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Immortalized in Dante’s Inferno, the Alyscamps, one of the most famous historical burial grounds outside of Rome, is a short walk from the center of Arles in the southwestern corner of Provence. Arles was the Roman capital of the 3 Gauls – France, Spain and Britain. The Emperor Aurelius built the “Via Aurelia” road from Rome to Arles in 241 BC, which ended at the bouche du Rhône (mouth of the Rhône river). Here on the shores of the Rhône, the Romans built shipyards and an enormous arena, modeled after the Colosseum where gladiatorial combat and chariot races took place.
Under Roman law, it was forbidden to bury the dead within city limits. It became common practice to line the roads closest to the city center with tombs, sarcophagi and mausoleums. The Alyscamps was the main burial ground for the Romans for 1,500 years. Its name derives from the Occitan word, Aliscamps or Elsii Campi in Latin, which in French translates to Champs-Élysées and in English, Elysian Fields. In Greek mythology, the god Hades ruled the Elysian Fields which were the final resting place of the virtuous and heroic. The Alyscamps was the final segment of the Via Aurelia.
The Alyscamps continued to be used as a burial ground even after the citizenry of Arles became Christianized in the 4th century. St. Gensiuus, originally a Roman civil servant who was beheaded in 303 for refusing to persecute early Christians was buried there as well as St. Trophimus, the first bishop of Arles. It was rumored that Jesus Christ attended his funeral which created quite a stir. Burial became so popular, bodies were sent from all over what is now Europe to be buried there. It is historically footnoted that Rhône boatmen made a profitable living transporting coffins across the river. By the end of the 4th century there were over 2,000 tombs, 3 layers deep. When St. Trophimus’ relics were moved to what is now the Église de St. Trophime, one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Provence, the Alyscamps’ popularity waned.
In medieval times, the Alyscamps was systematically looted by city council members who gave esteemed visitors sarcophagi as gifts and locals used the old stones as building materials. Forbearing monks created the present day path through the Alyscamps in the 18th century. In the 19th century the site was further desecrated by the railway which sliced the burial ground in half. In 1880, the artists, Van Gogh and Gauguin, sat side by side, under the sun dappled light of the trees and romanticized the Alysacmps in their beautiful, contemplative paintings. In 1981 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This unique open air museum is a rarely visited, hidden jewel open until the end of October. The finest housed collection of Roman sarcophagi outside of Rome will also be found at the Musée de Arles de la Provence. As the author, Laurence Durrel said in his book, “Caesar’s Vast Ghost”, the Alyscamps is, “unique in its charm.”