There’s a certain fascination in visiting cemeteries that you don’t encounter elsewhere. Morbidity, an unnatural peace, a sense of time stood still, of memories quietly turning to dust beneath your feet… the mood of a graveyard can be hard to describe. Perhaps it’s the closeness of architectural beauty to a very human sense of decay; maybe it’s that intangible quality in the air we call ‘atmosphere’. For whatever reason, cemeteries remain oddly-compelling places for exploration. Here are 8 of the best for doing just that:
Karaite Cemetery (Crimea)
(Images: Serhii Piddubchak, reproduced with permission)
Hidden in wooded Iosofatova Valley near the old Tartar capital of Bakhchysaray, the Karaite Cemetery is as spooky as they come. Beneath slender Oak trees, thousands of broken tombstones lie at mournful angles, covered in a near-indecipherable Hebrew script. The ground is uneven, the graves shrouded in moss and lichen and – on a quiet day – a disquieting silence seems to settle over everything, giving the place an other-worldly atmosphere. For the best part of a millennium, the Karaites brought their dead here; to a sacred grove known as ‘Balta Tuymez’, a place that still seems to tingle with magic. Standing there in the shadow of the plateau as the sun goes down, it’d take a brave visitor not to feel just the faintest shiver.
The Old Jewish Cemetery (Prague)
Tucked away in Prague’s ‘gothic’ quarter, this irregular, crumbling cemetery seems to have sprung from the pages of an Eastern European folktale. Densely packed, built over uneven ground and guarded by tall iron railings, it almost feels abandoned – despite being crammed right in among a glut of hotels and tourist cafes. While it’s exact date of construction has now been lost to time (the earliest legible grave dates from the early 15th century), it’s likely the Old Jewish Cemetery was built around 600 years old; a fact not lost on Hitler, who ordered its preservation with the ghoulish idea of building a museum to Judaism there. Morbid as the thought may be, the site still retains a peculiar beauty. On a wet and gloomy day, with grey clouds pressing down, it’s almost easy to imagine the last 200 years haven’t happened and you’re seeing it as it was in 1787, on the day the gates shut for the final time.
The Magnificent Seven (London)
During the Industrial Revolution, London’s population exploded. Faced with a shortage of graves, the city commissioned seven new cemeteries to be built around the edges. Now long since overfilled themselves and swallowed up by housing developments and redbrick estates, these graveyards retain a peculiar charm: not least due to the frantic efforts of Mother Nature to reclaim them. Stretching from famous Highgate Cemetery in the north (where Karl Marx and Douglas Adams share their final resting place), to West Norwood below the river and Tower Hamlets to the East, the seven are in differing stages of decay – with Tower Hamlets now so spectacularly overgrown you feel as if you’ve stepped onto an old Hammer Horror set. Quiet, crumbling and virtually hidden, the Magnificent Seven are a perfect antidote to the frenetic pace of London life.
The City of the Dead (Cairo)
It sounds like a reverse horror story: a city of corpses, now overrun with the living. But Cairo’s City of the Dead is real enough: traditionally an ancient resting place, the vast necropolis became a temporary homeless shelter in the sixties, as internal slums were cleared and the poor chased out the city. With nowhere else to go, people began converting the mausoleums into makeshift homes – with the result that this large graveyard is today more alive than most cities. Shops, hotels and brothels all operate from within its walls, servicing half a million people in what’s been described as one of the biggest slums in Egypt. Fascinating it may be, but the authorities are desperate to pretend it – along with nearby ‘Garbage City’ – doesn’t exist: don’t expect getting there to be easy.
Cimetière des Chiens (Paris)
On the outskirts of Paris hides a historical curiosity: the world’s oldest pet cemetery. Built in 1899, at the height of fashionable decadence in France, this enclave of the obedient and the dead caters exclusively to the rich and animal obsessed. Among Cimetière des Chiens‘ notable residents is original show-biz dog Rin Tin Tin and the pet lion of a wealthy feminist – but what marks this cemetery out is its abundance of statues. Dogs, cats, horses and even monkeys stare down at visitors, as if still waiting for their owners to come and reclaim them after all this time. Strange, oddly chilling and not a little silly, Paris’s vast monument to its house-trained dead is a bizarre alternative to its more-famous cousins.
Wadi Al-Salaam (Iraq)
(Images: Wurzelgnohm, public domain)
Spreading over 2,000 acres, the Wadi Al-Salaam necropolis may be the largest in the world. In the boiling heat of the Iraqi desert, processions of mourning families drive their dead from hundreds of miles around to be interred here – updating their ancient traditions to our automotive age. With every inch of ground covered in ramshackle mausoleums, the actual number of residents here is anyone’s guess. Estimates stretch from the hundreds of thousands into the tens of millions; with war, tribal violence and the ever-present spectre of extremism bringing dozens more every single day. At their height of the US-led intervention, this sprawling city of the dead became a focal point for resistance forces, resulting in pitched battles among its broken streets. Now it lies silent once again; a bleached skeleton left to bake and crumble in the noonday sun.
Once an ancient human settlement, Chellah was abandoned in the twelfth century. With the living gone, its empty rooms and hidden passageways soon filled with the emissaries of the dead – as the Almohad Dynasty made use of its disused buildings. Now even the dead have seemingly moved on, leaving only tourists – that strangest of species – to wander its Roman boulevards. Looking now more like an abandoned fort than anything else, Chellah nonetheless almost overflows with mystique; especially around sunset, when the walls can seem to burn a brilliant red. On quiet days you can imagine no human has set foot here in 2,000 years. On busy days, you may be slightly surprised to discover these ancient catacombs are now home to an occasional jazz festival, of all things.
Naqsh-e Rustam (Iran)
Twelve miles north of the ancient city of Persepolis, the tombs of four Achaemenid Kings sit, carved into a vast mountain face. Impossibly large, these crude monoliths – badly damaged by the passing centuries and ancient looting – resemble prototype designs for Petra’s more-intricate facade in neighbouring Jordan. However, Naqsh-e Rustam predates its more-popular successor by over 1,000 years. Looking for all the world like the home of a race of giants; the tombs give visitors a fleeting glimpse back through time – to a civilisation that was ancient when Rome was just a twinkling in Romulus’s eye. Impressive, awe-inspiring and fairly thrumming with history, Naqsh-e Rustam should be high on anyone’s list of destinations to visit when the political landscape finally calms down.