Beneath Paris's tree-lined avenues and broad boulevards, there lurks a labyrinthine world of tunnels, chambers, and ossuaries: the Paris Catacombs, which are made up of 200 miles of tunnels that have been attracting, terrorizing, inspiring, and hosting generations of Parisians.
The catacombs are probably best known as the final resting place for medieval and early-modern Parisians whose remains were relocated there in the late 18th century. But the catacombs are so much more than that. For centuries, the Paris Catacombs have been a quarry, tourist attraction, hiding place, farm, and art gallery, among other things.
From a subculture of artists and explorers to mushroom farmers, crooks, and agents of the French Resistance, the Paris Catacombs have hosted a variety of people who go underground for their own reasons. Every now and then, stories emerge about a man getting lost in the Paris Catacombs or the untimely demise of those who can't find their way out, but many people have gone in and out of the catacombs without attracting any attention at all.
The catacombs may be far beneath the city streets, but they tell the story of Paris's past and present.
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During World War II, The Grand Mosque Of Paris Saved Jews By Hiding Them In The Catacombs Beneath The Building
Construction of the Grand Mosque of Paris wrapped up in 1926, when the new building opened its doors to Paris's Muslim community. A little more than a decade later, the mosque opened its doors to another Parisian community: Jews whose lives were at risk.
From 1940, Germany occupied France. This meant France's Vichy regime collaborated with the Third Reich, including their systemic, targeted genocide against Jewish people. Some - though not all - people in France clandestinely mobilized to aid and shelter their Jewish neighbors.
Led by Si Kaddour Benghabrit, a diplomat and rector, the Grand Mosque community rallied to do what it could. Taking advantage of the fact the mosque was built above the catacombs, the community actually hid French Jews in the subterranean tunnels until they could be given forged identity papers and safely led out of France.
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A Hospital Porter Got Lost In The Catacombs In 1793 - It Took 11 Years To Find His Remains
Many people have gone into the catacombs. But not all of them have reemerged. Philibert Aspairt is one such soul who disappeared into the darkness of underground Paris.
Aspairt worked as a porter for the Val-de-Grâce military hospital in the city's Latin Quarter. In 1793, he went into the catacombs, and nobody saw him alive ever again. It took 11 years for his decayed remains to be discovered. Tragically, they were found near an exit point - if he was lost, he was close to finding his way out when he passed.
Aspairt's remains were interred on the spot, and a tombstone was erected. It reads:
In the memory of Philibert Aspairt, lost in this excavation of 3 November 1793; found 11 years later and buried at the same place on 30 April 1804.
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Two Doctors Gave Their Map Of The Catacombs To The French Resistance During World War II
With its roughly 200 miles of dark tunnels and hidden chambers, the catacombs are an ideal hiding place.
In fact, medical professionals Jean Talairach and René Suttel thought so, too. In 1938, they began exploring and mapping the catacombs.
Two years later, Third Reich Germany began its occupation of France - and Talairach and Suttel believed their map could play an important role in the resistance movement.
Members of the French Resistance were not the only ones in the catacombs during WWII. German occupiers also made use of the catacombs, though without the benefit of Talairach and Suttel's map.
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Some Of The First Tourists To Visit The Catacombs Were Royals
The catacombs weren't built as a tourist attraction - but that didn't stop people from wanting to venture below ground to check out the tunnels for themselves.
One of the first tourists to descend into the catacombs as they were being converted into ossuaries was the Count of Artois - the future King Charles X of France and younger brother of doomed king Louis XVI - who visited in 1787. It wasn't just a routine visit: The count organized a picnic in the catacombs with some courtiers.
In 1809, the catacombs opened to the public, but by appointment only. Still, many people flocked to the ossuaries, gawking in horror at the human bones collected there. Decades later, in 1874, the catacombs became more accessible to the public.
The catacombs' log of VIP visitors only lengthened after that. The site attracted world leaders like Germany's Otto von Bismarck, Austria's Emperor Francis I, Sweden's Crown Prince Oscar, and France's Napoleon III.
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In 2004, Parisian Police Discovered A Movie Theater Deep Within The Catacombs
Police have found plenty of unexpected and strange things in the catacombs. In 2004, they stumbled on what is arguably one of their most unexpected discoveries: a fully functional cinema.
Police undergoing training discovered the cinema, and what they found was incredible enough to report to the press. Located in the tunnels under the Palais de Chaillot, the movie theater included projectors, cooking equipment, seats, and a film library.
Though they found few clues to identify the individual or group behind the cinema, they did discover a clear directive from whoever was responsible: a sign that said, "Do not try to find us."
One clandestine group of revelers took credit for building the movie theater. Known as The Mexican Consolidated Drilling Authority, they have sponsored other events in the catacombs.
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The Underground Quarries That House The Catacombs Also Used To House Mushroom Farms
The Paris Catacombs weren't always a subterranean resting place for human remains. Initially, the tunnels had been a series of undergound quarries. Known as the Tombe-Issoire quarries, they yielded stone for Paris's buildings from the 15th century, if not earlier.
The catacombs had yet another function: They housed mushroom farms. Throughout much of the 19th century and into the 20th, urban farmers had grown mushrooms in the quarries. The quarries' stable temperature and humidity produced a suitable environment for mushrooms to thrive. Specifically, quarry farmers grew a type of button mushroom: Champignon de Paris.
Mushroom farming in subterranean Paris didn't last, however. The advent of the Metro displaced quarry farmers.