A catacomb, also called the Empire of the Dead, generally refers to an underground cemetery, comprising a network of tunnels and passages and their fair share of turns and twists. The network spanning several hundreds and even thousands of acres is usually filled with the bones and skulls of the dead. Since these catacombs are large and expansive, the walls have street names etched into them to help people navigate around and not get lost in the large maze. For entry into catacombs, there are ladders in place.

Paris catacomb. Image credit: Flickr
Paris catacomb. Image credit: Flickr

Most catacombs are not open to the public; any instance of unsupervised exploration is considered illegal. However, there are exceptions. Some of these structures welcome cataphiles – people who like to explore catacombs. A few cataphiles may venture further deep into the catacomb, and also stay within for days, often throwing liquor parties. The more devoted visitors venture inside the catacomb for the silence that’s hard to replicate. However, catacomb exploration isn’t as generous as most explorers would like, with even the open-for-public catacombs having specific restricted pathways within.    

Origin

Catacombs have existed ever since the Roman times, which is perhaps why Italy has the most number of catacombs. In the initial days, the word “catacomb” wasn’t as generic as it’s today, and referred only to the underground tombs in Rome’s Appian Way, built beneath the Basilica of St. Sebastian. In 1705, the term was used for describing all subterranean cemeteries.

Catacomb of San Callisto. Image credit: Flickr
Catacomb of San Callisto. Image credit: Flickr

Human remains get transferred to a catacomb, in order to ease overcrowding in burial grounds. Most catacombs house the remains of several million dead people. During Roman times, martyrs were buried in catacombs. The quarries later opened up to the non-martyr population. Though catacombs were primarily built as an alternative to cemeteries, the space was also used for soldiers to seek temporary shelter.

Modern Infrastructural Bottlenecks

However, despite these positives, catacombs present a few major problems in the modern world. Most catacombs from the 17th and 18th century were built outside cities. But with modernization and cities and towns growing, the majority of these catacombs are now under proper cities and their streets. And due to this, the ground directly above these underground quarries aren’t perfect locations to build large towers or buildings. The big foundation space needed for such tall structures are not available with a catacomb beneath.