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A panoramic image of the Paris Catacombs reveals a wall of bones. The remains of an estimated 6 million Parisians lie in the catacombs beneath the city.adirricor/Wikimedia Commons
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The remains of 5,000 people decorate the walls of the Chapel of Bones, located in Évora, Portugal.Alonso de Mendoza/Wikimedia Commons
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A 17th-century underground grave located in Lima, Peru at the Basilica and Convent of San Francisco. Fotoholica Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
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Paris created its catacombs in the late 18th century when the city ran out of space for its dead.J.M. Schomburg/WIkimedia Commons
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Skulls and bones decorate the walls of the Capuchin Crypt in Rome. This photograph dates from circa 1900.
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The dead line the walls of the catacombs of Palermo in Sicily in this 19th-century photograph.Roberto Rive/Wikimedia Commons
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The entrance to a centuries-old catacomb in Beit She'arim, an ancient town located in Israel.עמוס גל/Wikimedia Commons
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Bones decorate the walls of the Paris Catacombs in this 1960s photograph.National Library of France
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Bones lie behind bars in the Peruvian catacombs, located at the Basilica and Convent of San Francisco in Lima. These crypts date back to colonial times. Fotoholica Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
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A wide cavern in the Paris Catacombs reveals some of the millions of bones hidden away in the tombs.albany_tim/Wikimedia Commons
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Skulls and bones in Peru's catacombs, arranged in concentric circles at the bottom of a pit. Benny Gross/Wikimedia Commons
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Skulls line the walls of the Paris Catacombs, a grim reminder that each one represents a different soul.Rijin/Wikimedia Commons
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The eerie underground chamber of the Catacombs
of San Gennaro in Naples, Italy. The crypt dates from the 2nd-4th centuries C.E.Catacombe di Napoli
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A spooky hallway in the Catacombs of Milos in Greece. The tombs date from the 1st-5th centuries, and they were lost until the 19th century.Zde/Wikimedia Commons
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Rows of skulls fade into the darkness at the Brno Ossuary in the Czech Republic. Dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, these catacombs were only rediscovered in 2001. Totalrandomphotos/Wikimedia Commons
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The Sousse Catacombs in Tunisia date from the 4th century and contain an estimated 15,000 bodies.Slim Alileche/Wikimedia Commons
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One of Malta's oldest churches, the 16th-century St. Gregory's, contains a secret passage. And at its end, you'll find a pile of human bones and skulls.Reuv1/Wikimedia Commons
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A circa 1897 photograph of the Catacombs at Guanajuato in Mexico. The mummies were victims of a cholera outbreak that swept through the area in the mid-19th century. They mummified naturally after being left in above-ground crypts in a warm, arid environment.Wikimedia Commons
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A skeleton hangs on a bone wall at the 16th-century Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) in Évora, Portugal.Cassiaferreira/Wikimedia Commons
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Peru's catacombs contain hidden secrets, like these bones in an underground chamber.PA/Wikimedia Commons
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A vintage 1931 photograph of the Paris Catacombs.The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
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A decaying skull sits next to a lantern in the catacombs of Salakta in Tunisia. Issam Barhoumi/Wikimedia Commons
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The mummified body of Rosalia Lombardo, a little girl who died of pneumonia caused by the Spanish flu in 1920. Today, Rosalia's preserved body is still on display at the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo, Sicily.Sibeaster/Wikimedia Commons
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Catacombs under the city of Odesa, Ukraine date from the 17th century. Though these tunnels have attracted "extreme tourists," they're perhaps most famous for serving as Soviet bunkers during World War II. More recently, during the 2022 Russian invasion, Ukrainians prepared to take shelter in the catacombs if necessary.Alex Levitsky & Dmitry Shamatazhi/Wikimedia Commons
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A cavern filled with skulls, discovered in the ossuary of Brno, Czech Republic in 2001.Kirk/Wikimedia Commons
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The skeleton of an infant on display at the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo.Stefano Montesi/Corbis via Getty
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Skeletons painted on the walls of the San Gaudioso catacombs in Naples, Italy. The earliest sections of this crypt date back to the 4th-5th centuries C.E., but this site is perhaps most famous for its use as a burial place for nobles during the 17th century.Fabien Bièvre-Perrin/Wikimedia Commons
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When the Capuchin monks of Palermo preserved people for the catacombs, they dressed the bodies in their finest clothes before putting them on display.Rolf Dietrich Brecher
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Designed in the late 18th century and early 19th century, the Skull Chapel in Czermna, Poland features an eerie array of bones covering nearly every surface.Merlin/Wikimedia Commons
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Many tunnels under Lima, Peru contain hidden catacombs. These bones date to the 17th century.Fotoholica Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
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Bodies no longer line these walls of the Catacombs
of San Gennaro in Naples, Italy. But empty spaces in the stone indicate where the skeletons once lay.Dominik Matus/Wikimedia Commons
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These stone tombs in the ancient town of Beit She'arim in Israel date back nearly 2,000 years.עמוס גל/Wikimedia Commons
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The St. Catald (or Cataldus) Catacombs in Malta date from the late 2nd to the 3rd centuries.Kritzolina/Wikimedia Commons
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Burial chambers carved into the walls of the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa in Alexandria, Egypt, a crypt which dates from the 2nd century.Following Hadrian/Wikimedia Commons
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Eerie chambers at the Catacombs of Salakta in Tunisia.Khwissem/Wikimedia Commons
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Two mummies at the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, which were likely preserved with vinegar.Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images
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Two skulls sit atop a wall made from bones in the Catacombs of Paris. This is just one of many eerie displays in the famous underground crypt.Junge aus B-Town/WIkimedia Commons
Go Inside The World’s Creepiest Catacombs — And Learn The Disturbing Stories Behind Them
When visiting some of the most beautiful cities in the world, it's easy to forget that catacombs sometimes lie beneath the streets.
Take Paris, for example. Though the French metropolis is famously known as the City of Love, perhaps it should also be called the City of Bones. The remains of 6 million Parisians lie in underground caverns beneath the city.
Rome also has over 40 catacombs hidden beneath its streets.
But the world's creepiest catacombs aren't only found in France and Italy. Malta, Peru, and Tunisia are also home to some frightening crypts. See some of the most intriguing photos of these tombs in the gallery above.
The Early History Of Catacombs
Some of the oldest catacombs in the world are in Rome. Built during the 1st century, these crypts were underground tombs used by Jewish families. The Romans outlawed burials within the city walls, so catacombs became a popular way for these families to lay their loved ones to rest.
By the 2nd century, Christians also began using catacombs to bury their dead, according to the BBC. Since Christianity was illegal in Rome back then, the city's earliest catacombs were often located beneath land owned by Christians, where the Roman authorities would not find them.
Many old catacombs across the former Roman Empire date from the 2nd to 4th centuries. But the era of catacombs eventually came to an end.
Elliot Goodrich/Wikimedia CommonsWhile most catacombs were built underground, some were carved directly into natural formations like mountains. These Lycian tombs in Turkey date from the 4th century.
When Christianity became the official religion of Rome at the end of the 4th century, the practice of burying the dead in underground tunnels slowly died out. Instead of using hidden crypts, Christians held funerals above ground.
Therefore, many of Rome's underground crypts were lost. But Renaissance-era excavations began to uncover over 40 burial tunnels in the city.
However, not all of the world's crypts were hidden from the public for centuries. And some of the most famous catacombs are far more modern.
The Creation Of The Paris Catacombs
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Paris experienced a population boom. And before long, the city was running out of places to bury its dead.
Overcrowding in Paris's cemeteries became a major problem due to the smell. Local perfume stores complained that potential customers fled because of the stench, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
And in 1780, heavy rains led to the collapse of a cemetery wall, causing dead bodies to flood a Paris neighborhood, much to the dismay of residents.
France's kings tried to relocate cemeteries outside the city walls — an echo of ancient Roman practices. But the Catholic Church refused.
Paris needed a solution. And former quarries located under the city offered one. In 1786, authorities began to move thousands of bodies from cemeteries like Les Innocents to the ancient tunnels. For about 12 years, authorities carted bodies underground, filling the tunnels with bones.
Over the years, the catacombs became home to the remains of 6 million Parisians. Some of the oldest bones date back over a millennium. But after 1860, Parisians stopped burying the dead in their underground crypt.
Visitors today can enter the Paris Catacombs, but only about a mile is open to the public. And those who dare to venture inside are met with an eerie warning. A sign hangs over the underground entrance to the tunnels: "Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort!" (Stop! This is the empire of death!)
Rediscovering The World's Lost Crypts
Though most catacombs from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries are well known among the public, many of the world's oldest crypts were often lost for hundreds of years. So, how did people rediscover those underground tombs? Typically, it was a mix of excavation work, curiosity, and luck.
One example is the work of Antonio Bosio, an archaeologist who descended into the entrance of a Roman tunnel in 1593, according to the World History Encyclopedia. At the time, the entryway had been opened, but no one knew what lay beneath — until Bosio rediscovered the city's catacombs.
For centuries, the Roman tombs had been untouched by humans. Bosio found a maze of tunnels and tombs, earning him the title "Columbus of the Catacombs." But he was far from the only one who found long-lost crypts.
Rediscoveries like these would continue well into the 21st century.
Zairon/Wikimedia CommonsIn addition to underground catacombs, many European cities have ossuaries, or rooms that store human bones. These skulls come from an ossuary in Verona, Italy.
In fact, the second-largest ossuary in Europe remained hidden until 2001. Lost for centuries in the Czech Republic, the bone-filled rooms were revealed thanks to renovations at the Church of St. James. Incredibly, the Brno Ossuary contains the remains of 50,000 people.
Today, this ossuary is open to the public.
Will we discover more catacombs in the future? For thousands of years, people stored human remains in underground caverns all over the world. They built walls from bones. And they decorated tunnels with skulls. The question is not if we'll discover more catacombs — it's when.
After looking through these eerie photos of the world's catacombs, explore the chilling Skull Tower of Niš in Serbia. Then, learn about Rosalia Lombardo, the shockingly well-preserved child mummy at the Palermo catacombs.
Genevieve Carlton earned a Ph.D in history from Northwestern University with a focus on early modern Europe and the history of science and medicine before becoming a history professor at the University of Louisville. In addition to scholarly publications with top presses, she has written for Atlas Obscura and Ranker.