The Catacombs of Rome & Sicily

By Anastasia Mills Healy

From New Orleans to Paris and from Egypt to Buenos Aires, cemeteries have for centuries been sights of interest to travelers. Some come to admire the architecture and decoration of tombs, some to learn about the burial customs of different cultures, and others out of plain curiosity.

Rome’s ancient catacombs, some of the earliest archaeological evidence of Christianity, are concentrated around the Via Appia Antica and are dug as many as five levels down into the earth – soft rock called tufa. The most visited is the Catacomb of St. Callisto where many of the popes from the third century were buried. In it and others there are frescoes depicting Christian symbols such as doves, fish and bread. There are also two Jewish catacombs that are open to the public by special arrangement, one that pre-dates the Christian catacombs (c. 50 B.C.E. to 400 A.D.). These are decorated with Judaic motifs including menorahs.

In contrast to the Roman catacombs, which were constructed as cemeteries, the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Sicily were mostly created with the intention that the dead be visited. Corpses are displayed in their Sunday best; many are largely intact mummies and are easily accessible.

Sicily Catacombs

Capuchin monks were first buried here in 1599 and later it became a status symbol for people to have their final resting place near these holy men. Divided into sections for men, women, virgins, priests, monks, professionals (e.g., soldiers) and children, the catacombs sadly received their last resident in 1920 – a ghoulishly well- preserved two-year-old girl named Rosalia whose yellow silk bow matches her still-blonde hair.

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