The Underground World of Paris
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN FRANCE
I DIAL the number, desperately hoping that someone will answer. “Hello! Hello!” I say. “My car keys have fallen down the drain! Please come quickly!” A special brigade of sewer workers arrives swiftly. Their job is to unblock sewers, drain flooded cellars, and save the keys, glasses, wallets, and even pets that regularly disappear down the 18,000 drains in Paris. They recover my keys, and with a sigh of relief, I thank them warmly.
The next day I decide to visit the Musée des Égouts (Museum of Sewers) on the Left Bank of the Seine River, opposite our famous river tour boats and in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. For some 130 years, Paris has been proud to display its underground world. I find out why by imitating the over 90,000 curious people who each year visit this unique museum. Join me as I take a closer look at what the famous 19th-century French writer Victor Hugo called “Leviathan’s intestines”—the sewers of Paris.
Having descended 20 feet [5 m] below ground, I see the first museum exhibit—a stuffed rat. Spine chilling indeed! It is said that for every inhabitant in Paris, there are three rats, which stomach even the strongest poisons incredibly well. They certainly are well fed. Each day the rats devour 100 tons, or one third, of the sewers’ waste.
Stones, nails, keys, and other heavy items get mixed in with wastewater and rain, cluttering the sewers. To the sound of dripping water, I examine the machines that purge the 1,300 miles [2,100 km] of this huge “intestine.” Each year, about a thousand sewer workers evacuate 500,000 cubic feet [15,000 cu m] of waste. Murkiness, showers of filthy water, slimy walls, and abrupt rises in the water level can make a sewer worker’s job quite difficult.
By the way, snaking along near the ceiling of the sewers are conduits that house a vast network of water pipes, telephone wires, and traffic-light cables.
It Began With the Romans
The Romans were the first to endow Paris with sewers. Some 60 feet [18 m] of Roman sewers are still under the ruins of the Roman thermal baths in the Latin Quarter. But when the Roman Empire fell, hygiene was forgotten. Paris remained dirty and unhealthy for centuries, with only basic sewers (drains in the middle of the street) or ditches draining away liquid waste. The ditches stank and were a breeding ground for infection. In 1131 the oldest son of King Louis VI died of an infection after falling into an open sewer.
The open-air drains served as a place to dump refuse, and so did the few newly created covered drains, which were easily blocked. To make matters worse, when the water level of the Seine River rose, the sewers regurgitated foul-smelling mud and waste. Back then, the digestive system of Paris was very small. In 1636 the intestine measured just 14 miles [23 km] in length and served a population of 415,000. One and a half centuries later, it was merely two miles [3 km] longer. By Napoléon’s time, it was suffering from acute indigestion.
In the 19th century, the existing sewers were examined and mapped out. They turned out to consist of nearly two hundred tunnels, many previously unknown. How were the tons of centuries-old mud removed? The word spread that valuables were to be found under the streets of Paris. Thus, a mass of greedy treasure hunters moved in. They waded through the mire, extracting coins, jewelry, and weapons.
Organizing the Sewerage
The sewers were finally organized, modernized, extended, and connected to each house. Pipes large enough to cope with unexpected flooding were used. In 1878, 400 miles [650 km] of navigable channels flowed beneath large vaults. “The sewer is clean, . . . dressed up,” wrote Victor Hugo.
During the 20th century, the system doubled. And the sewers became a mirror image of the city. In what way? Each sewer bears the name of the street it follows and the number of the building above. Improvements have continued with the $330-million renovation project started in 1991. The ten-year renovation of this vital facility, which handles 40 million cubic feet [1.2 million cu m] of water per day, includes the installation of automatic cleaning equipment and computerized controls.
Looking forward to a breath of regular Paris air, I come to the end of the visit. However, my tour underground is not over. “To see the innermost depths of Paris, go to the catacombs,” recommends a souvenir seller. “Twenty meters [66 feet] underground are piled the bones of six million people.” Where did they come from?
Churches Poison the Air
The Paris catacombs—a subterranean cemetery—received their bones only in the 18th century. Starting in the Middle Ages, people were buried in or near the churches. This brought money to the church but was most unhealthy, as the cemeteries were in the heart of town. It became a nightmare for the neighbors of the largest cemetery in Paris, the Saints-Innocents, whose 1.7 acres [7,000 sq m] welcomed the dead from about 20 churches, as well as unidentified corpses and victims of plagues.
In 1418, the Black Death contributed some 50,000 corpses. In 1572, thousands of victims of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre were crammed into Saints-Innocents.a Voices called for the closure of this cemetery. About two million bodies, stacked sometimes 30 feet [10 m] deep, had raised the ground level by more than 6 feet [2 m]. The cemetery was a breeding ground for infection, and it gave off a putrid smell, said to turn milk or wine sour. The clergy, however, opposed closing the city’s cemeteries.
In 1780 a communal grave cracked open and spewed corpses into neighboring cellars. Enough was enough! The cemetery was closed; and burial in Paris, forbidden. The mass graves were emptied into the disused Tombe-Issoire quarries. Each night for 15 months, macabre convoys transferred the bones. This was extended to include another 17 cemeteries and 300 places of worship. The bones were thrown down a 57-foot [17.5 m] shaft, where a stairway now leads down from the street into the catacombs.
Visiting the Paris Catacombs
From the Denfert-Rochereau Square, just south of Paris’ Latin Quarter, I make my way down the 91 steps into the catacombs. In 1787 the ladies of the royal court were among the first to view this underground burial ground by the light of burning torches. Today, 160,000 visitors come each year.
After the staircase comes a seemingly endless series of galleries where corpses are stored. I walk gingerly, reflecting on the fact that the catacombs occupy more than 100,000 square feet [11,000 sq m]. A man named Philibert Aspairt gained unsought fame when he tried to find his way through these hundreds of miles of galleries. In 1793 he got lost in this maze. His skeleton was found 11 years later, identified by his keys and clothing.
About 30 percent of the area under Paris has been quarried. For a long time, quarrying was uncontrolled. In 1774, however, 1,000 feet [300 m] of rue d’Enfer (Hell Street, now Denfert-Rochereau) collapsed into an abyss 100 feet [30 m] deep. Paris was in danger of caving in. The stones “we see above ground,” exclaimed one writer, are “missing under our feet.” To support the underground galleries, magnificent arches were built.
“It’s a shame they didn’t pave the ground while they were at it,” I lament, observing my muddy shoes. Slipping in a puddle, I manage to catch hold of a heavy bronze door. Behind the door lies a corridor with walls built of human bones. Grimacing skulls and brittle femurs and tibiae arranged in rows and in the shape of crosses and wreaths present a morbid scene. Slabs are engraved with Bible verses and poems reflecting man’s meditation on the meaning of life and death.
Upon leaving the catacombs, I clean the mud off my shoes in the gutter, making sure that my keys do not decide to revisit the Paris sewers! My tour in the fascinating underground world of Paris has been an unusual experience that I will not quickly forget. Without a doubt, there is much more to Paris than meets the eye.
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The opening of a section of the Paris sewers
Valentin, Musée Carnavalet, © Photothèque des Musées de la Ville de Paris/Cliché: Giet
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Visiting the sewers
J. Pelcoq, The Boat, Musée Carnavalet, © Photothèque des Musées de la Ville de Paris/Cliché: Giet
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Cross section of the Paris sewers
Ferat, Musée Carnavalet, © Photothèque des Musées de la Ville de Paris/Cliché: Briant
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Grimacing skulls and brittle tibiae arranged in rows and in the shape of crosses and wreaths
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An inscription before the exit: “The sting of death is sin.”—1 Corinthians 15:56, “King James Version”
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Machines for cleaning the sewers
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Map background on pages 24-7: Encyclopædia Britannica/9th Edition (1899)