Tales from the Crypt: Exploring the World's Most Famous Catacombs
Beneath the streets and buildings of many of the world's most historic cities lie mysterious and ancient catacombs. These underground burial sites hold the remains of thousands of people and have been shrouded in myth and legend for centuries. From the ornate and eerie famous catacombs of Paris to the mysterious tunnels beneath the ancient city of Rome, these sites offer a fascinating glimpse into the past and the cultures that created them.
Walking through the dimly lit passageways, visitors can feel the weight of history and the solemnity of those who have gone before. These catacombs are at once beautiful and haunting and continue to inspire awe and wonder in those who dare to explore them. In this article, we explore the world's most famous catacombs and discover the secrets that lie hidden beneath the surface of our cities.
#1 Famous Catacombs: The Ancient Burials and Catacombs of Rome
Under the busy streets of Rome hides a vast network of underground tunnels, tombs and burial chambers that were once used for the internment of ancient Rome’s dead. Many of the catacombs are believed to date as far back as the 2nd century AD and were used until the 5th century AD.
The Catacombs of Rome are divided into different sections, with each section usually being dedicated to the burial of a particular group. For instance, the Catacombs of San Callisto were predominantly used for Christian burials, while the Catacombs of San Sebastiano were used for a mixture of Christian and pagan burials. These catacombs are also known for their elaborate frescoes which depict scenes from the bible.
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Perhaps the most famous of the catacombs are the Catacomb of Priscilla, named after a noblewoman buried there in the 2nd century AD. The catacomb is believed to be one of the oldest sections and is one of the most important Christian burial sites in Rome.
Today, the catacombs are an important site for scholars and historians studying Roman burial practices and beliefs. They are also a popular tourist attraction for those wishing to explore Rome’s underground tunnels and chambers.
The famous Catacombs of Paris. (Guy Bryant / Adobe Stock)
#2 Famous Catacombs: The Paris Catacombs & Public Health Concerns
Paris’s Catacombs may not be the oldest in Europe, but they’re probably the most famous catacombs on the continent. They were originally created by the Romans who dug limestone quarries which were used to build the city above. Their use as catacombs actually only dates back to the 18th century.
The city’s cemeteries had become overcrowded, causing public health concerns. From the late 18th century onwards officials sought to rectify the problem by relocating the dead. The Inspector General of Quarries was tasked with moving the remains of six to seven million people to the former Roman quarries which were officially consecrated for the purpose.
Over the next few years, the remains of millions of Parisians were moved to the Paris catacombs, where they were arranged in decorative patterns and designs. The catacombs were also used as a repository for the remains of those who died during the French Revolution, including many victims of the guillotine.
The famous Catacombs of Paris were opened to the public in the 19th century, with people soon developing a macabre obsession with the old bones. The catacombs also contain an underground spring, a sepulchral lamp and ancient sculptures. Eventually, officials were forced to block off all but roughly 200 feet (61 m) of the tunnels to the public, although this hasn’t stopped rebels and thieves from exploring the rest - and getting lost in the process.
#3 Famous Catacombs: The Medieval Catacombs of Alexandria
Dating back to between the 2nd Century AD and the 5th Century AD, the Catacombs of Alexandria, also known as the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa, are considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval Ages.
The famous Catacombs of Alexandria are made up of a series of underground tunnels and tombs that were carved out of the rock beneath the city. The tombs consist of several levels, with the catacombs becoming older and more impressive the lower down one goes.
The catacombs can be divided into three main levels, with each level having a different use. The first level was used for the burial of animals, the second for the burial of non-royal citizens, and then the third, the most impressive, was reserved for royalty and other high-profile figures.
One of the highlights of the Catacombs of Alexandria is the Hall of Caracalla, an enormous chamber that is more than 100 feet (30 m) long and 60 feet (18 m) wide. It was originally built to house the remains of the Roman Emperor Caracalla, but after he was assassinated in 217 AD his body was never brought to Alexandria. Instead, the chamber was used for other important figures.
#4 Famous Catacombs: Mixed Burials at the Rabat Catacombs of Malta
The tombs beneath the city of Rabat in Malta date back to between the 4th and 9th centuries AD. They consist of a network of underground tunnels and tombs that were used for the burial of the dead when Rabat was still known as the Roman city of Melite.
The interesting thing about the Catacombs at Rabat is that unlike most other catacombs found in the region, the tunnels were used to bury people of different denominations with no divisions. Jews, Christians, and pagans were all buried together.
The catacombs were also once used to host ceremonial meals that commemorated the dead and the tunnels still feature large stone dining tables. The catacombs feature canopied burial chambers, many of which are decorated with drawings and messages.
The remains of Rosalia Lombardo, the last person to be buried at the famous Catacombs of the Capuchins. (Public domain)
#5 Famous Catacombs: Mummified Monks at the Catacombs of the Capuchins
Hidden beneath the bustling streets of Palermo, Sicily, lies a captivating sight known as the Catacombe dei Cappucini, or the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. Unveiled in the 16th century, these famous catacombs and subterranean corridors were born out of necessity when the cemetery within Palermo's esteemed Capuchin monastery reached its capacity.
The first person to be buried there was the monk Silvestro of Gubbio, who was mummified and placed in the famous catacombs. It was discovered that the tunnels preserved his body remarkably well and so the catacombs were approved as the new burial place for the Capuchin monks.
The bodies of these mummified monks were dehydrated on racks of ceramic pipes and then washed with vinegar. Depending on a monk’s status, some were embalmed while some were enclosed in glass cabinets. Friars were buried in their everyday clothing.
As time went on, being buried in the catacombs became a status symbol. In later centuries local nobles would state in their wills that they wished to be preserved at Capuchin. Some would go as far as stating what clothes they wished to be displayed in, or stated they wanted their clothes changed at set intervals.
The burials within the Catacombs of the Capuchins proved to be a prosperous endeavor for the monks, evolving into a thriving business venture. Maintained via donations made by the families of the deceased, new bodies were placed in a temporary niche before being put in a permanent location. As long as the family kept paying, the body remained front and center. If they stopped paying, the body was removed and put on a shelf.
The last person to be buried at Capuchin was a two-year-old girl called Rosalia Lombardo. She died in 1920 of pneumonia and now lies under a blanket, a bow in her hair and a hauntingly calm expression on her face. Visitors have remarked that it looks as if she is sleeping and in Sicily she is known as sleeping beauty.
#6 Famous Catacombs: Middle Age Burials at St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna
At the heart of Vienna sits St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a beautiful church in the gothic style that dates back to 1137 AD. Beneath this cathedral lies a network of catacombs used to bury the dead during the Middle Ages.
These famous Viennese catacombs were first used as a burial site in the 12th century AD. It has always been an honor to be buried within or below a church. This meant that the wealthy citizens of Vienna were buried in the catacombs, while those of lesser status were buried in the cemeteries that surrounded St. Stephen’s.
This remained the case until an outbreak of the bubonic plague hit the city in the 1730s. The cemeteries of the city were emptied in an attempt to slow down the spread of the disease and many of the bodies found their way into the catacombs. While many of the skeletons were piled into neat rows, with skulls on top, in some areas the bones were just dumped in disorganized piles. It’s believed that the catacombs ended up holding the remains of as many as 11,000 people.
Amidst the unsettling stacks of bones, the catacombs at St. Stephen’s Cathedral harbor another eerie spectacle: the ducal crypt. Within this solemn section, the organs and viscera of esteemed princes, princesses, queens and emperors found their resting place, including the preserved stomach of Hapsburg Queen Maria Teresa.
#7 Famous Catacombs: The Czech Republic’s Brno Ossuary - A Fascinating Repository of Bones
While the sacred remains of 11,000 people may sound like a lot, that’s nothing compared to what was found under the city of Brno in 2001. During a routine renovation of the Church of St. James, the skeletons of at least 50,000 people were discovered.
The site, known as an Ossuary (a site used to store human bones), is believed to have been in use throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The various cemeteries surrounding the church had become overcrowded so local officials had the bodies exhumed and moved to the ossuary, where they were stored in a series of underground chambers and corridors.
Originally the bones were stacked in neat rows, with some of them being arranged in decorative patterns and designs. Regrettably, throughout the years, water infiltrated the tunnels, resulting in the jumbling up of numerous bones. Despite this unfortunate occurrence, the site is reputed to be the second largest ossuary in Europe, rivaling the Paris catacombs in its magnitude and significance.
The famous Catacombs of Saint Gennaro in Naples. (Dominik Matus / CC BY-SA 4.0)
#8 Famous Catacombs: Early Christian Burials at the Salzburg Catacombs
We usually associate catacombs with being buried under the ground, but the Salzburg Catacombs in Austria are a little different. Carved into the face of the Monchsberg rock next to St. Peter’s cemetery, no one is sure when construction on the catacombs began. Nevertheless, it’s likely they were built by early Christians at some point between 400 and 800 AD.
It is widely believed that in ancient times, these caves held a mystical allure, serving as a sacred burial ground for certain Christians. During the later Roman period, when practicing Christianity openly was perilous, these caves likely became a clandestine sanctuary for secretive worship and devotion.
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Following the establishment of St. Peter's Church in the 7th century, the catacombs became a burial ground for both the church's monks and nearby nobles. The now-famous catacombs feature two remarkable chapels; The Gertraudenkapelle, consecrated in 1178, stands as a testament to centuries of devotion, while The Margarethenkapelle, constructed in 1491, showcases the architectural prowess of its time.
#8 Famous Catacombs: The Catacombs di San Gennaro
Deep beneath the streets of Naples, near the San Gennaro Church, lies an amazing collection of ancient underground tombs. The earliest levels of the catacombs are believed to have been dug as early back as the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD during the early era of Christianity.
Until the 11th century, the catacombs were predominantly used for the burial of Naples’s bishops and local nobility. But, as in the case of other famous catacombs mentioned in this article, their use changed in the 15th century when a plague hit the city and the catacombs had to be used for the burial of victims of the plague.
Secrets, Burials, and Enigmas Hidden in Famous Catacombs Beneath Our Cities
The catacombs of the world are a testament to the ingenuity, creativity, and enduring memory of humanity. From the grandeur of the Catacombs of Rome to the chilling beauty of the Paris Catacombs, these underground sites offer a glimpse into the past and the cultures that created them.
Despite the passage of time, the catacombs continue to inspire awe and wonder, drawing visitors from all over the world to explore their dimly lit passageways and hidden chambers. Whether you're a history buff, an adventure seeker, or simply curious about the mysteries that lie beneath your feet, the catacombs offer a unique and unforgettable experience that is not to be missed.
Top image: Representative image of human skulls in one of the famous catacombs around the world. Source: mila103 / Adobe Stock
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