.

Napoleon III himself liked to go down to the catacombs, hold meetings there, and meet important guests. Did he try to embarrass those he met? Maybe.

The catacombs have many exits to the surface, often through the basements of buildings. In 1955, uncontrolled walking in the dungeon was banned, and just in case, many passages were walled up. The cataphiles were outlawed, but they were not very worried about it.

Celebrities in obscurity within the catacombs in Paris

The contents of all the cemeteries of Paris from the previous thousand years were packed into an underground crypt. According to rough estimates, there are from 6 to 7 million people. Of course, famous historical figures also got there.

It is certain that the leaders of the Great French Revolution Robespierre and Danton, scientists Pascal and Lavoisier, the writers Charles Perrot and Francois Rabelais were lost in the catacombs. But there is good reason to believe that they are accompanied by the father of the French theater, Moliere, and the inventor of the fable, Jean de La Fontaine.

Their official graves are in the Père Lachaise cemetery, but La Fontaine’s sarcophagus is absolutely empty, and Moliere was originally buried behind the cemetery fence, and without a tombstone, so it is already impossible to establish the authenticity of the remains.

Buildings in Paris are at risk because of the catacombs

The total length of the Paris catacombs has been estimated to at least 300 kilometers although most of them are closed to the public. Credit: Chiefhardy/Pixabay
The total length of the Paris catacombs has been estimated to at least 300 kilometers although most of them are closed to the public. Credit: Chiefhardy/Pixabay

You can’t even imagine how porous the soil is under Paris. A significant part of the catacombs passes at the depth of a five-story building, which is deeper than the metro and sewers, but in other places, the tunnels pass closer to the surface. It is quite dangerous to build high-rise buildings in such an area. An entire block fell into the catacombs, along with the inhabitants, twice in history. In both cases, people died tragically.

In part, the situation is saved by the existing ban on the construction of buildings above 6 floors for reasons of urban aesthetics. But in some places, the former quarries will not withstand even a three-story building.

These unusual neighborhoods have a special low-rise comfort. If you’re looking for unusual Parisian spots, head to Buttes-aux-Cailles in the 13th arrondissement or the Musailles in the 19th arrondissement by the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.

Another danger for the catacombs awaits on the inside. Groundwater periodically fills some of the tunnels. Louis XVI fought against this, when they used the simplest method – they filled the passages with concrete. However, the risk remains.

You can get seriously lost

The open area of ​​the catacombs is about 11 thousand square meters. In many corridors, there are even signs with the names of streets passing on the surface. But it doesn’t help much, you can really get lost there.

This was not expected by the caretaker of a Parisian church, Philibert Asper. In 1793 he went in search of wine cellars and disappeared. He was found only 11 years later.

In the 20th century, two children descended into the catacombs. They were found alive only thanks to the service dogs. There are many similar stories about the Catacombs in Paris, some truly terrifying. While walking along the tourist route in the catacombs, it is better not to try to get lost because even with most passages being closed to the public today, you never know where you may end up.

Room Z

When the catacombs were officially opened to the public, officials arranged the bones in a more "artistic" manner to make the place more attractive. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
When the catacombs were officially opened to the public, officials arranged the bones in a more “artistic” manner to make the place more attractive. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Empty dungeons were often home to those who had no home. And in the 20th century, such deep underground passages, of course, were adapted for bomb shelters. The very first was built in 1934 and during the German occupation of Paris, there was a secret German bunker underground. It was located far at the end of one of the tunnels, so it was named Room Z.

It was far from the only bunker in the catacombs. Much later after the war, fans of dungeons, drawing up a detailed map, found out that there were only 500 m between the bunkers of the Nazis and the resistance! There is absolutely no hearing underground, so they could not find each other.

In the 70s, when the wave of punk culture swept over Paris, illegal parties were held in Room Z. It was well suited for this with its high 4-meter ceiling.

Prohibited activities that once may have happened in the Paris catacombs

Over the years, Parisian reporters tried to accuse the cataphiles of Satanism, voodoo, Nazism, and other sinister addictions with eerie rituals. But catacomb researcher Gilles Thomas claims that there are no more black masses underground than on the surface.

In fact, all activities are prohibited in the catacombs of Paris. Decades back, there definitely were illegal parties, meetings, and movie screenings.

For anyone who bravely decided to visit the catacombs, we recommend buying tickets in advance. During the hot season, the line at the entrance can scare anyone away. How to get to the non-tourist part, we don’t know. You need a cataphile guide.


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Sources:

Atlas Obscura. (2009, February 13). Catacombes de Paris.
Avakian, T. (2015, June 26). Step inside the Catacombs, Paris’ most BIZARRE tourist attraction.
Geiling, N. (2014, March 28). Beneath paris’ city streets, there’s an empire of death waiting for tourists.
Shea, N., & Alvarez, P. (2017, September 14). Under Paris.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. My experience as a freelance writer began in 2018 but I have been part of the Curiosmos family since mid-2020. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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