The Catacombs of Paris: Underneath the city of light lies a chamber of darkness and death

Meet the family: some of the residents of the Paris catacombs. Image: AFP/Getty.

In the ground beneath Paris, hundreds of miles of tunnels run like arteries. Underneath the streets lie spaces of all kinds: canals and reservoirs, prisons, crypts and bank vaults, wine cellars transformed into nightclubs and galleries. None are as creepy as the infamous Catacombs.

At a depth of 20 metres, equivalent to the size of a five storey building, the catacombs lie deeper than the Metro and sewer systems. These 200 miles of old caves, quarries and tunnels are full to bursting with the bones of deceased Parisians from centuries past. The history of the Catacombs is one of gory necessity: the story of a city which could no longer contain its dead.

The catacombs have existed since the13th century, when the mining of limestone quarries to provide bricks for the city’s buildings created as a side effect an entire underground city: the carrières de Paris, an intricate web of tunnels, lying mostly under the southern part of the metropolis.


Parisians had taken material from the ground to build upwards – but later they found that they needed to reuse the spaces they'd created below. By the 18th century, the cemeteries had started overflowing.

In Les Halles, near Paris' biggest cemetery, Les Innocents, the stench was unbearable. Perfume stores complained that they couldn't do business: the air was so thick with the smell of rotten flesh that no scent could penetrate the odour. In 1763, Louis XV banned any further burials inside the capital, but the Church didn't want cemeteries disturbed or moved, and so nothing else was done.

Then, in 1780, there was a prolonged period of spring rain. That May, the weight of damp ground full of bodies caused the wall of a restaurant cellar in the Rue de la Lingerie to collapse. Rotting bodies and old bones flooded the property; outbreaks of disease followed.

Some of the tunnels. Image: AFP/Getty.

At the same time, by (un)happy coincidence, the walls of the local quarries were beginning to cave in. The solution to both problems seemed obvious. In 1786, the city authorities began to empty the cemeteries, and move human remains to the abandoned quarry tunnels.

It took the residents of several cemeteries to fill each catacomb. In order not to disturb the locals, the bodies were transferred in the dead of night, hidden under dark cloth on the back of carts. As they passed through the darkened streets, priests would chant for the morbid cargo.  By the end of the process, over 6m late Parisians had been moved to the as the ossuaries, their bones covering the walls from head to toe.

During the Revolution, the dead were buried directly in the catacombs. The new arrivals in this period included both Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien de Robespierre. But after 1860, as other facilities became available, no fresh bodies were added to the tunnels.

The catacombs of Paris are not unique: in medieval Europe, it was quite common to dig up bones and store them in charnel houses and ossuaries, in order to make space in cemeteries for more corpses.

You can find such piles of bones in the Wamba ossuary in northern Spain's Church of Santa Maria, Valladolid, or the ossuary of St Leonard's in the Kent town of Hythe. In the 16th century Cappela dos Ossos, in the Portuguese town of Evora, near Lisbon, 5,000 individuals, thought to be war and plague victims, are embedded decoratively into the chapel walls.

Some of the catacombs' older residents. Image: DJTox/Wikimedia Commons.

The tunnels beneath Paris have had other uses, too. The quarries were mined up until the 18th century, and used by farmers to grow mushrooms after that. During World War II, French Resistance fighters used some as hide-outs; the Germans built bunkers in others.

Nowadays there are groups that like to explore the passages under Paris their own way. These “cataphiles” are mostly young rebellious folk, undeterred by the fact that is has been illegal to enter the Catacombs without official guidance since 1955. They spend their time exploring, attracted by the idea of being underground both literally and metaphorically


Until the late 1980's it was possible to enter the tunnels from a number of points, including some doorways in schools and other buildings. Today, though, many are closed off, and the cataphiles have to be more cunning, both when gaining access (this often involves ropes) and when avoiding the police unit who patrol the passageways. It isn’t a hobby for those with claustrophobia or a nervous disposition.

Today just over a mile of these meandering tunnels are open to the public. The entrance is located in Paris' 14th arrondissement, at 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy. Paying visitors walk under a doorway, with a haunting inscription above it: "Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort!" (“Stop! This is the empire of death!”) Never have truer words been spoken.

 
 
 
 

Mexico City’s new airport is an environmental disaster. But it could become a huge national park

Mexico City’s new Norman Foster-designed airport, seen here in a computer rendering, is visually striking but environmentally problematic. Image: Presidencia de la República Mexicana/creative commons.

Mexico City long ago outgrew the two-terminal Benito Juárez International Airport, which is notorious for delays, overcrowding and canceled flights. Construction is now underway on a striking new international airport east of this metropolis of 20m. When it opens in late 2020, the LEED-certified new airport – whose terminal building was designed by renowned British architect Norman Foster in collaboration with the well-known Mexican architect Fernando Romero – is expected to eventually serve 125m passengers. That’s more than Chicago O'Hare and Los Angeles’ LAX.

But after three years of construction and $1.3bn, costs are ballooning and corruption allegations have dogged both the funding and contracting process.

Environmentalists are also concerned. The new airport is located on a semi-dry lake bed that provides water for Mexico City and prevents flooding. It also hosts migrating flocks and is home to rare native species like the Mexican duck and Kentish plover.

According to the federal government’s environmental impact assessment, 12 threatened species and 1 endangered species live in the area.

The airport project is now so divisive that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the populist winner of the country’s 2018 presidential campaign, has suggested scrapping it entirely.

An environmental disaster

Mexico’s new airport sits in a federal reserve. Image: Yavidaxiu/The Conversation.

I’m an expert in landscape architecture who studies the ecological adaption of urban environments. I think there’s a way to save Mexico’s new airport and make it better in the process: create a nature reserve around it.

Five hundred years ago, lakes covered roughly 20 percent of the Valle de Mexico, a 3,500-square-mile valley in the country’s south-central region. Slowly, over centuries, local residents – first the Aztecs, then the Spanish colonisers and then the Mexican government – built cities, irrigation systems and plumbing systems that sucked the region dry.

By the mid-20th century, the lakes had been almost entirely drained. In 1971, President Luís Echeverría decreed the area a federal reserve, citing the region’s critical ecological role for Mexico City. The smattering of small lakes and reforested land there now catch and store runoff rainwater and prevent dust storms.

The new airport will occupy 17 square miles of the 46-square-mile former Lake Texcoco. To ensure effective water management for Mexico City, the airport master plan proposes creating new permanent water bodies to offset the lakes lost to the airport and cleaning up and restoring nine rivers east of the airport. It also proposes planting some 250,000 trees.

The government’s environmental assessment determined that the impacts of the new airport, while significant, are acceptable because Lake Texcoco is already “an altered ecosystem that lost the majority of its original environmental importance due to desiccation and urban expansion.” Today, the report continues, “it is now only a desolate and abandoned area.”

Environmentalists loudly disagree.

Make Mexico’s airport great again

I see this environmental controversy as an opportunity to give Mexico City something way more transformative than a shiny new airport.

Nobody can entirely turn back the clock on Lake Texcoco. But the 27 square miles of lake bed not occupied by the airport could be regenerated, its original habitat partially revitalised and environmental functions recovered in a process known as restoration ecology.

I envision a huge natural park consisting of sports fields, forests, green glades and a diverse array of water bodies – both permanent and seasonal – punctuated by bike paths, walking trails and access roads.

The airport will come equipped with new ground transportation to Mexico City, making the park easily accessible to residents. Extensions from the surrounding neighborhood streets and highways could connect people in poor neighbourhoods abutting the airport – dense concrete jungles like Ecatepec, Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl and Chimalhuacan – to green space for the first time.

The nine rivers that empty into Lake Texcoco from the east could be turned into greenways to connect people from further out in Mexico State to what would become the area’s largest public park.

Space could also be reserved for cultural attractions such as museums, open and accessible to passengers in transit.


New master plan

This idea is not as crazy as it sounds.

As early as 1998, Mexican architects Alberto Kalach and the late Teodoro González de León proposed rehabilitating the lakes of the Valley of Mexico. Their book, “The City and its Lakes,” even envisaged a revenue-generating island airport as part of this environmentally revitalized Lake Texcoco.

Under President Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s National Water Commission also proposed building an ecological park in Lake Texcoco, which was to include an island museum and restore long-degraded nearby agricultural land. But the project never gained traction.

Granted, turning a large, half-constructed airport into a national park would require an ambitious new master plan and a budget reallocation.

But in my opinion, evolution and change should be part of ambitious public designs. And this one is already expected to cost an additional $7.7bn to complete anyway.

Toronto’s Downsview Park – a 291-acre former air force base turned green space – has transformed so much since its conception in 1995 that its declared mission is now to “constantly develop, change and mature to reflect the surrounding community with each generation.”

Local communities neighboring Mexico City’s new airport were not adequately consulted about their needs, environmental concerns and their current stakes in the Lake Texcoco area. A revamped park plan could be truly inclusive, designed to provide recreation and urban infrastructure – and maybe even permanent jobs – for these underserved populations.

Presidential race

Three of the four candidates in Mexico’s July 1 presidential election wanted to finish Mexico City’s new international airport. But eventual winner López Obrador was not so sure.

Early in his campaign, he said he would cancel it if elected. Instead, López Obrador suggested, a former air force base could become the new international terminal. It would be connected to Benito Juárez airport, 22 miles south, by train.

López Obrador has since said he would support completing construction of the new international airport if the remaining financing came from the private sector, not the Mexican government. Currently, some two-thirds of the project is funded by future airport taxes.

The ConversationLópez Obrador’s promise to review and likely upend the airport plan could open the door to its wholesale transformation, putting people and nature are at the core of a plan ostensibly designed for the public good.

Gabriel Diaz Montemayor, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Texas at Austin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.