Adventure

Beneath Paris Lies a Dark and Forbidden World

The Parisian catacombs were created out of necessity – but today are host to an edgy underground culture. Tuesday, June 18, 2019

By Simon Ingram
Cataphiles exploring the underground world of the Parisian 'catacombs'. Some of the catacombs are open as a tourist attraction; most are off limits. But place-hacking explorers still illicitly find their way in.

It’s an ironic juxtaposition, a terrestrial yin and yang: beneath the City of Light is a city of dark, both literally and otherwise. Here under the modern metropolis of Paris, in an intricate weave around the commuter-carrying metro lines, is a labyrinth of tunnels, chambers and guerrilla artworks. And the remains of six million people.

Described by Victor Hugo as the city’s ‘intestines,’ these are the carrieres, ‘quarries’ – or, inaccurately but more evocatively, the catacombs – of Paris: a network of subterranean spaces reclaimed in the 18th century from collapsing medieval excavations. These excavations once yielded the stone that built the city’s greatest buildings. Now they would serve a new role as the city’s greatest tomb.

The reason? Overcrowding. The cemeteries of Paris were at bursting point, a situation most gruesomely palpable at the Cimetière des Saints-Innocents – by the late 18thcentury the oldest burial ground in Paris. In use since the middle ages as a site for mass graves holding over a thousand corpses at a time, by 1780 the site, home to some two million dead, had become a macabre embarrassment to the city. Bones spilled from charniers – charnel houses – and worsening sanitary conditions were exacerbated by alternating heatwaves and flooding. Travellers to Paris at the time described the smell of the cemetery drifting through the streets. The mass graves burst into the cellars of the surrounding houses. Finally, in 1780 an outbreak of disease around Saints-Innocents prompted a royal decree that closed the site to further burials. With situations similar all over the city, a solution had to be found. 

(Read: Is it time we changed our attitude towards the dead?)

Le Cimetière des Saint-Innocents in around 1550, as visualised by artist Fedor Hoffbauer and published in the book ’Paris: à travers les âges’ in the late 19th century. The charnel house for the bones is to the left: note the many skulls littered around the cemetery. Two hundred years later the situation was much worse.

Answer, below

The creation of the Parisian catacombs solved two problems: the inability of city cemeteries to handle the dead, and the instability of the quarries beneath the city. These were causing collapses in parts of the capital, most notably in 1774 on the site of the present day Avenue Denfert-Rochereau where a sinkhole 20 metres deep opened in the street swallowing houses, and quickly revealing Paris to be a city literally built on fragile foundations. 

The parallel problem of oversubscription to burial grounds within the city was a circumstance not helped by the arrival of the French Revolution, its chaos, and its guillotine – which prompted a sudden influx of new occupants to burial grounds already quite literally bursting at the seams.

Attention then turned underground, and to the network of mines beneath Paris, some dating back to the fourteenth century. Authorities adopted the idea that these former quarries could be strengthened, then used to house the dead in a more dignified and sanitary manner. The Tombe-Issoire quarries, then outside the city, were consecrated in 1786 and over the following 25 years, bones from the cemeteries of Paris were systematically transported in carts by night through the streets, then beneath the ground – although with Paris’s urban expansion, the catacombs were still being intermittently populated until 1860. Dignity wasn't a priority: many skeletons were burned to speed up decay, and some tunnels were filled floor to ceiling with bones, then sealed.

Modern Paris. Beneath the city stretch nearly 200 miles of tunnels.

A macabre fascination

The decision to allow the public into at least some areas of the catacombs was part of their inception. An initial opening on a visit-by-application basis in 1809 was reimagined over the following five years from a simple crypt into a city monument, the rationale being that an educational acquaintance with death was no bad thing. The habit of arranging the bones in an artistic fashion found in other sites across Europe – layers of skulls, femurs and shins creating a kind of organic wall cladding – was deployed here to impressive effect, and remains a striking aesthetic of the museum that stands today.

But this only recruits a small portion of the Parisian catacombs: the tunnels run for nearly two hundred miles as they wriggle through multiple levels beneath the city, and the extended network has played many roles throughout history apart from the grim utility outlined above. Photographic pioneer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar, experimented with early flash photography using magnesium to eerie effect in the catacombs; he described them as a place “that everyone wants to see, and no one wants to see again.” The network was a bolt-hole for both the French resistance and German occupiers during the Second World War, a storage place for wine, a growing place for mushrooms (beneficial humidity, apparently) and various innumerable clandestine activities, from smuggling to tax-free transit beneath the city walls. 

Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar, pioneered early magnesium flash photography in the catacombs in the 1860s, depicting workers depositing bones.

“Photographic pioneer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar, described the catacombs as a place ‘that everyone wants to see, and no one wants to see again.’”

These days, the catacombs are no less active and no less clandestine – but these days very much dominated by the living rather than the dead. The subculture that uses this underworld is populated by the ‘cataphiles’: and they are an underground group in every sense.  

Movement in the dark

“The cataphile community is absolutely huge,” one – who preferred not to be identified – told National Geographic UK. “It encompasses hundreds of thousands of people from many different backgrounds. People go down there to party, explore, relax, even just to take their dogs for a walk.” Despite this, the Parisian catacombs are not a place to enter lightly: outside the boundaries of the public museum, which sees upwards of half a million visitors every year, the catacombs are off-limits in any legal sense. Those who enter do so at their own personal and legal risk, and it’s considerable. 

view gallery

Access is via manholes, secret chatieres (‘cat flaps’) in rail tunnels and other closely-guarded and occasionally hazardous entrances. Cataphiles find ways in as quickly as authorities try to keep them out. Once in, they are then subject to the inherent danger in negotiating unlit, unregulated underground passageways soundtracked by silence, and the occasional seismic rumbles of Paris’s busy metro system; collapses are not unknown.

But while their existence and exploration is secretive, it’s openly so – particularly concerning the GRS, or ‘great southern network’ as it is known. Many artistically-inclined trespassers have created wares on show throughout the tunnels, ranging from graffiti (frowned upon) to cute dioramas, classical-influenced gargoyles and intricate sculptures (fiercely protected) – often created by art students as practice. They make their own maps, and attend to the upkeep. Miners’ lamps are favoured over LED headtorches, for the warm, fantastical glow they give – despite the fact they sometimes explode. There is a small population of shadowy guides, who are apparently as hard to pin down as your location in the catacombs would be without them. 

In recent years alone this underworld has been the feature of Costa Prize winning novel Pure, and the film As Above, So Below. They were the subject of a chapter in British author Robert Macfarlane’s recent book Underlandand Game of Thrones author George R R Martin has been filmed investigating their graffiti-lined tunnels. 

(Read: new book by acclaimed British author explores underground spaces around the world.)

'Cataphiles' exploring the catacombs. Miner's lamps are favoured for their warm light: maps (left) are home-made. Though technically illegal, the cataphile movement is extensive.

“The catacombs are self-policed. They have their own set of rules,” said our source. “There's a great community spirit where people who visit frequently really do look after one another. The cataphile community will band together to rebuild a sculpture or remove graffiti tags from a painting and clean up rubbish and so on. The exchange of money is frowned upon, sharing food and beer is encouraged. There is some unpleasantness too of course - like in any community.” 

Cataphiles communicate and network by leaving ‘tracts’ – pieces of waterproof paper – which are highly sought after and shared online. They sometimes feature artwork or comics and are sometimes signed with people’s cata-name – an alias, often cribbed from suitably fantastical literature. Others feature messages or even party invites. Fine dining, music and poetry recitals and costume (or cheese) parties are not unknown in a culture fiercely protective of its subterranean stage. 

Quarries, not tombs

But contrary to the more memorable imagery, the vast majority of the ‘catacombs’ (most cataphiles refer to the broader network as quarries) are not open graves overflowing with bones. These are generally located only around a few areas, the ossuaries or ‘bone pits’ – rooms once walled in, but all now dug into. Scatterings of bones in the passages suggest these rooms are nearby. Outside of the museum’s displays, skulls are rare – with many having been stolen as souvenirs throughout the centuries – so the sense of funerary grimness doesn’t pervade the entire network, which is thought to stretch around 180 miles. 

But this remains a surreal world where cataphiles exchange pleasantries with telephone and construction workers, where light vanishes, and where the living – if they wish – can rub shoulders with the centuries-dead. All in a world of stone-muted silence beneath the bustling streets of a European capital.  


British photographer Laura Brown captured some of the images for this article. More of her work can be found here.

 

Walls built with skulls in the Les Catacombs de Paris museum. Outside of the museum, skulls are rare – many having been stolen as souvenirs.
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