Twisting 18 metres beneath Paris' avenues and streets are miles of tunnels piled high with the bones and skulls of millions of the inhabitants of this ancient city.
One the one hand Paris is the City of Light – high culture, fine art and finer cuisine – but on the other it is the City of Night – an ancient town of hidden alleys, forgotten crypts and the meandering tunnels of the 'catacombs'. It is reckoned that Parisians have dug over 241 kilometres of subterranean passageways under their city, many dating back to medieval times. None is more infamous than the Municipal Ossuary – now called the Paris Catacombs – the City's very own 'Empire of Death.'
A final resting place for six million Parisians, from a millennium of burials, the Paris Catacombs only started to be filled with the bones of the dead 200 years ago. But the chillingly creative ways in which bones and skulls have been placed and stacked, in giant sculptural mounds, suggests something more ancient and primal. Descend into the Paris Catacombs and you descend into a rather intimate encounter with mortality and death.
It's a trip that millions of visitors have taken, since the Catacombs opened to visitors in the 19th century. The entrance is located in the Place Denfert-Rochereau, in the Montparnasse district. Once inside, you spiral down to some eighteen metres beneath the streets, and are guided to the entrance to 'l'empire de la Mort'. Inside, the endless walls of yellowed bones, inter-layered with skulls, are an arresting and astonishing sight.
The reason for this macabre display dates back to the earlier Parisian custom of burying their dead within the city's walls. The churchyards in this crowded city filled up rapidly, and many churches had to pile burials one atop the other. Health worries led to the removal, in 1786, of bones from all of Paris' churches, and across hundreds centuries of burials. They were re-interred in the tunnels of the catacombs. But it was the dark imaginative genius of Héricart de Thury, Inspector General of Quarries, who turned the Municipal Ossuary into the 'Empire of Death' in 1810.
He directed the artistic arrangement of bones, interleaving them with tombstones and cemetery decorations. Since then visitors including the Emperor of Austria and Napoleon III have descended its stairs to explore its morbid magnificence. And you can too.