Quaint and ornate, on the outside, Capela dos Ossos in Evora, Portugal looks like any old chapel. That is, until you step inside. Take a glance around and you’ll see immediately why the name translates to “Chapel of Bones.” Almost every inch of wall is decorated with human skulls and bones. With over 5000 skeletons dating back to the 16th century, visitors from all over the world have come to see the grisly sight.
What is this Place?
I know what you’re thinking, but this chapel wasn’t built to scare people or to be a real life house of horrors. Capela dos Ossos was founded by three Franciscan monks keen on showing the transitory nature of life, a “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes” sort of thing. This is indicated by the eerie welcoming at the entrance, which directly translates to, “We bones that are here, for yours await.” Oddly enough, the three monks who once collected the bones are not on display, but rather immortalized in a white coffin near the alter. In the 16th century, their work however, did become the town’s saving grace. The city of Evora was expanding so much they ran out of room in the cemetery — the bone church saved the remains from being destroyed.
Bone Churches Throughout Europe
This capela stands in Evora, but it is not the only one of its kind. Bone churches are formally called “ossuaries,” and can be found throughout Europe. Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic is another beautiful example, housing one of the world’s only chandeliers made entirely of human bones. Hallstatt Karner in Austria is another unique one as the bones are much more recent. In Austria, a traditional gravesite is rented for a period of 10 years, instead of outright purchasing it like most countries. If you don’t renew your lease, the bodies can be exhumed and either destroyed or put to another use, like decorating the walls of an ossuary.
Although it’s not technically a chapel, the most famous bone structure in the world is arguably the Catacombs in Paris. Home to over 6 million bodies, these narrow tunnels in the underbelly of the city stretch for over 180 miles, and were founded for basically the same reason as ossuaries; there wasn’t enough space in the cemeteries. Formerly old mine shafts, it is often said to be the most haunted place on Earth and attracts millions of visitors each year.
All About Evora
You’ve probably never heard of Evora, but it’s an absolutely stunning town and dripping with history. A UNESCO World Heritage Site once ruled by the Romans, namely Julius Caesar, it is one of the only places on the Iberian peninsula where an original Roman temple remains intact. The medieval city walls also remain, expertly preserved. If you ever find yourself in the area, make sure to check out the Templo de Diana, and Sé Catedral de Evora, a stunning 13th century cathedral that sits on the highest lookout point.
As the capital of the Alentejo region, Evora has been conquered many times over, by the Celts, the Arabs, the Romans, and others. As a result, the city is a melting pot of cuisine. For some traditional Alentejo flavor, visit Barraca de Pau, a small restaurant on the outskirts of town that specializes in simple but delicious dishes or do as the locals do and chow down on some traditional HA Caracóis (Portuguese snails).