Sunday, 5 October 2014

Skulls and Other Bones

This weekend I fancied a bit of history, so went to visit the catacombs at San Francisco church in the Historical Centre of Lima, just a bus ride away.

Catacombs: Underground passages built as a cemetery, with various places for tombs.

Entrance to San Francisco church

The large and imposing Roman Catholic church is an elegant structure, dominating the landscape. The baroque-style construction was built in the 17th century and is most famous for its catacombs that are located just beneath it. There was a small charge for visiting them but it was worth it for the fascinating English-speaking tour that was on offer. It is estimated that around 75,000 bodies are buried there, and most of the remains are exposed for all to see.

Entrance to the catacombs

It was an eerie feeling, being led through the dark tunnels and small doorways. There was one man with us who must have been well over 6 foot tall and was built like a tank - he was practically crawling along. It never ceases to amaze me how short people must have been a few hundred years ago (when visiting old buildings, the size of entrances and doorways is one of the first things I notice). The lighting, of course, was electric, but they had attempted to mimic the light that would have been emitted by the fire torches that would originally have been there. It was well done, but I can imagine how much more spine-chilling the atmosphere would have been back in the day sans electricity.

We were invited to look in the pits, which were full of femur bones and skulls stacked in circular patterns. Our tour guide said that the pits were many metres deep. When I looked at the piles of skulls, I was struck with a sense of my own mortality. It was odd to think that once upon a time, attached to each one was a living, breathing person, who had wants, needs, and desires, just like me. Each eye-socket housed an eye that would have perceived the world in its own special way. Each jaw bone must have said a thousand different words that would have affected the course of history (I am a staunch believer in the butterfly effect). There was no way for them to know that one day their whole selves would be reduced to a lone skull sitting in a pit to be gawked at by curious 21st century tourists. It actually freaked me out a little to think that one day that's all I will be - a pile of bones that nobody cares about.

I was a little disappointed we were not allowed to take pictures, but apart from that it was an awesome experience. I would also recommend having a look around the inside of the church as well - it's pretty extraordinary.

Inside the church

One of the shrines

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