Secret Tunneling | Underground Leisure and Smuggle for Survival


Contextual image of the tunnel found in front of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Photo: CNMH INAH

“And that after all there was only one tunnel, dark and solitary: mine, the tunnel in which I had spent my childhood, my youth, my entire life”
-Ernesto Sábato

Which force moves the human being to spend enormous efforts to hidden some of his actions? Tunneling is a construction activity practiced long ago. By means of buried structures we have been keeping safe our most preciated goods, our life and even our death. It just has been discovered by archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History [INAH] the entrance to the tunnel that leads to a series of galleries beneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, in the Archaeologcial Area of Teotihuacan. This excavation, which represents the most profound that has been done in the pre-Hispanic site, was closed for about 1,800 years by the inhabitants of Teotihuacan themselves, as we can read at the article written by INAH specialist Sergio Gómez. This fact drives us to think about the human need to have some “hidden places” along history.

Alexander Trevi recently wrote in his blog Pruned about the research of Maurizio Montalbini, an Italian sociologist and caver who had lived in complete isolation in an underground chamber multiple times since 1986 until 2006. But we’re not talking about isolation this time; the kind of underground tunnels we’re referring here are more related with underground infrastructures for collective use, as the Catacombs of Paris, that has become a leisure place over the last years.


Policemen look at a painted wall in Paris’s catacombs a 155-mile underground network of tunnels. Source

Although this cemetery covers only a small section of underground tunnels comprising “les carrières de Paris“, Parisians today often refer to the entire tunnel network as “the catacombs”. Although exploring the mines is prohibited by the prefecture and penalised with heavy fines, the limited part of the network [1.7 km] that has been used as an underground ossuary, is frequently toured by urban explorers popularly called cataphiles. We can read in a recent article:

Beneath Paris lies a network of some 155 miles of tunnels known as “the catacombs”—an underground labyrinth that serves as the weekend playground for bands of urban explorers. One recent Saturday, several dozen “cataphiles,” as these explorers are known, climbed down an embankment in south Paris to a unused railroad track. After a short walk, they disappear into a hole in the side of a railway tunnel to the catacombs, 65 feet below.

It is well known the existence of an unguided public tour of the Parisian catacombs. Murray Battle pointed that the imagery down there is great —walls of stacked bones and skulls in arty, symmetric patterns, and it’s also a good contrast to the real catacombs.


Atlas Souterrain de La Ville de Paris 1885. Source: Plan de Catacombes

We had written before on the use of underground silos as houses, but thinking on the use of underground spaces or tunnels in a collective way with survival purposes, is something different. There are other tunnels whose function is the antonym to the term leisure. It’s like the opposite to Debord‘s Society of the Spectacle, in which passive identification with the spectacle supplants the genuine activity of the people. Now we’re talking about subterranean landscapes as a parallel way of living.

The Gaza Strip smuggling tunnels are the perfect example of what we’re talking about. Common smuggling tunnels are secret tunnels, usually hidden underground, used for smuggling of goods and people, and we can read that the term is also used where the tunnels are legitimate responses to aggression or siege e.g. during the siege of Sarajevo.


A 30m [100 feet] shaft leading to a Hamas run tunnel linking Gaza to Egypt. Source: Gaza Tunnels


Tunnels in the border of the Gaza Strip. Google Earth caption

The Gaza tunnels are mainly used by Palestinian militant organizations and gangs for weapon smuggling and bringing cheap goods from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. The tunnels connect the Egyptian town of Rafah with the Palestinian refugee camp of Rafah. Among smuggling illegal arms, the tunnels have also been subsequently used to smuggle people [in and out] and commercial materials like recreational drugs, medicine, food and clothes, cigarettes, alcohol, and vehicle parts into Gaza.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with fighting conducted by regular armies, paramilitary groups, terror cells and individuals, has a long history, and has increased its violence after the Second Intifada in late September 2000. So, it’s not surprising to see that smuggling along these tunnels has become a huge business. The tunnels are run as businesses, mainly by the Abu Samhadana and Abu Rish families, both of Bedouin origin. Smuggling provides tens of thousands of US dollars in profits for each delivery. As reported by The Sunday Times:

The operators of the “commercial tunnels” plied by Abu Mutassem and his colleagues say that the market for small arms is drying up after a glut of weapons. Like any travelling salesmen, the smugglers vary their cargo to meet demand: sometimes drugs, often cigarettes, perfumes, fugitives [going rate $2,000 a trip] and, very occasionally, even African snakes or wild animals to stock a zoo.

But we can’t forget that people at the Gaza Strip just need a way to get food and goods for basic survival.


Relationship between the Egyptian town of Rafah with Palestinian refugee camp of Rafah. Cartografiando Gaza

Brian Finoki talks about this topic and reminds us:

While some were [and still are, for all we know] used for weapons, many if not most by that point were really only serving as the economic lifelines of a people who had no other means for accessing the bare necessities of life, since both Israel and Egypt control all of Gaza’s borders. The strip is literally severed and somewhat de-sovereignated by the Israeli siege, and the tunnels represent the frontier of Gaza’s fight for geo-economic autonomy.

All the readings and documents we had found out, support the thesis that people looks for underground shelters when there’s a human need of safety. According to all of this, and considering the long lasting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, hopefully ending in a near future, what about re-use underground infrastructure construction techniques in a humanitarian way?


Tunneling Gaza. Proposal by dpr-barcelona. Source of the original image


Tunneling Gaza. Proposal by dpr-barcelona. View larger

Can we create some utopic structures to become part of a new nature? Seeking for re-appropriations of different elements, it is possible to transform part of the current situation. Following Antonas idea that an appropriation is a type of inhabitation, we propose to use tunnel-boring machines, to create an underground infrastructure system where people from Gaza can be safe of the siege and, at the same time, can use as an buried village for temporary shelter, dwelling and trade goods.


Tunneling Gaza. Proposal by dpr-barcelona. View Larger

We want to end quoting Kazys Varnelis, when he says, “Architects should not feel left out. Their imaginations are second to none. It’s time to use them again, and to truly rethink what architecture and infrastructure might be.


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