Catacombs are simply man made underground tunnels and caverns that are often associated with the burial and storage of corpses. However there is something about them that invokes fear, apprehension, and yet morbid curiosity amongst us. Hidden away from the light and prying eyes of the city above, they are places that are often unknown and unexplored, where our imaginations can run wild.
These are my choices for 5 of the creepiest catacombs in the world.
5. The Monastery of San Francisco, Lima, Peru
Completed in 1774, on the outside the monastery of San Francisco is a beautiful and pristine example of Spanish architecture. However beneath the monastery lies a morbid secret that lay hidden from the view of the living for many years, before being discovered again in 1943.
Below the Monastery lay the bones of an estimated 25,000 to 70,000 people who were buried in the catacombs up until 1808 when a new cemetery was opened on the outskirts of Lima, and the catacombs ceased to be of use. It is said that when the catacombs were in use, they were so popular that the monks would coat recently received bodies with quicklime so that they would decompose to skeletons faster.
The main area of the catacombs contains pits filled with bones that are said to be 5 story’s deep. Once the bodies decomposed, the monks would separate out all the bones and group them together by bone type in the pits. The crowning attraction of the crypts though, is the circular tomb containing rings of skulls and bones, producing a morbid and creepy pattern of death.
To further add mystery to the catacombs beneath lima, It is also rumoured that secret passageways exist which connect the Cathedral to the tribunal of the Holy inquisition – perhaps the bones of innocent victims of the inquisition lay deep down in the catacombs.
4. St Stephens Cathedral, Vienna, Austria
The Grand Cathedral of St Stephens sits atop the ruins of two other churches, dating back to as early as 1147, and is also said to be on the grounds of an ancient Roman cemetery dating back to the 4th century, so the land around the cathedral is no stranger to being used as a resting place for the dead.
Such a prestigious location was of course very popular with the rich and powerful, and they were buried inside the cathedral for hundreds of years. Those of lower rank were buried outside in the cemetery, however after an outbreak of plague in 1735, the cemeteries were closed and the bones buried within them were unceremoniously moved to the catacombs beneath the cathedral, which are now said to hold the remains of over 11,000 people in great piles of skulls and bones, a gruesome sight which greets the many tourists who visit the catacombs every year.
3. The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Italy
In the 15th century the cemetery attached to the Capuchin monastery ran out of space, and so the monks began digging below the monastery to construct crypts, which were intended to be used as the final resting place for the monastery’s friars, but also became desirable for the rich and well to do, whom the monks were more than happy to accommodate in exchange for a sizeable fee.
The catacombs hold an estimated 8000 corpses and 1200 mummies. What makes the capuchin catacombs so eerie are the mummified corpses, which are visible throughout the crypts, and include children. In recent years bars have been erected to prevent tourists from touching and posing with the mummies for photographs, but hundreds of mummified corpses in various states of decomposition line the walls, many fully clothed and set in creepy rigid poses.
2. Odessa Catacombs, Ukraine
Stretching 60 metres deep below the city of Odessa, and spread over three levels, the Odessa catacombs are the result of stone mining. Long after the mines were abandoned, they were once again given purpose by local smugglers, who widened the tunnels to aid in carrying out their nefarious activities far below the city and out of sight of the law, and more recently they were used as a hiding place for Soviet partisans during world war 2. The Odessa catacombs are unlike my other choices in this list in that they were not used for burial purposes, however this makes them no less eerie. In many ways it is the unexplored and unknown nature of these catacombs that makes them so creepy.
The extent of the catacombs themselves is unknown, as they have never been fully mapped, and there are countless stories of thrill seekers becoming lost whilst exploring the labyrinth like catacombs, never to be heard from again. With such a large network of unexplored and lightless tunnels beneath the earth, who knows what lurks down there in the dark.
1. Paris Catacombs, France
Dwarfing my other entries in sheer scale, the catacombs beneath the city of Paris are estimated to hold the bones of up to 6 million people. The tunnels were originally part of a mining operation beneath Paris, however they began to be used for more morbid purposes in 1786 as the cities cemeteries were overflowing and affecting the structural integrity of many of Paris’ buildings.
Between 1786 and 1788, the streets of Paris would be witness to processions of human remains and bones on a nightly basis, as the millions of corpses in cemeteries all over the city were transferred to the catacombs beneath the Parisians feet. Once the cemeteries had been emptied, fresh bodies would continue being added to the catacombs for many more years.
The bones themselves are often stacked in gruesome but strangely artistic arrangements, such as a heart shaped formation of skulls, amongst many other bone based monuments. Much of the catacombs are unmapped, and there is real danger of become lost should you venture below without an experienced guide. With multiple hidden entrances located all over the city, keeping people out is a real problem, and there are many stories and legends about people venturing below and never returning.
The entrance to the catacombs is inscribed with the words “Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead”. And with 6 million guests, the Paris catacombs truly is the one place on earth deserving of the title “Empire of the dead”.
So thats my choice for 5 of the creepiest catacombs in the world. Let me know what you think in the comments below, and which catacombs you would have included in the list!