The Story Behind Turkey's Underground Cities

Cappadocia Underground City | © MusikAnimal/Wikimedia Commons
Cappadocia Underground City | © MusikAnimal/Wikimedia Commons

The amazing underground cities in Turkey’s Cappadocia have become famous all over the world, just as much as the eerie yet fascinating fairy chimneys. Built to protect the ancient inhabitants, the underground cities allowed thousands of people to live their lives in total secrecy.

One of Cappadocia’s most famous underground cities is Derinkuyu, which was built during the Byzantine era when its inhabitants used it to protect themselves from Muslim Arabs during the Arab-Byzantine Wars between 780 and 1180. The multi level city was composed of many passages and caves used for various purposes, the city lies around 60 meters under the ground and was able to shelter around 20,000 people including their livestock and food. Certainly the largest underground city in Cappadocia (and of course in all of Turkey), Derinkuyu was opened to visitors in 1969 with only half of the city available for viewing.

Cappadocia Underground City | © USAFE AFAFRICA/Flickr

In its heyday, the city had two large stone doors that were closed from the inside in case of imminent danger. With each floor also having its own door, the caves also had all the extra space expected of a city, including storage rooms, wine cellars, stables, and chapels. Though the inhabitants might have been hiding, they lived their lives to the fullest, as much as they would have in an above ground town. One of Derinkuyu’s most striking spaces is a large room with vaulted ceilings, which is believed to have been a religious school with separate study rooms. Walking up and down the staircases that lead visitors to the many levels of the fascinating city, a ventilation shaft or an old cruciform church reveal how the caves were once filled with ordinary everyday life. Derinkuyu was also connected to the other underground cities through a sophisticated network of tunnels.

Derinkuyu | © Gary R. Caldwell/Flickr

It is believed that the underground cities were initially built by the Phrygians during the 8th through 7th centuries BCE, who carved their living spaces into the region’s soft volcanic rock. Later on, during the Roman era and the replacement of the Phrygian language with Greek, the then Christian inhabitants continued to work on the underground cities adding their own cultural and religious necessities such as chapels and Greek inscriptions. Underground cities like Derinkuyu continued to protect their citizens as far as the 14th century when Christians once again needed a safe haven from the threat of the Mongolians during the assaults on Timur, and once again during the Ottoman era, when protection was needed from the Turkish Muslim powers.

Cappadocia Underground City | © USAFE AFAFRICA/Flickr

Even during the 20th century, the caves allowed for people to save themselves from persecution administered during the Ottoman Empire. It was not until 1923, after the population exchange between Greece and Turkey, that the underground cities were completely abandoned and then not rediscovered until 1963. The story goes that a resident found a strange room behind a wall inside his house, and the rest is history!

Cappadocia Underground City | © Helen Cook/Flickr

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