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The Illegal Task of Mapping the Paris Catacombs

Posted on March 17 2021

The Illegal Task of Mapping the Paris Catacombs

 

Graphic and story by Ali Harford

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There are a few different ways to get your hands on a map of the Paris catacombs.

I don’t mean the “Catacombs of Paris,” the €29 tourist attraction that circles a 1.5km loop on a guided tour past the bones of 18th century Parisians. I mean the catacombs, the estimated 320km network of abandoned quarries, tunnels, cemeteries, and sewers that weave beneath the city. The catacombs are officially run by the Inspection Générale des Carriéres (IGC), the “Quarry Inspection Department,” whose job is to prevent the city from caving in, or at least to predict cave-ins; those same catacombs are unofficially run by “cataphiles,” illegal urban explorers who occupy the underground. Exploring the catacombs has been illegal since 1955.

The two groups dislike and don’t understand each other—a 2011 article about the catacombs in the Los Angeles Times reported that Xaiver Piccino, deputy head of the IGC at the time, was “visibly annoyed at having to discuss the cataphile troublemakers, or 'parasites' as he calls them.”

 

A map of the 1857 plan for the Paris Catacombs

A map of the 1857 plan for the Paris Catacombs

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The first way to get a map of the catacombs is to go through the IGC, but you’d need to be a landowner. IGC maps are closely guarded and used only for informational land purposes. Parisian landowners own what’s underneath them, so the department helps inform them on the “nature of the subsoil of the plots and on the associated risks”; landowners are responsible for the costs associated with their land collapsing into the depths of the catacombs.

Even if you jumped through all the hoops of getting an appointment with the department to discuss the underground map of your plot, IGC maps largely concern geology. They don’t include anything a cataphile would need to find their way around the underground, such as where openings to the outside are or which tunnels are impassable. The only pieces of the underground atlas the IGC releases publicly are the legend and a map of where quarries exist.

The second way to find a map of the catacombs is to do so illegally, through the knowledge of the cataphiles.

Two cataphiles having a picnic in the catacombs.

Two cataphiles having a picnic in the catacombs. Via the Library of Congress

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The cataphiles are a slippery crew. Their maps are pieced together from years of collective knowledge and are almost impossible to find. The most detailed one I could find lives only on a Reddit thread and is labeled with a 2007 copyright date. A map that old, detailing such a fragile environment, seems like it would be useless or at least dangerous to rely on.

Following what appear to be organization names on the map, “explographies.com,” only leads to a sketchy site encouraging online gambling. Searching “nexus paris catacombs” brings up a link to another site that is apparently the new home of all these cataphile maps and the home of the explographies, if that’s what they call themselves, except none of the external links work. It’s as though the group that created these maps is leaving breadcrumbs that only they know how to follow.

The Independent reported in 2011 that cataphiles are “divided into uncertain networks or underground neighborhoods … rivalry and alliances between networks do exist—and “tourists” or non-cataphiles, are rarely welcome.” One group is rather well-known: L’UX, for Urban eXperiment, write on their website that their goal as cataphiles is to “use, improve, and restore the hidden and abandoned sites of urban heritage.” They’re well known for their underground film festivals and the restoration of the Pantheon’s 19th century clock. They claim to use the book “Paris Souterrain,” by Emile Gerards, published first in 1908, as their Bible of underground maps. Another way to obtain a map of the catacombs, then, would be to buy this book, but it has a hefty price tag of 189.99 euro on Amazon.

 

1908 Map of underground mines in Paris by Emile Gerards

1908 map of underground mine exploitations by Emile Gerards

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“The existence of a complete and perfectly precise map [of the catacombs] seems at best to be wishful thinking,” the explographies site reads. “…One could show all the level curves and give highly precise drawings … but one would end up with an incomprehensible map or at the very least, a relatively unreadable one, except in very large format.”

There are few places left in the world that aren’t publicly mapped, and because of that they hold a sense of wonder and intrigue. What does the world look like when it’s been hidden for generations, and discovered anew? I think that’s what calls people into the tunnels—the sense that they could find something that hasn't been seen for a very long time. There’s no definitive answer to finding a map of the catacombs, and the evolution of its exploration is a history as interwoven and tangential as the tunnels themselves.



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Paris Destination Map by National Geographic

Paris, France Destination Map by National Geographic, $9.95

Antique Map of Paris

Antique Map of Paris, $50.00

1 comment

  • Trisha Holmeide: March 22, 2021

    I really appreciate the interesting articles regarding anything to do with the art and science of mapworkings! I had no idea how extensive the underground tunnels were under the city of Paris! Thank you for sharing this information with us!

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