The Odessa Catacombs—An Underground Maze
A LONG crack appeared in the freshly plastered wall of a newly remodeled apartment. “Oh, it’s those catacombs causing our building to tilt,” the owner groaned.
Whatever the problem might be—whether a water pipe bursts or a road caves in—the tunnels below Ukraine’s beautiful city of Odessa on the Black Sea are blamed. Thought to consist of 1,500 miles [2,500 km] of underground passages, they may be the world’s largest catacombs.
‘How did these tunnels come to be?’ we wondered. ‘What role do they play in the lives of those who live above them?’ A tour of them answered our questions.
An Underground Journey
Our tour bus departed from the Odessa train station with an excited group of vacationers and students. During our ride to the catacombs, the guide filled us in on some of their history.
We learned that the digging of the catacombs appears to have begun in the 1830’s, when the city needed inexpensive and readily available building material. Conveniently, beneath the city lay long veins of lightweight, durable yellow limestone. So stonecutting became a profitable business for the growing city. As miners excavated stone, the catacombs began to take shape.
An unmapped maze quickly spread out haphazardly under the city. Tunnels were dug more than a hundred feet [35 m] below ground level. Sometimes they crisscrossed at different levels. Shafts were abandoned when the limestone in them was exhausted, and then new ones were started. In time, the web of tunnels extended into the outlying countryside.
Before long, our bus arrived at Nerubaiske, a small village just north of Odessa. Soon we were standing next to a limestone wall with a heavy metal gate that sealed off a catacomb tunnel. Our guide informed us: “We will now be entering an area that was occupied by Soviet partisans during World War II. You will be able to get an idea of what their life was like here during that time.” According to Andriy Krasnozhon, a catacomb expert, one partisan group lived below ground here for 13 months.
“Remember,” our guide added, “at one time or another, many others occupied the different sections of the catacombs. These included bandits, pirates, and political refugees. They all experienced basically the same conditions.”
We entered a gloomy corridor that faded into darkness. “These tunnels for the partisans were not just a hideout but were equipped as comfortably as possible,” our guide said. “In the recreation room, men played checkers, chess, or dominoes by candlelight. Rooms to accommodate men and women were cut into the rock off the main tunnel. Inside each room a shelf was cut into the wall and strewn with hay. This served as a sleeping shelf. The hospital wing was equipped with real beds and an operating theater. Women cooked on a woodstove made from the yellow limestone, and smoke was vented to a tunnel above.”
The ceiling of the tunnel resembled a large, natural sponge, only it was not soft to the touch. Saw marks zigzagged down the walls where blocks of stone had been cut out. The walls felt like coarse sandpaper. “When the partisans went topside, they changed their clothes so the Germans could not sniff them out,” our guide explained. “The dampness of the catacombs permeated clothes with a distinctive odor.”
“There were other peculiarities of life underground,” our guide said, “such as living in total darkness.” She flipped a light switch, plunging us into darkness. “They couldn’t always burn their kerosene lamps,” she noted. As we groped along the wall, she added, “The rocks absorb sound, so if you get lost, no one is going to hear your screams.” Mercifully, our guide turned the lights on again!
“Guards on sentry duty worked only two-hour shifts,” she continued, “because after a long time in the darkness and in total silence, a person could experience auditory hallucinations.” A hole in the roof of the tunnel allowed us to see an upper tunnel that cut across the one we were in. I wondered: ‘Where does it come from? Where does it go?’ I felt a sense of adventure. “Only about a thousand miles [1,700 km] of the catacombs have been mapped,” our guide noted, “so there is still much work to do.”
Recent explorers have discovered new tunnels. Inside they have found century-old newspapers, prerevolutionary kerosene lamps, and money from czarist days. Such discoveries—untouched for decades—belonged to the bygone occupants of the deep, dark, and long catacombs of Odessa.—Contributed.
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Beautiful buildings made of excavated yellow limestone still stand in downtown Odessa. The doors in the basements of some open directly into the catacombs. New buildings continue to be built with this limestone.
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Hospital beds used by the Soviets during World War II
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The Odessa catacombs are thought to consist of 1,500 miles of underground passages