Alyscamps

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The Alyscamps, Arles, France
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The Alyscamps, Arles, France

The Alyscamps is a large Roman necropolis a short distance outside the walls of the old town of Arles, France. It was one of the most famous necropolises of the ancient world. The name is a corruption of Elisii Campi, or Elysian Fields.

Roman cities traditionally forbade burials within the city limits. It was therefore common for the roads immediately outside a city to be lined with tombs and mausoleums; the Appian Way outside Rome provides a good example. The Alyscamps was Arles' main burial ground for nearly 1,500 years. It was the final segment of the Aurelian Way leading up to the city gates and was used as a burial ground for well-off citizens, whose memorials ranged from simple sarcophagi to elaborate monuments.

The Alyscamps continued to be used after the city was Christianised in the 3rd century. Saint Genesius, a Roman civil servant beheaded in 250 for refusing to follow orders to persecute Christians, was buried there and rapidly became the focus of a cult. Saint Trophimus, possibly the first bishop of Arles, was buried there soon afterwards. It was claimed that Christ himself attended the ceremony, leaving the imprint of his knee on a sarcophagus lid.

The area became a highly desirable place to be buried and tombs soon multiplied. As early as the 4th century there were already several thousand tombs, necessitating the stacking of sarcophagi three layers deep. Burial in the Alyscamps became so desirable that bodies were shipped there from all over Europe, with the Rhône boatmen making a healthy profit from the transportation of coffins to Arles.

The Alyscamps continued to be used well into medieval times, although the removal of Saint Trophimus' relics to the cathedral in 1152 reduced its prestige. However, during the Renaissance the necropolis was systematically looted, with city councillors giving sarcophagi as gifts to distinguished visitors and local people using funerary stones as building material. It was further damaged by the arrival of the railway and a canal in the 19th century, both of which sliced across the site. By the time Vincent van Gogh painted the Alyscamps in 1888, it was a remnant of its former self. It has since been restored as an atmospheric open-air museum.

The best of the Alyscamps' sarcophagi are now on display in the Museum of Ancient Arles, which has one of the best collections of Roman sarcophagi to be found anywhere outside Rome itself.

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