L’Empire de la Mort

May 17, 2010

After descending down a tightly wound corkscrew for what seemed like an eternity, I was finally beneath the streets of Paris.  Immediately, a feeling of apprehension began squeezing on my heart.   I noticed my heart pounding, but then again I had just crept down an exceedingly long staircase; i’m sure that was the reason.

A series of gloomy tunnels opened up, just enough to permit entry for one or two travelers foolish enough to continue.  The air was heavy.  Old.  I wondered if I was in fact re-breathing the very same air as those I was soon to meet.  I tried to moved quickly, if only to beat the stale air around me, to get things moving, but my sub-conscious forced me into a grim shuffle.

The Catacombs of Paris

I trekked for what seemed like miles.  Finally, a vaulted archway launched an assault.  It seemed to stand 500 feet high, dwarfing my own sense of importance, and wrapping my heart in a straight jacket.  It seemed like a descent into hell, then, remembering myself, I remembered the story of the catacombs of Paris and put the thought aside.  I pressed onward.

The Catacombs of Paris

The “gates” stood watch.  The inscription: Arrète, c’est ici l’empire des Morts. Even with my broken French, I knew what was next, but truly had no idea what to expect.  Approaching the entry, I prepared myself.  A thick black line lead through the portal, seemingly burned into the roof of this subterranean crypt like a guide rope, giving me just enough confidence to enter.  A low rumbling could be heard in the distance behind me, growing louder and louder with each breath.  Sound bounced off the walls, pushing forward with each passing moment.  Finally, the cacophony of screaming and laughing exploded into the space, crystallizing into a mob of disorderly school children who seemed to have no compunction about where they were or what they were doing.  I wondered why I was so concerned about any of it, the sound of the teenagers filling in the sensory gaps and relaxing me somewhat.  Perhaps those kids knew something I didn’t.  Relaxation turned to annoyance: Have some respect I thought.  Perhaps they really were as intrigued and fearful of all of this as I was – they were just making noise to frighten away the spirits that were invading their brains.

The Catacombs of Paris

I stepped through the doorway.

Thoughts and words left me as I simply stopped and stared.

The Catacombs of Paris

I walked for what seemed like miles and miles.  After fifteen minutes, I felt it was ok if I whispered.  After thirty minutes, it was ok to speak.

The Catacombs of Paris

As I began to get used to my surroundings, I began observing others.  Quiet intrigue was turning to ghoulish behavior.  People having their photos taken with the bones.  A man kissing a skull for a photo.  Another ran up ahead, ducked behind some human remains, whilst his friend took a photo – the two ran off, giggling apprehensively like those school children had before.  Who knows what horror they had just brought onto some poor Parisienne.  But then again, they were dead long ago and these were “merely” their bones, right?  Their earthly remains?  If so, then what was the point of all of this?

The Catacombs of Paris

I walked.  Passing what appeared to be the escape hatch (it mirrored the one coming in), I found a wall, hacked by pens, rocks, chalk.  Hacked by those who had visited this place before I.  Why was it necessary to leave your mark here?  The residence here had left their bones; the visitors their crude scratchings.

The Catacombs of Paris

Perhaps I was taking this a little too seriously.  After all, the bones were little more than shells on a beach, the shedding skins of snakes.  They weren’t the people themselves.  Like a feedback loop, they came from some spark of life in the ocean and came to their obvious conclusion here after many generations of trial and error.  The same would happen to me, or my bones, possibly.  But surely it deserved our respect.  I wondered if humans didn’t leave their bones behind, but, let’s say, grew into trees (!), would we cut them down for paper?  The line of thought was all a bit too ridiculous.  A trail of light showed me the way out, which I happily accepted.  My mind had been challenged enough and it was time to retreat into the fairytale world of cafes, bars, boutiques, and crème brûlées; the world of the living.  I climbed toward the over-world, following the path carved by our ancestors so that we may all escape.

The Catacombs of Paris


4 Responses to “L’Empire de la Mort”

  1. Troo said

    Fantastic! Gorgeous photographs, too.

    And thanks for reminding me about the catacombs. I’m off to France next month and was wondering what to do in Paris 😉

  2. Cheers! Have fun! Definitely recommended – a singular experience to say the least.

  3. Oh those children! Ha–make noise to make things safe seems reasonable to moi.
    Now—what camera did you use to shoot those dark images?

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