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Look Out Below!

Sivi Sekula

Since the beginning of time, man has been digging to create underground spaces for all sorts of reasons. Some can still be visited today

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

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T here is something about being underground that fascinates us. Far from sunlight and sky and everything we know, when we go underground we find ourselves surrounded by the unfamiliar. Which is exciting, scary even. And okay, sometimes claustrophobic.

Since the beginning of time, man has been digging to create underground spaces for all sorts of reasons. Along the way, some of these diggers have created some pretty awesome rooms, caverns, and even entire cities, hidden deep below the surface. Some can still be visited today.


Underground City of Naours

Near the village of Naours (population 1,200) in northern France, lies another place by the same name. Well, almost the same name. The fact that the second is 72 feet below ground probably explains why it’s usually called the Underground City of Naours (don’t pronounce the ‘s’). The city is made up of 28 galleries (long passageways) and about 300 chambers. And yes, French people obviously not affected by claustrophobia actually lived there at various times in history. In fact, during the period of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), Underground Naours was inhabited by 3,000 people.

Can you guess why these people would have headed below ground during a bitter and bloody war? You got it! It was for protection. The underground city began as a limestone quarry dug by the Romans. Sometime during the Middle Ages, when the Roman Empire began conquering Europe, the locals figured that the quarry would make a great place to store food… and hide people. Over time, they built wells, stables, and even bakeries. They were pretty smart, and made sure to build chimneys up through the rock and into the cottages above ground so that the smoke rising from the ovens wouldn’t appear to be coming from under the earth (that would have been a dead giveaway).

Eventually, life in France became more peaceful and there was no longer a need for people to hide underground, and so the Underground City of Naours was all but forgotten. Until 1887, when a man discovered the amazing series of tunnels and chambers while doing some renovations to his house. Since then, the city has been a popular tourist attraction. In fact, during World War I, soldiers stationed nearby would visit when they were off duty. They left their mark; the walls of the underground city contain the largest amount of World War I-era graffiti ever discovered. 

The Buried City

Sounds like this mysterious buried city must be some place exotic built by the ancient Aztecs or marauding Vikings? Well, I have a surprise for you. It’s actually in Seattle, Washington, right in the good ol’ United States.


Modern-day Seattle is a bustling city on the northwest coast. Seattle’s weather is dismal for most of the year — lots and lots of rain. Nowadays, the rain isn’t such a problem. But when Seattle was first settled, back in the 1850s, the rain meant constant mud. The mud was not only annoying, it was sometimes downright dangerous. During heavy rainstorms, the mud became so thick and high, it would swallow small children! Seattle is also right near Puget Sound, where the heavy incoming tides used to flood the sewer system and turn the toilets into fountains!

So, when the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 destroyed 25 blocks of wooden buildings right in the center of town, the city decided on two things. One: that all new buildings must be built of brick or stone. And two: the city would be rebuilt eight feet higher than the ground to overcome the mud problem. Eight-foot walls were built on either side of the old sidewalks, and from there, building owners took the lead and built on top of what was underneath. What used to be the ground floor now became the basement.

Visitors to the Pioneer Square neighborhood can take a tour of the underground city, where storefronts, banks, and homes that escaped the Great Fire have been preserved. (Excerpted from Mishpacha Jr., Issue 697)

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