The Truth About The Giant Necropolis Beneath The Vatican

Despite being the world's smallest country, Vatican City holds many secrets and curiosities among its historic buildings and alleyways. While many know about the illustrious St. Peter's Basilica, few are aware of the sprawling necropolis underneath, and fewer still have had the privilege of seeing it in person. According to Atlas Obscura, the Vatican Necropolis, also known as the Scavi, is five stories beneath the Basilica and spans two millennia in history between its many burial sites and tombs.

The necropolis houses pagan and Christian burial grounds dating back to the first century A.D. These ancient underground graveyards contain ruins such as mausoleums and stone arches, along with a small dirt mound said to contain the bones of St. Peter. Other levels in this labyrinth include ancient frescoes, a maze of tombs and graves, and even an entire 12th century church. However, those who want to visit the sprawling city of the dead will not do so easily.

The necropolis was found by accident

According to City Wonders, only 200 people are allowed per day into the necropolis, and groups can be no bigger than 12. Demand is high and space is low, and reservations need to be made months in advance to have any chance of seeing the wonders beneath the chapel. The tombs were only discovered in the 1940s, when expansions were being made to make room for the tomb of Pope Pius IX.

Even finding the entrance is somewhat of a secret. There are no signs or proper offices. Instead, travelers who managed to secure a reservation and get the papers to prove it — no easy feat, as sometimes spots are approved, but no email is sent — they must find a specific Swiss Guard and present their papers in order to be escorted down to a guide. The caution in allowing visitors is to preserve the tombs, some of which are nearly as old as the Roman Empire itself, that have survived for thousands of years and hopefully will continue for thousands more.