Arts & Entertainment

Rome’s underworld: catacombs, mushrooms and paganism

By Raul Martinez Mendo

Rome, Dec 1 (EFE).- A dark and mysterious underworld lies deep beneath Rome’s ancient streets. Once a make-shift cemetery, quarry, pagan temple and mushroom farm, the vast underground network of tunnels and galleries is now a route explored by curious adventurers.

After decades of neglect and deterioration, the Sotterranei di Roma organization (Underground Rome) has restored 35 kilometers of subterranean passageways in an ancient quarry under the Appian Way dubbed “The Labyrinth”.

“The Labyrinth is a place that is steeped in history, is mysterious, dark and full of galleries. We have always been clear about the potential of this space,” the vice president of Underground Rome, Alfonso Díaz, tells Efe.

The ancient Appia quarry houses spaces that take visitors on a journey to the past including a Milthraea temple — where followers of Milthraism, a pagan religion that emerged in Imperial Rome, gathered — or an air raid shelter used during World War II.

Visitors can take guided tours or just meander the atmospheric tunnels on foot or by bike.

The galleries have also been used to host dimly-lit performances, concerts and even escape room events based on Ancient Roman tales and history.

The labyrinth’s darkest past is linked to the Praetextatus Catacombs, where thousands of people remain buried.

Rome’s catacombs host over 750,000 graves that are piled up along winding tunnels that span some 170 kilometers.

The vast underground cemeteries were used by the first followers of Christianity to bury their dead at a time when Christians were persecuted.

During the 20th century, Rome’s underbelly was transformed into a mushroom farm, given the tunnel’s damp environment and temperature making them a perfect place to grow fungi, before falling into oblivion for three decades.

“The entrance to the quarry was full of brambles and hidden amid vegetation. To get inside we had to hack our way in like in an Indiana Jones movie,” Díaz says.

Underground Rome has taken on the task of preserving The Labyrinth to prevent it from further deterioration given the frequent seismic activity in the area and the threat of flooding from the streams that flow through Caffarella park, where the tunnels are located.

The maintenance of the underground network of galleries relies on Underground Rome, its volunteers and the funds raised from guided tours.

“Thanks to the visits we can continue with our speleological investigations and, looking to the future, create an underground museum,” Díaz adds. EFE


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