7 of the World’s Most Fascinating and Beautiful Catacombs

A cross stands in the Roman catacombs
A cross stands in the Roman catacombs
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Jerusalem is a coveted burial spot, but the ancient city is running out of space to bury the dead. In 2015, the Jerusalem Jewish Community Burial Society teamed up with a construction group to bore beneath a mountain in the city’s largest cemetery, Har Hamenuchot, and create a massive underground necropolis that will house 22,000 crypts. The plan is to create burial spaces arranged floor-to-ceiling in a network of intersecting tunnels—a little like the ones that first graced the Middle East thousands of years ago. The first section of the modernized catacombs is set to open in October 2019.

Here are seven of the most beautiful and historically fascinating catacombs from elsewhere in the world.

1. Rome Catacombs

Catacombs originated in the Middle East about 6000 years ago and spread to Rome with Jewish migration. Early Christians modeled their burial practices on Jewish customs, although they were forced by Roman rules to bury outside the city limits. Since land was expensive, they went underground, digging an estimated 375 miles of tunnels through Rome's soft volcanic tuff, and building networks of rooms lined with rectangular niches called loculi. Later, more complex tombs included cubical (small rooms that served as a family tomb) and arcosolia (large niches with an arch over the opening, also used for families). Both were often decorated with religious frescos, gold medallions, statues, and other art. The beauty wasn’t just for the dead but for the living, who congregated there to share funeral meals and mark death anniversaries. (The idea that persecuted Christians secretly worshipped there, however, is a Romantic-era legend.)

By the early 5th century, barbarians had invaded Rome and began ransacking the tombs, so the remains of interred saints and martyrs were moved to more secure locations in churches around the city. The catacombs were forgotten for centuries, until miners accidentally rediscovered one under the Via Salaria in 1578. That set off a rush for relics (often of dubious provenance). Today, Rome’s 40-odd catacombs have been stripped of bodies, but the ancient frescoes and winding passageways make them well worth a visit.

2. Paris Catacombs

Inside the Paris catacombs
Inside the Paris catacombs
Michelle Reynolds/iStock via Getty Images

They weren't the first, but the Paris catacombs might be the most famous in the world, and little can compete with them for sheer macabre glamor. Created by the Romans as limestone quarries to build the city above, their current use dates from the late 18th century, when overcrowded cemeteries around the city sparked public health concerns. (One of the worst offenders was Saints-Innocents, in use for almost a millennium and overflowing with corpses, which wasn’t so great considering its proximity to the popular Les Halles market). Starting in the late 18th century, officials took charge of the situation by relocating the bones—from an estimated six to seven million people—to the former quarries, which were specially blessed and consecrated for that purpose.

The catacombs were opened as a public curiosity in the 19th century, and today visitors can see the bones piled into artful arrangements. (One design is shaped like a keg, another like a heart.) Other attractions include an underground spring, a sepulchral lamp, sculptures created by a quarryman, and special exhibits. Only part of the roughly 200 feet of tunnels is open to the public, although that hasn't stopped intrepid urban explorers, artists, and thieves from journeying to the off-limits sections. In 2004, Parisian police discovered a secret cinema set up inside one area, complete with a bar.

3. Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa

A series of tombs tunneled into the bedrock beneath Alexandria starting in the second century, the catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa ("Mound of Shards") were forgotten until 1900, when a donkey fell into an access shaft. Today the three levels of catacombs are open for visits, and include several giant stone coffins as well as carvings, statues, and other archeological details melding Roman, Greek, and Egyptian styles. On the second level is the Hall of Caracalla, said to contain the remains of young Christian men (and at least one horse) massacred by Caracalla in AD 215.

4. Palermo Capuchin Catacombs

Mummies in the Catacombs of the Capuchins in Palermo
Mummies in the Catacombs of the Capuchins in Palermo
n e o g e j o, Flickr (1) and (2) // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the 16th century, the Capuchin church in Palermo, Sicily, began outgrowing its cemetery and the monks got the idea of embalming their dead brethren and putting them on show in the catacombs instead. At first only friars got this special treatment, but the practice caught on and local notables began asking for the honor in their wills. Roughly 12,000 people have since been embalmed and arranged for display according to demographic—the categories include Men, Women, Virgins, Children, Priests, Monks, and Professionals. Burials didn't stop until the 1920s, and one of the most famous inhabitants is also among the last—the beautiful Rosalie Lombardo.

5. Rabat Catacombs, Malta

The St. Paul's catacombs in Malta
The St. Paul's catacombs in Malta

Beneath the modern city of Rabat, Malta (once the ancient Roman town of Melite) lies an extensive system of rock-hewn underground tombs dating from the fourth to the ninth century AD. Unlike most other catacombs throughout the Mediterranean—and indeed the world—the tunnels were used to bury Jews, Christians, and pagans, without noticeable divisions among the groups.

Features include large tables used for ceremonial meals commemorating the dead and canopied burial chambers, some of which have been inscribed with illustrations and messages (archeologists are still working to interpret the site). Major catacomb complexes in Rabat include those of St. Paul, St. Agatha and Tad-Dejr.

6. St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna

A winged skull at the entrance to the St. Stephen’s Cathedral crypt
A winged skull at the entrance to the St. Stephen’s Cathedral crypt
Douglas Sprott, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna, St. Stephen's Cathedral is one of the most important buildings in the city, known for its gorgeous multi-colored tile roof (and for being the site of Vivaldi's funeral). But fewer tourists visit the crypt, where the remains of more than 11,000 people lie.

Although most of the current cathedral dates to the 14th century, the crypt originated after an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the 1730s, when cemeteries around Vienna were emptied in an effort to stem the tide of the disease. Many of the skeletons were piled into neat rows, skulls on top, although visitors to some areas will also see disorganized piles of bones. In one section, the ducal crypt, the organs of princes, queens, and emperors are stored—including Hapsburg Queen Maria Teresa's stomach.

7. Brno Ossuary

A routine archeological dig as part of a construction project in 2001 led to an unexpected discovery in Brno, the Czech Republic—a long-forgotten underground charnel house crammed with skeletons. An estimated 50,000 sets of remains had been stuffed beneath St. Jacob's Square during the 17th and 18th centuries, originally stacked in neat rows but later jumbled by water and mud. The site opened for public viewing in June 2012, and today it’s the second-largest (known) ossuary in Europe, after the Paris catacombs.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

Learn Python From Home for Just $50

Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels.com
Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels.com

It's difficult to think of a hobby or job that doesn’t involve some element of coding in its execution. Are you an Instagram enthusiast? Coding and algorithms are what bring your friends' posts to your feed. Can’t get enough Mental Floss? Coding brings the entire site to life on your desktop and mobile screens. Even sorting through playlists on Spotify uses coding. If you're tired of playing catch-up with all the latest coding techniques and principles, the 2020 Python Programming Certification Bundle is on sale for $49.99 to teach you to code, challenge your brain, and boost your resume to get your dream job.

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The 10 Best Beaches in America, According to Dr. Beach

Grayton Beach? More like Blue-Ton Beach.
Grayton Beach? More like Blue-Ton Beach.
Jacob Boomsma/iStock via Getty Images

When searching for the perfect stretch of beach to laze away your vacation days, there are quite a few factors to consider. Some, like water clarity or sand texture, are more obvious than others; for example, you might not realize how much noise pollution a nearby highway generates until you’re already on the beach.

To help you choose your next seaside getaway, Florida International University coastal research professor Stephen P. Leatherman, also known as “Dr. Beach,” has released his annual list of the top 10 beaches in the U.S. Based on 50 criteria, ranging from the beach’s width at low tide to the presence of jellyfish, the data reveals the Florida Panhandle is home to the best beach in the country. Grayton Beach State Park boasts exceptionally fine, white sand known as “sugar sand”; shallow, warm water with calm waves; and a 2000-acre nature park with rare coastal dune lakes and a hiking trail. It wasn’t the only Florida beach to make the list—Caladesi Island State Park, off the coast of Dunedin and Clearwater, came in at number six.

North Carolina’s Outer Banks islands were well-represented, too, with Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach and Buxton’s Lighthouse Beach taking the second and fifth spots, respectively. Dr. Beach also bestowed top honors on two of Hawaii’s beaches: Oahu’s Duke Kahanamoku Beach and the Big Island’s Hapuna Beach State Park.

Even if you can’t make it as far as Florida or Hawaii, Dr. Beach’s metrics can help you decide what’s important to you when it comes to choosing the best beach closer to home. Maybe you’re not bothered by online reviews that warn about giant waves at a certain beach, but you’re unwilling to budge about overcrowding.

The list of criteria isn’t the only way that Dr. Beach is helping beachgoers plan the best, safest summer vacation possible—he’s also compiled a few handy tips for heading to the beach during the coronavirus pandemic. First and foremost, you should check the beach’s rules before you go; some places are only open for exercise, while others have made masks mandatory (even if yours doesn’t require a mask, however, you should still wear one). Dr. Beach also recommends having a backup plan, just in case your ideal beach hits capacity before you get there.

See the full list of top 10 beaches below, and find out more about them here.

  1. Grayton Beach State Park // Florida Panhandle
  1. Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach // Ocracoke, North Carolina
  1. Coopers Beach // Southampton, New York
  1. Duke Kahanamoku Beach // Oahu, Hawaii
  1. Lighthouse Beach // Buxton, North Carolina 
  1. Caladesi Island State Park // Dunedin, Florida
  1. Hapuna Beach State Park // Big Island, Hawaii
  1. Coast Guard Beach // Cape Cod, Massachusetts
  1. Coronado Beach // San Diego, California
  1. Beachwalker Park // Kiawah Island, South Carolina