Go Inside The World’s Creepiest Catacombs — And Learn The Disturbing Stories Behind Them

Published October 26, 2022
Updated November 5, 2022

From the Chapel of Bones to the Empire of the Dead, explore some of the spookiest catacombs on Earth with these eerie images.

Walls Of The Paris Catacombs
Display At The Chapel Of Bones
Peruvian Catacombs
Candles In The Paris Catacombs
Go Inside The World’s Creepiest Catacombs — And Learn The Disturbing Stories Behind Them
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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.

Catacombs

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.

Ossuary Skulls In Verona

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.

author
Genevieve Carlton
author
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.
editor
Jaclyn Anglis
editor
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Carlton, Genevieve. "Go Inside The World’s Creepiest Catacombs — And Learn The Disturbing Stories Behind Them." AllThatsInteresting.com, October 26, 2022, https://allthatsinteresting.com/catacombs. Accessed June 25, 2024.