Les Cataphiles

Photographs and Text by Kim Badawi

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Les Cataphiles: Underground urban explorers of the Catacombs or quarries under Paris.

Cataphiles are Parisian urban explorers who illegally wander the Catacombs, a term popularly used to describe a series of underground tunnels that were formerly a network of stone mines. Originally built shortly after the French revolution to house the remains of destroyed tombs during the expansion of the city, the Catacombs are testimony to over two centuries of the city's historical heritage. For example, they were used as shelters by the French resistance during the Nazi occupation of Paris during the Second World War. Beginning in the late sixties, Parisians known as Cataphiles began restoring some of these spaces, and organizing ossuaries to make way for more innovative creative spaces or themed-based neighborhoods.

The Catacombs (or les k'tas as they are known) are vast networks of underground galleries, tunnels and crypts under Paris. Nearly eighty yards below the city's cobblestones, there are no lights, electricity or even sound. There are no living creatures or fantastic urban legends in the Catacombs; however, it is estimated that a sheer 300 Parisians visit the Catacombs weekly by entering through secret entrances throughout the city. Visiting the Catacombs is illegal and considered trespassing, although it is somewhat tolerated by locals. If caught, trespassers are penalized a small fine.

Entrance to the official Catacombs is restricted. A small portion of the catacombs are open to the public or tourists, which only consists of a tiny part of an extensive network of underground tunnels that spans more than 300km (about 186 miles) in length. Some passages can be very low, narrow, or partially flooded. Because of these dangers, accessing the other parts of the Catacombs has been illegal since November 2, 1955. Secret entrances do however exist throughout Paris via the sewers, the metro, and certain manholes. Cataphiles are in a sense a community since they share the same spaces even though divided in certain networks or underground neighborhoods. Cataphiles may not necessarily pledge allegiance to the exact network they actually live above in the city, but may choose to visit repeatedly a network beneath a different neighborhood of the city. Rivalry and alliances between networks do exist; and "tourists" or non-cataphiles are rarely welcome.

There are three rules that a Cataphile must follow and respect. They are as follows:

1) "What comes down must go up." This is a rule that applies to littering, and is thoroughly respected and enforced by Cataphiles.

2) "Never speak of the above". Most Cataphiles use aliases to identify themselves. What one does for a living or where he/she goes to school is rarely discussed in the Catacombs. Many of the plaques indicate the name of the street above, but in some cases certain ones are purposefully misleading.

3) "Never trust anyone". There is a given notion that a good Cataphile is not only someone with a sense of adventure, above average navigational skills, but also someone who has sufficiently been exposed to life in these underground quarries or to communities that visit the Catacombs regularly. In short, since the Catacombs are made up of complex tunnel systems ranging on several floors, covering an entire city and with only a few existing entrances or exits to the world above; it is advisable never trust anyone, apparent signage or any online maps.