For The Time Traveler Tours are, indeed, going live! And I’ve spent the last month up to my eyeballs in administrative preparations such as: designing a logo; building a website; filing for incorporation and trademark rights; laying out the first prototype chapter for use by a group of 13-year-olds set to pilot the tour later this month; etc. It’s all very exciting!
But there’s a rub: One of my three start-up chapters may be stillborn thanks to the work of vandals...
Yesterday was All Saints’ Day in France, a culture whose many holidays and celebrations do not include Halloween. So I agreed to take the Lucky-one-and-only (Loo) and a few of her North American compatriots - all pining for the ghoulish festivities back “home” - to the Paris Catacombs for a romp among the once living. Arriving at the entrance at 1, Place Denfert-Rochereau, 14eme, however, we found the doors locked tight. A notice explained that the ossuary had been found vandalized on 20 Sept 2009; bones had been broken and strewn about every 20 meters along the 300-meter length of the tomb.
This is truly an immoral act. The Paris Catacombs are simultaneously a sacred memorial, a historical monument, and a work of public art. Their creation took place over the course of 80 years, beginning in Paris’ pre-revolutionary days (1780s) and continuing throughout the reigns of both Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew, Napoleon III, during the 1860 rebuilding of Paris.
Going back to 1780: Crowded churchyard cemeteries throughout Paris had become so overflowing with dead that killer diseases caused by insects and animals feeding off the rotting human flesh only produced more dead. It was a vicious cycle if there ever was one!
And then there was the stench! The smells emanating from these pestilent graveyards were said to have caused milk to curdle and wine to turn to vinegar. Not good for the dairy farmers and wine makers who came to Paris to sell their wares at the nearby Forum Les Halles, Paris’ main marketplace located right around the corner from the most crowded and offensive graveyard of all: Le Cimetière des Innocents.
Even the dead of Les Innocents seemed to protest. In 1780 they turned over in their graves, breaking through an underground wall and spilling their creepy contents into the basements of neighboring houses. This unleashed a stench so toxic it suffocated the innocent occupants right in their own homes!
It was then that King Louis XVI issued a royal proclamation calling a halt to any further burials within the Paris city limits. But what to do with all those bones and rotting cadavers?
The answer was to remove them - not just from Les Innocents, but from all of Paris' 23 churchyard graves - and to transfer them to the vast network of underground Roman-era rock quarries that lay to the south of the city.
The work went on in for eight decades. Gravediggers dug by day and moved the bones by night, in black-veiled, priest-led processions. The Church declared the former quarry a scared place and gave it an official name: Les Catacombs (the Catacombs), a Roman word meaning ‘underground cemetery’.
At first the bones were just tossed in, helter-skelter in piles of femers, tibias, and craniums. It was Napoleon’s idea to tidy the place up and make it presentable for family members wishing to pay homage to their ancestors. Under his orders, the bones would be stacked and organized in designs to rival their Roman counterparts.
The Paris Catacombs first opened as a public memorial in 1810. Visitors were escorted by torchlight through the narrow tunnels beneath the streets and buildings of Paris so they wouldn’t get lost in the 290km network of underground byways.
Many of the Revolution’s vicitims also found their way to the catacombs, as did the remains of older, forgotten cemeteries dug up during the Haussmannian-building boom of the 1860s.
In all, 6 million former Parisians have been laid to rest within the Catacombs. And for 200 years visitors have marveled at the ossuary sculptures created by Napoleon’s underground workers.
But now, because of the disrespectful and reprehensible actions of idiotic crazies, the sacred historic memorial, no less important to Paris’ past than the cathedral of Notre Dame, the Louvre Museum, or the Eiffel Tower, is off limits to the public... indefinitely.
And, sadly, the Time Traveler Paris Tours itinerary to the Napoleonic Era, featuring the Catacombs and the Montparnasse Cemetery, may be buried before it has had a chance to take its first breath.
Time Traveler Tours projected launch date: March 2010.
Time Traveler Tours logo, copyright 2009, Time Traveler Tours, LLC.
Photo of Catacombs ossuary, http://www.flickr.com/photos/albany_tim/2629170281/sizes/0/.
Engraving, artist unknown, of Le Cimetière des Innocents, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of a Catacombs worker by photographer Félix Nadar, 1870s.
Painting of the Catacombs by Viktor Alexandrovish Hartmann (1834-1873), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.