Explore The “Cities Of The Underworld”

As any sanitation worker can likely attest, there is a lot going on under our streets. But it isn’t all modern pipes and recently constructed sewer access tunnels. Instead, many of the great cities of the world have beneath them labyrinths of old catacombs, hidden water supplies, dungeons, tombs and even forgotten cities that have miraculously survived the ravages of time and formed the foundations — often literally — of the modern cities above them.

These range from ancient ruins beneath Old World cities to the hidden places beneath modern American ones. Each has its own hidden wonders, many of which have been forgotten even by those who live on top of them.

But that’s all about to change when The History Channel premieres the new series Cities of the Underworld April 23. Each week, Eric Geller — a former travel writer who has a keen interest in archaeology — ventures beneath the streets of Rome, Paris, London, Istanbul and other famous cities, revealing the history of the sites along with the marvels that remain from ancient days.

In his subterranean tours, Geller is assisted by engineers, urban explorers, architects and archaeologists. Getting into these places is often as simple as stepping through a door — though the process of finding the right door may be difficult. For this, the filmmakers worked to gain the trust of local experts in order to find the ways in. “We’re not allowed to show where [the entrance] actually is, even though there’s, like, one door in the area. So you could probably figure it out,” says Sarah Wetherbee, an executive producer of the series. “But for the most part, a lot of these places are heavily guarded, too … so you couldn’t get in even if you tried.”

In some cases, even the crew had difficulties. Hungarian authorities were initially reluctant to let the crew into the caves beneath the city of Budapest because the structures had not been completely studied and they were not certain what might remain down there from the Communist era. The crew did find a Cold War-era underground hospital — complete with radiation gear and equipment, much of it still operable — but also glorious mosaics and architecture, and the source of heated water used by Romans and Turks in ancient times.

The series’ pilot, which has already aired on The History Channel and airs again on April 16, was filmed in Istanbul, a place where access presented a different set of problems. There is a well-known cistern beneath the city, but other treasures are also down there. Locals know this, but if the authorities hear of these and find antiquities there, the structures above become the property of the state. As a result, residents could lose their homes and businesses. Still, the crew found a shop owner who let them in. “You walk through the shop and you go down, and you are all of a sudden in this maze of [the] underground level of Constantine’s great palace,” series creator Emre Sahin says.

Cities explored in the series include Edinburgh — Scotland’s Sin City (April 23), where the wealthy built upward, creating the world’s first high-rises while the poor lived in the dark and narrow passages, called “closes,” that turned into a river of sewage whenever it rained. Disease eventually caused the city planners to cover over the closes. As time went on, residents found darker uses for the abandoned spaces and, the series hints, there is even a legend that the Holy Grail is hidden somewhere inside the labyrinth.

In the episode Catacombs of Death — Paris (May 14), Geller explores the catacombs of Paris, where over 5 million bodies are buried in limestone quarries that date back to Roman days. There are tours of the catacombs, which are a major attraction for tourists with a morbid bent, but these barely touch the dark maze beneath the City of Lights.

“It seems like every city I come back from was the best city I had seen,” Geller says, but he picks Paris as the most interesting. “We are going through mud and water up to our knees and crawling through these places,” Geller says of his experience there. “And then somewhere about an hour into this … we see these high-school kids with candles. It reminded me of The Poseidon Adventure.”

As would be expected in exploring underground cities, there was a certain amount of risk involved. Often it was just Geller going down a ladder or narrow crumbling stairs with a handheld camera, taking a peek around and telling the others it was safe to follow. Geller says he jokes about this to the producers, telling them, “You should wait until the end of the show before you send me into one where I get killed.”