Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Catacombs of Paris - Day 1

Our first scheduled stop of the morning was Les Catacombs. I knew which Metro stop to take, and we saw one sign when we got off, but nothing after that. We crossed a few intersections, all while making a vague circle. I even tried asking a passer-by, a young French woman, but she apparently couldn't get past my horrendous French accent, or just wanted to pretend ignorance that such a thing existed. When all was said and done, we were only about 50 m from the entrance. My goodness! I didn't think it was THAT horrendous. I saw a green kiosk-looking thing inside a little fenced area, and sure enough, that was the entrance. It was practicing being incognito.

After paying the entrance fee (8 Euro), we went down a seemingly endless spiral staircase. (There was a sign at the exit indicating that that one was 83 steps, so this one must have been close to that.) It's far enough underground to be under the Metro lines. 

At first, it's just a lot of walking through tunnels. I found out later that it's a 1.5 km walk through the mining tunnels to get to the ossuary entrance. Lots and lots of tunnels. Lots and lots of walking. Hard to judge distance when it's just tunnels and more tunnels and hey look! another tunnel! There were signs here and there talking about the history of the mines, so it wasn't completely boring.

 And then there were little architectural touches like this that helped to break up the monotony.

This was an underground pool that the miners found quite accidentally one day, when they walked into it. It's so clear that it wasn't distinguishable from the ground. Now it is fenced off so that other similar accidents don't happen. This picture does not do justice to the clarity or depth of the water. It's a little breath-taking in real life, because you think, "Holy cow. I could totally fall into that and drown and no one would know."

This was a little diversion that one of the miners carved into the soft limestone rock. It's a model of some port city (Italy, maybe?) that he did from memory. There's a little room of his carvings, and the detail is astounding.

That same man was killed in a cave-in that happened during excavating more walls for him to do more carvings. (Or something like that. I'm kind of vague on the details because of all the walking. Like pioneer children we walked.)

As we drew closer to the actual catacombs entrance, I began feeling a bit apprehensive. Creeped out a tad, not knowing exactly how all these bones would be presented. The only thing I knew was what I heard from two separate people: "Imagine what it will be like during the resurrection. Bones flying everywhere!" So yeah, I was feeling apprehensive. The sign below didn't really help much. "Empire of the dead?"

First, a little history lesson. What are the catacombs and what are they doing underneath Paris?

By the 10th century, many of Paris's parish cemeteries were getting overcrowded. An attempt to remedy this situation came in the early 12th century with the opening of a central mass burial ground for those not wealthy enough to pay for a church burial. Once an excavation in one section of the cemetery was full, it would be covered over and another opened. As you can imagine, this was not exactly a sanitary situation as decaying organic matter entered directly into the ground, affecting the city's main water source - wells.

By the 17th century, the sanitary conditions around Saints Innocents had become unbearable. As it was one of Paris's most sought-after cemeteries and a large source of revenue for the parish and church, the clergy had continued burials there even when its grounds were filled to overflowing. By then, the cemetery was lined on all four sides with "charniers" reserved for the bones of the dead exhumed from mass graves that had "lain" long enough for all the flesh they contained to decompose. Once emptied, a mass sepulchre would be used again, but even then, the earth was already filled beyond saturation with decomposing human remains.

The catacombs in their first years were mainly a bone repository, but  Louis-√Čtienne H√©ricart de Thury oversaw the renovations that would transform the underground caverns into a real and visitable sepulture on par with any mausoleum. In addition to directing the arrangement of skulls and femurs into the configuration seen in the catacombs today, he used those tombstones and cemetery decorations he could find (many had disappeared after the 1789 Revolution) to complement the walls of bones.

There about six million bodies in the ossuary. 

No flash photography was allowed. Luckily, I had a little high-powered flashlight with me (I travel prepared) that I used to illuminate the bone walls enough to get these pictures. I really enjoy the x-ray/midnight lighting of the first one, though they weren't all like that. While I didn't necessarily feel like I was walking on sacred ground, you could definitely tell that this had all been done with a great deal of reverence and respect. And "wall of bones" is really a very apt description.

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