Alyscamps the Roman Burial in Arles is a Must-See
Immortalized in Dante’s Inferno, Alyscamps, one of the most famous historical burial grounds outside of Rome, is a short walk from the centre of Arles in the southwestern corner of Provence. The day my tour group visited, there was no one else there except a few stray cats, and the autumnal hues hadn’t yet colourized the landscape. We’d xeroxed copies of the paintings Van Gogh and Gauguin created here, but it was difficult to locate their vantage point because even though their easels had been set up side-by-side, their vision of the same scene was very different. Standing at the Cyprus tree-lined promenade entrance defined by two-thousand-year-old sarcophagi vanishing into the distance, it was hard to imagine lovers frequented this place during the Victorian period.
Arles was the Roman capital of the 3 Gauls – France, Spain and Britain. 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 its shores, the Romans built shipyards and an enormous arena modelled after the Colosseum, where gladiatorial combat and chariot races took place.
Under Roman law, it was forbidden to bury the dead within city limits. As a result, it became common practice to line the roads closest to the city centre 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.
Alyscamps continued to be used as a burial ground even after the citizenry of Arles became Christianized in the 4th century. St. Genesius, 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 rumoured that Jesus Christ attended his funeral, which created quite a stir. Burial became so popular that 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, three layers deep. When St. Trophimus’ relics were moved to the Église de St. Trophime, one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Provence, the Alyscamps’ popularity waned. The ruins of the 5th century, pre-Romanesque style Saint-Honorat des Alyscamps church, are an open-air museum located at the eastern edge of Alyscamps. Its reconstruction piecemeal is due to a lack of funds. Most of my tour group ventured inside its dark, cavernous interior while a few waited outside.
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 Paris-Lyon-Médierranée railway line further desecrated the site, which sliced the burial ground in half. In 1888, artists Van Gogh and Gauguin sat side by side, under the sun-dappled light of the trees and romanticized the Alyscamps in their beautiful paintings. In 1981 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been the Arles starting point for the Saint Jacque de Compostelle route since the 12th century.
This unique, deeply melancholic site is a rarely visited, hidden jewel open until the end of October. You can also view the finest collection of Roman sarcophagi outside of Rome at the Musée départemental Arles antique.
Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group, slow travel tours into Gascony, the Pays Basque, Provence and beyond. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and contributes to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.