Catacombs of San Callisto in Rome, Italy

The catacombs of San Callisto were the first secret burial place of the early Christians. 16 popes, 100 martyrs and about one million Christians were buried in the underground labyrinth. 

The Catacombs of San Callisto, also known as the Callixtus Catacombs, are located in southeastern Rome about a 10-minute drive from the city center and are one of the 60 underground burial labyrinths in Rome. The mystical burial chambers are among our top 10 sights in Rome.

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Before the liberation of Christianity in 313, the followers of the new faith were forced to carry out the religious burial of their dead in secret. Callixtus, a rich Roman citizen who converted to Christianity, provided his estate for the construction of an underground cemetery where any Christian could be buried free of charge. Over the centuries, a subterranean labyrinth of corridors and shafts was created, in the walls of which the graves were embedded.

Huge dimensions of the Callixtus catamombs

On four levels at a depth of up to 20 meters and with an extension of 20 kilometers, in the catacombs of San Callisto about 370,000 burial sites were dug into the soft tuff rock in 300 years. Since the tombs were often used several times, the number of burials is estimated at about one million, including, according to tradition, about 100 martyrs and 16 popes. Nine of them are buried in a single room, making it the largest papal burial site outside the Vatican.

After the liberation of Christianity under Emperor Constantine, underground burial was no longer necessary and the catacombs of San Callisto became a pilgrimage site where the tombs of the martyrs could be visited. Inscriptions and engravings on the walls still bear witness to such visits.

Visit to the catacombs of San Callisto

In the 9th century, the Saracens raided the city of Rome in search of gold and did not stop at the catacombs. However, the candlesticks made of gold, in the rooms where masses were held, were the only thing worth stealing. Even if the barbarians did not find the hoped-for gold treasures, the tombs were destroyed and their contents destroyed. The bones of the popes had previously been brought to safety within the city walls.

For this reason, today there are neither bones nor skulls to be seen in the catacombs of San Callisto. All the burial chambers are empty. However, this in no way diminishes the impressive aura that emanates from the catacombs.

The walls of the narrow dark corridors are literally littered with niches where you can still see exactly where the shoulders and where the feet lay, larger niches that were used as family tombs, and so-called cubiculae, bedrooms where the sleeping dead waited for the resurrection. Partially preserved are the ornate paintings on pottery that originally adorned the entire underground complex. The impressive frescoes in the underground labyrinth of tombs are up to 1,700 years old.

The bodies were placed in their final resting place dressed only in a sheet, and the niches were walled up and thus hermetically sealed. On the walls next to the burial niches, the holes for the oil lamps are still visible today, some of which were walled in.

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In addition to oil lamps, vases, shells and other objects with which the early Christians decorated the tombs of their loved ones have been found, and on one tablet are engraved words of thanksgiving from the first free pope, addressed to the martyrs in the catacombs of San Callisto.

In the catacombs of San Callisto, a tomb is adorned by a statue of St. Caecilia, who was condemned to death at the age of 15 for her faith. Her intact body was discovered in this place in the catacombs in 1600 and the miracle was immortalized in a reclining statue by Stefano Maderno. The original sculpture is in the Church of Santa Cecilia in Rome's Trastevere district.

How to get there: Getting to the Catacombs of San Callisto by Rome's public transportation is rather tedious. The 118 bus leaves from St. John's Square, and they cannot be reached by metro. It is recommended to go by rental car or cab, which should not cost more than 15 euros (to be on the safe side, ask the price beforehand!).

Tip: In the catacombs the temperature is about 13°C, guided tours through the underground part last about 20-30 minutes, if necessary take warm clothes.

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