Catacombs are human-made subterranean passageways for religious practice. Any chamber used as a burial place is a catacomb, although the word is most commonly associated with the Roman Empire. Many are under cities and have been popularized by stories of their use as war refuges, smugglers’ hideouts, or meeting places for cults.
The first place to be referred to as catacombs was the system of underground tombs between the 2nd and 3rd milestones of the Appian Way in Rome, where the bodies of the apostles Peter and Paul, among others, were said to have been buried. The name of that place in late Latin was catacumbae, a word of obscure origin, possibly deriving from a proper name, or else a corruption of the Latin phrase cata tumbas, “among the tombs”. The word referred originally only to the Roman catacombs, but was extended by 1836 to refer to any subterranean receptacle of the dead, as in the 18th-century Paris catacombs.
Catacombs, although most notable as underground passageways and cemeteries, also house many decorations. There are thousands of decorations in the centuries-old catacombs of Rome, catacombs of Paris, and other known and unknown catacombs, some of which include inscriptions, paintings, statues, ornaments, and other items placed in the graves over the years. Most of these decorations were used to identify, immortalize and show respect to the dead.
Although thousands of inscriptions were lost as time passed, many of those remaining indicate the social rank or job title of its inhabitants; however, most of the inscriptions simply indicate how loving a couple was, or the love of parents and such.
Around the World
Catacombs in the world include:
Austria – Catacombs of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna
Czech Republic – Catacombs of Znojmo
Egypt – Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa (or Kom al Sukkfa, Shuqafa, etc.) in Alexandria
England – Catacombs of London and others
Finland – Catacombs of the Helsinki Orthodox cemetery at Hietaniemi cemetery
France – Catacombs of Paris. Mine workings were used at end of the 18th century and had no religious purpose other than as anossuary for storing the bones of cleared graveyards.
Ukraine – Odessa Catacombs
Italy – Catacombs of Rome; Catacombs of Naples; Capuchin catacombs of Palermo and others
Malta – Rabat Catacombs
Peru – Catacombs of the Convento de San Francisco, Lima
Spain – Catacombs of Sacromonte in Granada
United States – Indianapolis Catacombs
There are also catacomb-like burial chambers in Anatolia, Turkey; in Sousse, North Africa; in Syracuse, Italy; Trier, Germany; Kiev, Ukraine. Capuchin catacombs of Palermo, Sicily were used as late as the 1920s. Catacombs were available in some of the grander English cemeteries founded in the 19th Century, such as Sheffield General Cemetery (above ground) and West Norwood Cemetery(below ground). There are catacombs in Bulgaria near Aladzha Monastery and in Romania as medieval underground galleries in Bucharest. In Ukraine and Russia, catacomb (used in the local languages’ plural katakomby) also refers to the network of abandoned caves and tunnels earlier used to mine stone, especially limestone.
In recent years unique strains of bacteria have been discovered that thrive in catacombs, inducing mineral efflorescence and decay. These include Kribbella sancticallisti, Kribbella catacumbae, and three types of non-thermophilic (low-temperature) Rubrobacter.
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