What exactly are the catacombs?
They are subterranean cemeteries created
by the early Christians to bury their dead. They are
primarily located outside of the city walls of ancient
They were created by digging out a very soft, porous sedimentary rock called
tuffa. Before its exposed to air, tuffa rock is very soft and relatively easy
to excavate by hand tools. However, after it has been exposed to air, it gradually
hardens. So the passageways carved out become firm instead of caving in.
The word “Catacombs"
Most Christians are surprised when I tell them that there is no mention of
the catacombs in the writings of the early Christians. That's because
the early Christians didn't refer to these burial places as the “catacombs.” They simply called them “cemeteries.”
You're no doubt wondering: “So where did the word “catacombs” come from?” It
originally was simply a geographic term—not having anything whatsoever to
do with the early Christian cemeteries. Ancient maps carried the notation, “ad
catacumbas,” for an area around the Appian Way where the land dipped
there were hollows. Ad catacumbas is simply Latin for “near the hollow.” The
name for the region was there before the early Christians built their underground
Now, not too far from the Catacomb of St. Callistus, there is another underground
cemetery named after a saintly Christian called Sebastian. Well, in the late
4th and the 5th centuries, a lot of pilgrims came to Rome to view these underground
burial chambers. And maps and guides were made for these pilgrims. In these
guides and other documents, the Sebastian cemetery was given this name: “Cymiterium
Catcumbas ad sanctum Sebastianum via Appia.” This name was merely giving the
location of this cemetery—being one of the cemeteries located in the catacumbas
region along the Appian Way.
Somehow, during the Middle Ages—primarily through ignorance, people started referring
to all of these underground cemeteries as “catacombs.” And that's how the
name got started.
Click here to
view some photographs of the catacombs.