For those of you looking for things to do while in Lima, Peru, consider visiting the Saint Francis Cathedral & Monastery. It not only is fascinating for its architecture, style and history but the Catacombs beneath the foundation offer a unique experience! Truly unforgettable.
The Monastery was built in the 15th century and sports Spanish Baroque style architecture. The foundation was built with round well-like structures designed to absorb the shock from frequent tremors and earthquakes. The interior is adorned with gorgeous original murals only recently discovered within the last 40 or so years. It is the only original construction cathedral left in the area but it did suffer some damage in the 1970’s from a quake. The guide conducting the tour of the grounds shared a story with us which claims that all the beautiful tile work, mahogany, and cedar in several of the chambers took over a year to collect back in the 15th century. Messengers were sent to gather hand-painted tiles from Seville, Mahogany and Cedar from Central and/or South America plus other materials from India. We were prohibited from photographing anything inside the grounds so unfortunately I have no pictures to share with you. Sorry!
The Catacombs part of the tour was the most fascinating for me as my B.A. was in Anthropology with an Archaeology focus. Osteology was my all time favorite class so bones fascinate me!
It is recommended that anyone who suffers from claustrophobia stay behind. Many of the passage ways have low ceilings and there are a few narrow passages. I would consider myself mildly claustrophobic but I didn’t have any trouble or experience any sort of anxiety. (I say go for it and if you start to feel uncomfortable you can always turn around).
There are many entries in to the catacombs that were used throughout history by the monks that maintained the grounds but only one or two are used for tours today. The Catacombs were used as burial grounds from the 15th century till about the 1860’s. It was said that being buried under the church was considered an honor but many individuals buried there may have either voluntarily or made donations to the church or it may have been mandatory.
All of the monks themselves were buried here but in a private section. To this day, monks that pass are still buried in a private section of the Catacombs.
I was shocked to see the pure quantity and age of these bones. As we entered, most of the bones were sorted into boxes, perhaps 4 or 5 feet long by 3 feet wide? They were sorted by bone type. Most I saw were boxes of just long bones, so many femurs and tibias all sorted together. It was eerie to spy a box filled with just skulls. Seeing mass graves on TV. is one thing but seeing all these bones gathered in one place… its shocking to add up just how many people were buried her. At one time, archaeologists & anthropologists were brought in to catalog the catacombs and its contents, hence the sorting. It is estimated that 20,000-30,000 bodies were buried here (although Wikipedia says otherwise).
Although we were not allowed to take any photos on the grounds or in the Catacombs, I was able to find a picture on Wikipedia. It shows one of the round, well-like structures built into the foundation for the purpose of absorbing the shock from quakes. One in particular that is shown on the tour is filled with an arrangement of bones. See below.
Even if you are not a history fan, I highly recommend visiting the Cathedral based on its beauty as well as the uniqueness that the catacombs portion of the tour has to offer! Feel free to ask me any questions or provide any comments on my writing or storytelling! Thanks for reading. More to come soon.