August 25, 2009—In underground passageways that snake underneath the French capital, nearly six million people who died of disease in the Middle Ages share a final resting place.
© 2009 National Geographic (AP)
The vaults, packed with skulls and bones dating from as far back as the Middle Ages, are located on Paris' Left Bank near Place Denfert Rochereau (plass done-fair roe-che-roe), and are part of the nearly 185 miles of underground passageways that are believed to be part of the catacombs network.
SOUNDBITE (English) John Mamburg, tourist from Grand Rapids, Michigan:
"I think this is astounding. I've never been around so many, like you've been to cemeteries and things like that, I've never been to anything that is so insanely dense in death. It's amazing."
The catacombs have their origin in the late eighteenth century, when city officials were searching for a solution to health problems caused by the city's overflowing cemeteries.
The 200 or so cemeteries located in Paris at the time were the source of numerous diseases which were contaminating the city's soil and water supply.
The then Lieutenant General of Police, Alexandre Lenoir (len-waar), suggested that the bones from the cemeteries would be transferred underground into the abandoned gypsum and limestone quarries at the southern edge of the city.
SOUNDBITE (French) Laure Urgen, Tour Guide, Carnavalet Museum
"Here, we find close to six million, close to six million Parisians. There are bones that are extremely old, which date from the Middle Ages, and this is a place that is really moving. In the end, it's a place that has passed through many centuries and six million people and well, and through it all we can imagine the Paris of that age."
After snaking through these eerie, dark and moist passageways stacked with skulls, visitors will no doubt view the splendor of Paris in a different light.