Beneath the wind-sculpted, cone-shaped surface of Cappadocia in western Turkey, where millions of tourists visit each year, is a marvel of gigantic proportions: an underground city that can house up to 20,000 people at a time for several months.
The ancient city of Elengubu, now known as Derinkuyu, lies more than 85 meters underground and extends over 18 levels.
Derinkuyu is the largest excavated underground city in the world and was inhabited almost continuously for thousands of years. It was successively occupied by the Phrygians, the Persians and then the Christians of the Byzantine era, the BBC reports.
The citadel was abandoned by the Cappadocian Greeks in 1920 when they were defeated in the Greco-Turkish War and moved en masse to Greece.
Not only do the cavernous chambers stretch for hundreds of kilometers, but more than 200 other smaller underground cities discovered in the region are believed to be connected to the large city, forming a vast underground network.
According to Suleman, the guide who accompanied the BBC reporter, Derinkuyu was “rediscovered” in 1963 by an anonymous local who kept losing his chickens. The birds disappeared through a small crack made during repair work on his house and never reappeared. After taking a closer look and doing a little digging, the Turk discovered a dark passageway.
It was the first of more than 600 entrances they found in people’s homes, entrances that led to the underground city of Derinkuyu. Excavations began immediately, revealing an intricate network of underground dwellings, pantries, livestock barns, schools, wineries and even a church.
An entire civilization, safely hidden underground. Tourists came by the thousands, and in 1985 the region was included in the cultural heritage UNESCO.
Why in Cappadocia
The exact date of the city’s construction is not definitively known, but the “Anabasis”, written by the Athenian Xenophon around 370 BC, is the earliest written work that seems to refer to Derinkuyu.
In the book, the author mentions the Anatolian people in or near the Cappadocia region, who lived underground in excavated dwellings rather than in the region’s well-known cliff dwellings.
According to Andrea DeGiorgi, an associate professor at Florida State University, Cappadocia is a unique area suitable for such underground structures because the soil is not very watery and the rock is very soft and easy to shape.
The calcareous soil is easy to work with simple tools such as a shovel or pickaxe, explains Andrea DeGiorgi. The same volcanic material has been naturally shaped by the wind into fabulous chimneys on the surface.
Who created the city of Derinkuyu remains a mystery. The plan of the underground cave network is often attributed to the Hittites, “who dug the first levels underground when they were attacked by the Phrygians around 1200 BC,” according to A. Bertini, an expert on Mediterranean caves.
Hittite artefacts found at Derinkuyu support his hypothesis. Most of the city, however, appears to have been built by the Phrygians, highly skilled Iron Age architects who also had the means to construct elaborate underground spaces. “The Phrygians were one of the most important early empires in Anatolia.
They developed in western Anatolia toward the end of the first millennium B.C. and had a penchant for building monumental rock structures and remarkable facades carved into the rock. Although it did not last long, their empire extended far enough to encompass most of western and central Anatolia, including the Derinkuyu area,” Andrea DeGiorgi said.
Originally, Derinkuyu probably served to store goods, but its main purpose was temporary protection from invaders, as Cappadocia lay in the path of many ruling empires over time. “The succession of empires and their influence on the Anatolian landscape explains the solution of underground shelters like the Derinkuyu,” DeGiorgi said. “During the Islamic invasions (from the 7th century AD), these shelters were used to the maximum,” she added.
While the Phrygians, Persians and Seljuks, among others, inhabited the region and expanded the underground city over the centuries, Derinkuyu’s population reached its peak in the Byzantine era, when nearly 20,000 people lived underground.
Today, for just 60 Turkish liras (about 3.25 euros), you can experience life underground. The tunnels are narrow, the walls blackened by the torches that have burned for so many centuries, and the feeling of claustrophobia quickly sets in.
The ingenuity of the builders comes to the fore. The corridors are intentionally narrow, and visitors are forced to walk hunched over and in Indian rows – an obviously uncomfortable position for intruders.
Half-ton round boulders block the entrances to each of the 18 levels and can only be moved from the inside. Small, perfectly round holes in these massive “doors” allow the inhabitants to fire arrows at the intruders while securing the area.
“Life underground was probably very hard. The inhabitants defecated in covered clay pots, lived by torchlight and deposited the bodies of their deceased in specific areas,” explains guide Suleman.
Water and air underground
Each floor of the city was designated for specific purposes. Animals were housed in stalls closest to the surface to reduce odors and toxic gasses produced by livestock, but also to provide a warm layer of “living insulation” during the cold months.
The lower floors of the city housed apartments, cellars, schools and meeting rooms. The second floor, recognizable by its vaulted ceiling, houses a traditional Byzantine schoolhouse with adjoining study rooms.
According to DeGiorgi, the wine cellars, presses and amphorae (tall, with two handles and a narrow neck) are evidence that wine was made. These special rooms show that the inhabitants were willing to spend several months underground.
Most impressive, however, are the complex ventilation system and the well that supplies the entire underground city with fresh air and clean water. It is believed that the construction of the city of Derinkuyu originally revolved around these two essential elements.
More than 50 ventilation shafts, which provide natural airflow between the numerous apartments and paint, are distributed throughout the city to prevent a potentially lethal attack on the ventilation sources.
The water well is more than 55 meters deep and can be easily isolated from below by city residents. Derinkuyu is not the only underground city in Cappadocia. With an area of 445 square kilometers, it is the largest of the more than 200 underground cities beneath the Anatolian plateau.
More than 40 of these cities are located three or four levels underground. Many are connected to Derinkuyu by tunnels that are about 9 kilometers long. All have emergency exits on the surface.
But Cappadocia still has underground secrets. In 2014, an underground city was discovered in the Nevsehir region that could be even larger.