Since Halloween and El Dia De Los Muertos are here, people celebrate the dead with festivities and reflect on the lives of the deceased. Typically, people prefer to keep the dead out of sight and out of mind. However, things were different many years ago. Catacombs were first used as burial sites for Jewish and Christian communities. They did not believe in burning the dead via cremation so they preferred to bury their deceased loved ones. Some shrines and catacomb halls were made larger to celebrate the lives of saints and martyrs. Some of the largest catacomb halls in the world lead to some chapels and other religious buildings.
Aside from burials, catacombs served other purposes. Families held feasts to celebrate the dead on the day of the burial and its anniversary. Due to their intriguing layouts, the catacombs were secret passageways throughout cities and used as hiding spots for criminals and civil commotion. Catacombs are in different countries such as France, Lebanon, Egypt, Italy, and several islands in the Mediterranean.
Nowadays, people visit catacombs as a tour site or to celebrate their deceased ancestors. This article will cover the nine catacombs you can really visit.
1. Catacombs of Rome
The Catacombs of Rome are widely known as the most extensive catacombs in the world. These catacombs are in a circle three miles outside of the center of the city. Over sixty different chambers have been discovered in the circle. However, five of the catacombs are only open to the public. They’re near the main roads that lead people to the city. The five catacombs are:
- Catacombs of San Sebastiano: This catacomb is named after a soldier, San Sebastiano. He is a recognized martyr for converting to Christianity. It’s a twelve-kilometer-long catacomb.
- Catacombs of Priscilla: This specific catacomb is famous for its many different artworks, including the very first depiction of the Virgin Mary.
- Catacombs of Domitilla: this fifteen-kilometer-long catacomb owes its name to the granddaughter of the Vespasian.
- Catacombs of San Callisto: This twenty-kilometers-long catacomb is the burial home of many Christian martyrs.
- Catacombs of Sant’Agnese: This catacomb is named after another famous Christian martyr.
People can reserve a tour or take the bus to the catacombs. The guided tours are in Spanish.
2. Brno Ossuary
Brno Ossuary is a Cezch Republic catacomb that’s beneath the town of Brno. Archeologists found the catacomb in 2001 during a pre-construction dig. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the bones were very organized and the walls were kept very well. However, years of erosion, mud, and neglect misarranged them. Thanks to the discovery, the town cleaned and reorganized the catacombs. Brno officials opened the channel to the public in 2012. Many bones such as skulls, femurs, ribs, and more form the catacomb walls and fill the chambers. The bones are painted in different colors. The red bones signify that the deceased have died from the plague and the yellow bones are people who passed away from cholera. It contains over fifty thousand bodies, making it the second-largest catacomb in the world after this next entry.
3. Catacombes De Paris
Catacombes De Paris or the Paris Catacombs has over two hundred miles of bone-filled walls. The walls have an engraved phrase at the entrance of the catacombs saying: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort”, or “Stop! This is the Empire of Death!”
Paris Catacombs has over six million bodies in the underground sanctuary. The large country’s cemeteries were quickly piling up bodies in the seventeenth century, especially the Les Innocents. In the late seventeenth century, a basement adjoining the cemetery collapsed and sent the bodies tumbling into the adjoining property. The King of France, King Louis XVI, needed to find a solution, and quickly. Prior to the incident, the French government had commenced some underground digging to explore the underground after a similar collapsing incident on a notable house. King Louis XVI shut down the cemeteries for three years. That resulted in the creation of the catacombs. The bodies that fell out of Les Innocents were transferred to the Catacombes De Paris.
The French began public visitation to the catacombs in 1814. Visitation at the time wasn’t as frequent as today’s visitation rules. People could only visit the catacombs a few times a year with the approval of a mine inspector. Then in the later 1800s, visitation increased to a few times a month. In the early 1900s, visitation became a daily thing. The catacombs are directly under the Paris streets. The max capacity is two hundred people per tunnel and it’s open daily.
4. Capuchin Monastery Catacombs
The Capuchin Monastery Catacomb is famous for its appearance. Many humans don’t like to be reminded of how postmortem decay looks. Unless you’re a mortician of course. Inside the Palmero catacomb, the Capuchin monks have deceased monk members quasi-mummified and propped up on the walls since the late 1500s. The monk bodies are set on tables, can be seen in glass coffins, and hung on the wall. There’s a plaque in the catacomb that states, “We were what you are… you will become what we are now.” The catacomb today has over 4,000 monk bodies from 1528 to 1870.
5. Stephensdom Crypt
In Vienna, Austria the St. Stephens Cathedral overshadows much of the city. St. Stephens Cathedral was home to the first royal Austrian family, the Hapsburgs. They made it an elegant affair. The bodies would be laid to rest in the Imperial Crypt, the hearts would go in urns at the church, and the viscera (internal organs) would be sealed underneath Stephendom. St. Stephens Cathedral offers tours through the guts-filled jars and catacomb walls. The catacomb walls hold around 11,000 bodies. One area of the cathedral holds the coffins of Rudolph IV (1339-1365) and his family. Rudolph IV was once the Duke of Austria. He played a significant part in the construction of the cathedral.
The tour also takes visitors through the newer parts of the cathedral. The newer parts were an expansion of the catacomb that stretched further out of the cathedral above in the mid-1800s. There are several rooms that hold scattered bones. In those rooms, there is a gravemark for people who fell victim to the plague. It can either be an exciting tour or a Goosebumps-like novel story adventure where people turn their heads to peek behind their shoulders. Just make sure that you’re not last in line during the tour.
6. Catacombs Of Kom El-Shoqafa
“Kom El-Shoqafa” stands for mounds of shards in Arabic. The catacombs were once a seventh wonder of the world in the medieval times. It was discovered in 1900 after a journeyman’s donkey fell through the ground and into the area. After the discovery, German archeologists explored the site further and found a rotunda. The rotunda led to a dining room where relatives of the deceased would visit and have dinner there. To bring plates above ground from the room was bad practice, so they broke the plates; hence the name “Kom El-Shoqafa” or mounds of shards.
Today, visitors can explore the different parts of the catacombs. Its depths are more than one hundred feet deep underground. The main burial tomb features three sarcophagi. They’re decorated with an ox skull, the heads of gorgons, and garlands. That room includes different reliefs of important Egyptian figures circling the main tomb.
7. Odessa Catacombs
Odessa is very much underneath the city of Odessa, Ukraine. The catacombs have over one thousand entrances but visitors can’t go through the catacombs without an official tour guide. It’s one of the longest underground passages in the world. Ironic enough, the Odessa catacombs were initially never used as a burial ground. The prime purpose of the catacombs was to be underground tunnels. Although they were never used as grave sites, mummified bodies are found every now and again.
The catacombs also serve as a bomb shelter. There’s a Cold War nuclear bomb shelter that uses the catacombs’ narrow pathways as a foundation. It’s also home to many different coal paintings etched on the walls with inscriptions underneath. Exploring the catacombs can be an adventurous time. Some travelers have reported seeing a decaying body that appeared to be a World War II soldier. Another sighting involved a Soviet secret police agency. In 1941, thirty-two members were sent to the catacombs to sabotage Romanian allies of the German Nazis during WWII. At that time, the Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union. Albeit their fates were unknown for many years, historic documents revealed that only one of them made it out of the catacombs.
It’s a popular underground maze city that amazes Ukraine residents and visitors worldwide.
8. Hal Saflieni Hypogeum
Many historians view the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum as an underground complex that’s home to a lost civilization. It covers a remarkable five hundred square meters and lies on the summit of a hill in Paola. It was discovered in 1902 by a stone mason in the middle of laying foundations for multiple houses. The upper levels of the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum consist of burial chambers on each side of a center passage. Its middle and lower levels have halls, chambers, and passages carved out of limestone. The Maltese people constructed the catacombs around 4,000 B.C.E. Its archaeological marvels include areas named the Snake Pit and the Holy of Holies.
9. St. Michan’s Church
This catacomb is in Dublin, Ireland. It may be an unusual place to find corpses but never say never. Oddly enough, people can view the bodies under the church thanks to a loophole from the church. Its interesting history begins in 1095 when the church served many ostracized Vikings. As the church was rebuilt, so was the happenings of what was underground.
There are several reasons as to why the catacomb has been preserved for this long. One is that the church was built over former swamp land. Some can assume that the gases from the swamp can act as a preservative to the bodies. Another is that the basement is made of limestone. Limestone helps keep the area dry, which helps with mummification. Other theories circulate around the church building itself and if anyone kept working on the catacomb. The loophole mentioned earlier is that the church says it is inappropriate to break the coffins to find the bodies. Therefore, when the wooden coffins deteriorate, the mummies sometimes fall out.
“The Big Four”
The key attractions in St. Michan’s catacombs are the “big four.” They’re four mummies with open coffins that people can look into. One is “The Thief” as it is missing parts of both feet and a hand. It’s said that the hand was cut off as a form of punishment. Yet, it is believed the thief converted as a priest. Because of that, the thief was buried in the church. Another one is “The Unknown”. The Unknown doesn’t have any outstanding features or stories behind it. The third one is a small woman that people call “The Nun.”
The last figure is “The Crusader”, an eight-hundred-year-old corpse. Many people believe he was a crusader who died during battle or died shortly after returning from battle. He was six and a half feet tall, which people thought of as tall as a giant at the time. His legs were broken so his body could fit in the coffin. His hand lays out of the coffin and it was once encouraged for people to give it a handshake. The catacomb also holds famous mathematicians, rebels, and the many Earls of Kenmare.
The catacombs are open for limited hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call the church to make a visit reservation in advance.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Frank Bach/Shutterstock.com
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