Searching For Secret Passages
By Katrin Gross
Secret passages excite the imagination. When they show up in books, movies, TV shows, or video games, you can feel a tingling down your spine that tells you that an adventure is coming. When you experience them in real life, it is usually through board games like Clue or interactive experiences such as Escape rooms. While you may be unlikely to come across a train platform that leads to Hogwarts or a wardrobe that takes you to Narnia, real secret passages have existed for centuries.
Ancient Egyptians constructed pyramids to serve as royal burial chambers for their Pharaohs. The most famous pyramids are the Pyramids of Giza where the Pharaoh Khufu was laid to rest. The largest of the Giza pyramids, the Great Pyramid, is full of secret passages! These passages lead to different chambers in the pyramid and are split into two systems, one ascending (going up) and another descending (going down). Most of these secret passages have entrances that are blocked by huge stone slabs that blend in with the surrounding wall. Some even have thick granite plugs spread out along the passage to keep unwanted people out. One entrance is hidden 56 feet above the ground!
Paris, the capital of France, has an underground labyrinth that lies hidden more than 65 feet (that’s about a 5 story building!) beneath the city. This network of caverns, commonly referred to as “The Catacombs”, was originally a limestone quarry (a place where limestone is extracted). In the 18th and 19th centuries, these secret passages were turned into a mass grave. Human skeletons from cemeteries all over Paris were moved to the catacombs and piled around the walls and pillars that support the weight of the city above. These bone-filled tunnels can be toured by brave souls who dare to enter.
Castles in the middle ages were built for protection, which meant they usually had secret passages and other defense mechanisms such as high stone walls, wide moats with drawbridges, and thin archery windows. Bran Castle in Transylvania, sometimes referred to as Dracula’s Castle, is a thrilling example. It has a secret stairway that connects the first floor and third floor of the castle. This passage was used as an escape tunnel in emergencies. The entrance to the escape passage was through an iron door hidden in a fireplace! The castle also harbors a secret room hidden at the bottom of a well. This room was used as a last resort hideout in the case of an attack.
Passetto di Borgo
In Rome, Italy there is an old stone structure built in 1277. From the outside it appears to be a normal wall used for defense. Hidden inside, however, there is a long secret passage that connects the Vatican City to Castel Sant’Angelo. This passage is called the Passetto di Borgo and it’s a whopping 2,600 feet long! It has saved the lives of at least two Popes by helping them escape when the Vatican was under attack.
What about Philly?
While all of those secret passages may seem very far away, there are also cool secret passages right here in Philadelphia.
Eastern State Penitentiary
Eastern State Penitentiary was one of the first prisons of its kind in the United States. It is full of long cellblocks lined with small cells that once held notorious prisoners including Al Capone. While the penitentiary itself is interesting to explore, something even more exciting lies hidden under its tall, stone walls. In 1945, twelve prisoners dug an escape tunnel from one of the cells using spoons and flattened cans as tiny shovels. The tunnel was about 100 feet long and 12 feet below the ground. Although the tunnel was filled in later by prison guards, some of it was rediscovered in 2005. Today visitors can enter the very cell the prisoners dug through and see the tunnel entrance!
While you may not have a door hidden behind the bookshelf in your bedroom, there are lots of secret passages all over the world from different times in history ready to excite your imagination. Secret passages are a pathway to exploring fascinating old places and learning about their exciting (and sometimes spooky!) history.
Editor: Judy Zhang