The Catacombs

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Intro to Christianity

27, May 2009


The Catacombs have always been of interest to me. I remember my first introduction to the Catacombs which was a story produced by National Geographic and aired on television some years ago. This story sparked my initial interest and intrigued me. I questioned the religious aspect of this practice and I wondered what type of people would do this. My initial thinking was that perhaps this was a cult. Fast forward…Summer 2006; Italy…

It was my first actual visit to the Catacombs; the Catacombs of the Cappuccine, in Palermo, Italy on the southern Island of Sicily. This visit re-sparked my original interest in this type of burial for the dead and created a whole new, albeit unnerving, curiosity in me. I would now be greeted “in person“ with some of the memorable faces and rotting shells of people I recalled from television and books.

Just below street level in a cave like scene, the corpses of many were layered in carved out rows in military bunk bed style along the corridor walls. Some clustered together stylishly dressed, complete with hats and Italian leather shoes, sitting together as if having a conversation in seated positions. Some were propped along the walls in upright positions perhaps hanging by rope or wire, and some of the deceased were lying down peacefully as if taking a nap on a Sunday after mass. I felt this practice to be in contrast to the strict reputation of the Catholic church. Here were these dead people “buried”, but without a casket. Odd, to say the least, I found it strange and a little morbid. Was this an old style of burial and if so when did it actually begin? Was this an acceptable Catholic practice now perhaps outlawed? Or just an old fashioned and outdated burial practice that is perhaps still looked at as being acceptable and “ok?“

Wikipedia, defines the Catacombs as; “…ancient, human-made underground passageways or subterranean cemeteries…served during historic times as a refuge for safety during wars or as a meeting place for cults.“ To my knowledge the Catacombs were originally built for and by the Romans. However, in my research I have learned that there was a civilization more ancient than the Romans whom originally built the catacombs, or their early foundations and structures. The Romans inherited these underground structures from the mysterious race known as the Etruscans.

It is documented that long before the Christian era and the Roman civilization the Etruscans were the creators of the Catacombs. The proof comes in the form of inscriptions, sculptures, and vases excavated from the earth when these ancient tombs were rifled through presenting objects of curious study to the antiquarian. These antiquities aforementioned are predominately housed in the museums of Italy. Unfortunately, there is no known knowledge of the Etruscans language as any records have perished.

There are differences in the characteristics between the Etruscan’s architecture and the earlier Roman’s that are distinguishing. Most apparent, the massiveness. These vast underground cities as they are referred to are always near a major city; Rome, Naples, and throughout the south of Italy which extend to some fifteen to twenty miles in length. There are also traces in Greece, the Greek isles, Crete, and in Asia Minor. As defined by one author; “The Catacombs are underground cemeteries, excavated beside or near the great highways that run out of Rome…“ (Shahan, Thomas Joseph; The Blessed Virgin in the Catacombs, page 14.)

The beginnings of the Catacombs started as soil and rock mining quarries to build The ancient cities and structures during the time of the Etruscan civilization. The sandy rock soil called; tufa was easily quarried to make cement to build the cities. The workmen, or slaves known as the arenarii, or sand-diggers, were persons of the lowest grade and cut off to the rest of society by their occupation. It is believed...
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