Destinations-Cities to Visit
with TransAnatolie Tour:
More than 85m beneath the famous fairy
chimneys of Cappadocia lies a massive subterranean city that was in
near-constant use for thousands of years.
Violent gusts whipped
loose soil into the air as I hiked through Cappadocia's Love Valley.
Pink- and yellow-hued hillsides coloured the rolling landscape scarred
with deep red canyons, and chimneystack rock formations loomed in the
distance. It was arid, hot, windy and devastatingly beautiful. Millennia
ago, this volatile, volcanic environment naturally sculpted the spires
surrounding me into their conical, mushroom-capped shapes, which now
draw millions of visitors to hike or hot-air balloon in the central
But beneath Cappadocia's crumbling surface, a marvel of equally
gargantuan proportions lay hidden away for centuries; a subterranean
city that could conceal the whereabouts of up to 20,000 inhabitants for
months at a time.
The ancient city of Elengubu, known today as Derinkuyu, burrows more
than 85m below the Earth's surface, encompassing 18 levels of tunnels.
The largest excavated underground city in the world, it was in
near-constant use for thousands of years, changing hands from the
Phrygians to the Persians to the Christians of the Byzantine Era. It was
finally abandoned in the 1920s by the Cappadocian Greeks when they faced
defeat during the Greco-Turkish war and fled abruptly en masse to
Greece. Not only do its cave-like rooms stretch on for hundreds of
miles, but it's thought the more than 200 small, separate underground
cities that have also been discovered in the region may be connected to
these tunnels, creating a massive subterranean network.
According to my guide, Suleman, Derinkuyu was only "rediscovered" in
1963 by an anonymous local who kept losing his chickens. While he was
renovating his home, the poultry would disappear into a small crevasse
created during the remodel, never to be seen again. Upon closer
investigation and some digging, the Turk unearthed a dark passageway. It
was the first of more than 600 entrances found within private homes
leading to the subterrestrial city of Derinkuyu.
Excavation began immediately, revealing a tangled network of underground
dwellings, dry food storage, cattle stables, schools, wineries and even
a chapel. It was an entire civilisation tucked safely underground. The
cave city was soon spelunked by thousands of Türkiye's least
claustrophobic tourists and, in 1985, the region was added to the Unesco
World Heritage list.
The city's exact date of
construction remains contested, but Anabasis, written by Xenophon of
Athens circa 370 BCE, is the oldest written work that seems to reference
Derinkuyu. In the book, he mentions Anatolian people, in or near the
region of Cappadocia, living underground in excavated homes rather than
the more popular cliffside cave-dwellings that are well known in the
According to Andrea De Giorgi, associate professor of classical studies
at Florida State University, Cappadocia is uniquely suited to this kind
of underground construction due to the lack of water in the soil and its
malleable, easily mouldable rock. "The geomorphology of the region is
conducive to the digging of underground spaces," he said, explaining
that the local tuff rock would have been fairly easy to carve with
simple tools like shovels and pickaxes. This same pyroclastic material
was naturally forged into the fairy-tale chimneys and phallic spires
jutting from the earth above ground.
Cappadocia is uniquely suited to this kind of underground construction
due to the lack of water in the soil and its malleable, easily mouldable
But whom to credit with Derinkuyu's creation remains a partial mystery.
The groundwork for the sprawling network of subterranean caves is often
attributed to the Hittites, "who may have excavated the first few levels
in the rock when they came under attack from the Phrygians around 1200
BCE", according to A Bertini, an expert in Mediterranean cave dwellings,
in his essay on regional cave architecture. Adding weight to this
hypothesis, Hittite artefacts were found inside Derinkuyu.
However, the bulk of the city was likely built by the Phrygians, highly
skilled Iron-age architects who had the means to construct elaborate
underground facilities. "The Phrygians were one of Anatolia's most
prominent early empires," explained De Giorgi. "They developed across
western Anatolia around the end of the first millennium BCE and had a
bent for monumentalising rock formations and creating remarkable
rock-cut facades. Though elusive, their kingdom spread to include most
of western and central Anatolia, including the area of Derinkuyu."
Derinkuyu was likely used for the storage of goods, but its primary
purpose was as a temporary haven from foreign invaders, with Cappadocia
seeing a constant flux of dominant empires throughout the centuries.
"The succession of empires and their impact on the landscapes of
Anatolia explain the recourse to underground shelters like Derinkuyu,"
De Giorgi explained. "It was at the time of the [7th-Century] Islamic
raids [on the predominantly Christian Byzantine Empire], however, that
these dwellings were used to the fullest." While the Phrygians, Persians
and Seljuks, among others, all inhabited the region and expanded upon
the underground city in subsequent centuries, Derinkuyu's population
swelled to its peak during the Byzantine Era, with nearly 20,000
residents living underground.
Today, you can experience the harrowing reality of life underground for
just 60 Turkish lira (£2.80). As I descended into the musty, narrow
tunnels, the walls blackened with soot from centuries of torch lighting,
the unfamiliar sensation of claustrophobia began to set in. However, the
ingenuity of the various empires that expanded upon Derinkuyu soon
became apparent. Intentionally narrow, short hallways forced visitors to
navigate the labyrinth of corridors and dwellings while stooped over and
single file obviously an inopportune position for intruders. Dimly lit
by lamplight, half-ton circular boulders blocked doors between each of
the 18 levels and were only moveable from the inside. Small, perfectly
round holes in the centre of these hefty doors would have allowed
residents to spear invaders while maintaining a secure perimeter.
"Life underground was probably very difficult," my guide Suleman added.
"The residents relieved themselves in sealed clay jars, lived by
torchlight and disposed of dead bodies in [designated] areas."
Each level of the city was carefully engineered for specific uses.
Livestock was kept in stables nearest to the surface to reduce the smell
and toxic gases produced by cattle, as well as provide a warm layer of
living insulation for the cold months. The inner layers of the city
contained dwellings, cellars, schools and meeting spaces. Identifiable
by its unique barrel-vaulted ceilings, a traditional Byzantine
missionary school, complete with adjacent rooms for study, is located on
the second floor. According to De Giorgi, "the evidence for winemaking
is grounded in the presence of cellars, vats for pressing and amphoras
[tall, two-handled jars with a narrow neck]." These specialised rooms
indicate that inhabitants of Derinkuyu were prepared to spend months
beneath the surface.
impressive is a complex ventilation system and protected well that would
have supplied the entire city with fresh air and clean water. In fact,
it's thought that the early construction of Derinkuyu centred around
these two essential elements. More than 50 ventilation shafts, which
allowed for natural airflow between the city's many dwellings and
hallways, were distributed throughout the city to avoid a potentially
fatal attack on their air supply. The well was dug more than 55m deep
and could be easily cut off from below by the city inhabitants.
While Derinkuyu's construction was indeed ingenious, it's not the only
underground city in Cappadocia. At 445 sq km, it's merely the largest of
the 200 and counting underground cities beneath the Anatolian Plains.
More than 40 of these smaller cities are three or more levels deep
beneath the surface. Many are connected to Derinkuyu via carefully dug
tunnels, some stretching as long as 9km. All of them are equipped with
emergency escape routes in case an immediate return to the surface was
necessary. But Cappadocia's subterranean secrets have not yet all been
excavated. In 2014, a new and potentially even larger underground city
was unearthed beneath the Nevsehir region.
Derinkuyu's living story came to a close in 1923 when the Cappadocian
Greeks evacuated. More than 2,000 years after the city's likely
creation, Derinkuyu was abandoned for the last time. Its existence was
all but forgotten to the modern world until some errant chickens brought
the subterranean city back into the light.
Geena Truman - BBC
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