This inscription marks the entrance to the public area of the catacombs of Paris: Arrêter! C’est Ici l’Empire de la Mort. “Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead.”
This cryptic message warns visitors to the site of what lies beyond: the bones of the deceased; a subterraneal burial ground containing the dismembered skeletons from Paris’ numerous above-ground cemeteries. Bones line tunnels and are artistically arrayed in underground rooms. Tourists can descend into this public crypt to take in the eerie spectacle where in the 1700s the bones were deposited due to overcrowding in Paris’ above-ground cemeteries.
But beyond this is underground tomb of bones lies a series of tunnels of which few are aware and fewer have passed. It’s difficult to believe that such a massive structure (more than 170 miles of tunnels) could exist so secretly beneath one of the most famous and well-traveled cities of the world, but the lost catacombs stretch beneath Paris. Today they are explored by a sub-culture that refer to themselves as cataphiles, and the complex tunnel system is patrolled by the cataflics, special police who look out for invaders to the catacombs. Entrance was made illegal in 1955.
I stumbled across this secret society and it’s lair while listening to an online podcast. Details, necessarily so, are sketchy, but apparently the sub-culture consists of urban explorers, artists, veteran inhabitants escaping the stress of living above ground, and the rare, but occasional tourist who finds an access.
Access to the former quarries that were used to build the city itself is illegal because it is dangerous. People get lost and die in the complex system of tunnels. Some areas are flooded and sometimes there are cave-ins. But these dangers and the cata-police don’t stop numerous visitors to the catacombs who explore, make maps, have dinner parties, and create make-shift art studios.
During war-time the catacombs were used as bomb shelters. The Germans set up a base in one portion of the tunnel system during World War II. Smugglers have used the underground as a hideout, and religious ceremonies have been carried out in Paris’ most secret place. Although access to the tunnels is illegal, openings are all over the city and so numerous that they can’t be closed off and patrolled.
You can find lots of information on the Web about the catacombs, both the public and non-public sectors. But you’ll have a difficult time locating a cataphile to escort you to this dark underground. Even the most experienced cataphiles will tell you never enter the tunnels without a guide or you may never come out.
The history of the catacombs video from BBC News:
What lies beneath the catacombs of Paris.