What is a catacomb? The simple definition is an underground cemetery connected by tunnels. The term is derived from “ad catacumbas,” meaning “near the hollows.” From the Holy Grail to a gilded Titanic, catacombs around the world hold an aura of mystery and legend. Here are some of the cities with the creepiest catacombs.
There are more than 40 catacombs beneath the city of Rome. In addition to the early Christian catacombs, the city contains Jewish and pagan ones as well. Originally thought to be the burial sites of martyrs, historians now agree the more than 6.5 million burials must have been for laypeople too. Roman law required cemeteries to be outside city limits. As space ran out, corpses were moved underneath the city. Many of the catacombs contain rooms with benches where families would have meals with the dead. Here are some of the most famous ones in the Eternal City:
- Catacombs of St.Callixtus: 16 popes were buried in St. Callixtus. It was the official cemetery of the Church of Rome. These catacombs take up an area of 90 acres, with 12 miles of tunnels on four levels that are more than 20 meters deep.
- Catacombs of Priscilla: Called the “Queen of Catacombs,” a great number of martyrs were buried here. It is the oldest catacomb mentioned in ancient Roman and Christian print.
- Catacombs of St. Domitilla: Rediscovered in 1593, the Catacombs of Domitilla extend about 17 kilometers on four levels.
- Catacombs of St. Sebastian: The burial of the martyr, San Sebastian, gives these catacombs their name. Both Christians and pagans were buried in the loculi wall tombs. The basilica above the burial site houses marble footsteps attributed to Jesus. In addition, the arrow that killed San Sebastian can be seen.
The Catacombs of Paris are famous for walls lined with skulls and bones. Similar to the Roman catacombs, these underground burials solved the problem of overflowing graveyards. Built much later, the Parisian catacombs burials began in the 18th-century. The tunnels were already in place below the city from 13th-century mining.
Prior to the catacombs, Parisian cemeteries stunk of rotting corpses. During a heavy spring rain in 1780, the walls of the Les Innocents cemetery broke flooding the streets with dead body parts. Thus, the city began moving the deceased to already existing mining tunnels. It took 12 years to move the six million bodies. Throughout the Parisian catacombs, the bones are arranged in macabre displays. Here you’ll find the largest population of skeletons on display.
Romans occupied Tunisia from 146 BC to 439 AD. Christianity was considered a threat to the empire. Early persecuted Christians used Tunisian catacombs to bury their dead and for hidden worship. The Sousse Catacombs contain approximately 15,000 bodies and extend five kilometers. They were discovered in 1888 on the site of the ancient, coastal city of Hadrumetum.
The Catacombs of Sousse are located west of the Medina. They are better preserved than the Catacombs of Rome. Also known as the Catacombs of the Good Shepherd, the walls of the tunnels and galleries include niches for oil lamps. Some of the graves are bricked over; others have been excavated where you can view human remains.
With a total length of approximately 2,500 kilometers, the Catacombs of Odessa are the longest in the world. The oldest tunnels date from the 17th-century. Like other catacombs, the tunnels were originally constructed beneath the city for mining. Later, they were used by smugglers. During WWII, the Ukrainians used the catacombs to launch surprise attacks on Nazi invaders.
Unlike other catacombs, the Odessa tunnels were not used for massive burial, although corpses of smugglers can be found. The tunnels are rumored to contain murdered Jews, a solid gold replica of the Titanic, and executed Nazis. In 2005, a teenage girl got lost in the tunnels during a New Year’s Eve Party. While her body was allegedly found two years later, there is some doubt of the veracity of this story.
Roman laws prohibited burial within the ancient city of Melite, as was common throughout the empire, so burials went underground. The St. Paul Catacombs offer the earliest evidence of Christianity on the island. They were actively used into the 4th-century and consist of more 30 hypogea, or underground chambers. The catacombs of St. Paul are the largest catacombs on Malta with an area of 2000 square meters. They offer a wider variety of tomb architecture. For example, unique baldacchino, or canopied tombs, are prevalent in the main chamber. Pagans, Christians, and Jews were buried side by side here.
Brno, Czech Republic
The Brno Ossuary is the most recent underground burial discovery. In 2001, 50,000 skeletons were discovered beneath the Church of St. James. Piled in neat rows, the bones were thought to have been moved from above ground cemeteries to make room for new burials in the 1600-1700s. The deaths were caused by the medieval plague, cholera epidemics, and the Swedish Siege of Brno during the Thirty Years’ War. The Brno Ossuary has the second largest quantity of skeletal remains in Europe behind the Parisian catacombs. Lacking tunnels, this burial site is considered an ossuary, a room that houses the dead. The Brno Ossuary consists of three rooms completely filled to the ceiling with skeletons. For preservation purposes, the bones were removed, cleaned and rearranged before opening to the public in 2012.
An estimated 25,000 to 70,000 skeletal remains line the walls of the catacombs below the San Francisco Monastery in Lima, Peru. These catacombs were in use until 1808 when a cemetery for commoners was built outside city limits. Famous for the intricate layout of bones in circular patterns, the San Francisco Catacombs were rediscovered in 1943. They connect to Lima’s cathedral and other churches via tunnels under the city. The placement of the bones in mandalas and geometric designs are evidence of a mysterious, metaphysical ritual unknown to modern scholars.
Catacombs can be found throughout Italy. Besides Rome, some of the most spectacular examples of these underground burials are found in Sicily. The Capuchin Monastery in Palermo houses the corpses of dead monks that underwent natural mummification. In 1597, new catacombs were built in ancient caves. Upon moving bodies to this new location, the monks discovered the natural mummies. The mummified friars’ faces were still recognizable. Their natural preservation was considered an act of God, and they were honored as relics. Wealthy Sicilians paid for mummification by the friars until 1783. It was considered a status symbol sought by the privileged class.
Beneath the Church Christ Cathedral in Dublin lies the largest crypt in Ireland. Famous for a mummified cat and rat playfully named “Tom and Jerry,” this medieval catacomb is the earliest surviving structure in Dublin. It houses Ireland’s first copy of the Magna Carta. You can rent the crypt for your own private event or take a ghost tour at night.
Another infamous catacomb of Dublin is found at St. Michan’s Church. Mummies of famous and historic figures, such as a 400-year-old nun, fill the chambers. Other mummified inhabitants include an 800-year-0ld, six and a half foot tall crusader who had to have his feet cut off to fit in a coffin, as well as a thief whose hands were chopped off. Limestone walls and methane gas from rotting vegetation maintain the perfect climate for mummy preservation. Dracula author, Bram Stoker, visited these catacombs potentially inspiring his thrilling book.
In 1900, a donkey fell down a hole and discovered the Catacombs of Kom Ash Shuqqafa. This is the largest Roman burial site in Egypt. Started in the 2nd-century and considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages, the name of these catacombs translates to “Mounds of Shards.” There are piles of broken pottery in the area left behind by tomb visitors. It was bad luck to bring home a clay vessel that had been used while visiting the tombs, so family members would break them upon leaving. Art found in the burial site blends ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman styles. This is the only catacomb in the world where a mix of these three cultures’ art can be found.