Amid the strange fairy chimney stacks of eroded rock that litter the landscape of Cappadocia in central Turkey, little more than an inkling suggests that a sprawling subterranean city lies under the arid ground beneath one’s feet.
For centuries, the inhabitants of the Anatolian plateau have been carving dwellings, monasteries, and troglodyte villages out of the local soft volcanic rock, conjuring what look like scenes from a Tolkien novel today. There’s plenty enough to stir imaginations aboveground, luring tourists to hike and hot-air balloon in Cappadocia; meanwhile, an underground world with hundreds of miles of chambers and passages rests unseen below.
Called Elengubu in ancient times, after its recent rediscovery this cavernous city borrowed the namesake of its overlying district, Derinkuyu, in Nevşehir province. Abandoned centuries ago, the intricate tunnel network of Derinkuyu once offered safety and concealment for those seeking refuge amid persecution.
Yet the city was—and still is—intertwined with stone structures and dwellings overland. After it was abandoned, and after fading from public knowledge in the early 20th century, Derinkuyu’s accidental rediscovery in 1963 was credited to a home renovation. According to locals, a Turkish man who was expanding his domicile tore down a wall only to discover an abysmal passageway that seemed to go on forever, which led to the underground city’s prompt excavation. This was the first of some 600 entry points found connecting Derinkuyu with structures above.
Gargantuan in size, Derinkuyu spans some 275 square miles (445 square kilometers), descending 279 feet (85 meters) underground with some 18 levels. Once a bustling sub-terrestrial city, Derinkuyu is beset with living quarters for some 20,000 inhabitants, stables for livestock, wine and oil presses, cellars, chapels, schools, wells, and other amenities. This made the underground metropolis a fully self-sustaining community whose inhabitants could sever themselves from an outside world that was often fraught with danger in times of invasion or occupation.
As for who occupied Derinkuyu over the centuries and who created it, evidence of cave dwellings in Cappadocia dates back to the Upper Paleolithic period. For centuries, the volcanic tuff—rock made of solidified deposits of volcanic ash—allowed excavations with simple metal tools such as shovels and pickaxes. In its earliest origin, Derinkuyu has been associated with the Hittites in Anatolia, who may have excavated the first few levels in the 15th century B.C. Hittite artifacts discovered inside give weight to that theory.
Then, the Phrygians invaded around 1200 B.C. and came to occupy the city; renowned for their architectural prowess in carving stone in the region, they likely went on to build the bulk of the city’s infrastructure. The Persians and Seljuks probably made further expansions when they came to occupy the territory. However, Derinkuyu swelled to its largest during the Byzantine age when Christians sought refuge from Muslim Arabs during the Arab–Byzantine wars, from 780 to 1180.
A self-contained network, at its height the sanctuary offered refuge to as many as 20,000 inhabitants and would have allowed them to hold out from invaders for months on end without making contact with the outside world. The upper floors of Derinkuyu consist of large dry food storage areas and stables for livestock that would have reduced unseemly smells and toxic gasses while providing living insulation during the colder months for those dwelling below.
A well that is accessible to the village aboveground descends some 180 feet (55 meters) belowground supplying both ventilation and clean water for the entire city. This could have easily been cut off from below to prevent a potentially fatal poisoning of the city’s water supply. Meanwhile, more than 50 ventilation shafts penetrate through to the surface overhead, supplying the city with fresh air from above. The passages were once lit by torches and lamps, and many of the walls and ceilings remain blackened with char today. Access between levels was facilitated by staircases cut into the rock or perilous vertical shafts with handholds and footholds cut into the rock.
In case of invasion, the entrances to each of the city’s levels feature round stone doors weighing some 1,000 pounds, which could have been rolled shut to block out intruders. These were furnished with a central hole through which defenders could spear their attackers. The structure’s innovative defenses are also apparent in the narrow, claustrophobia-inducing passages, which force one to crouch while passing through. It’s believed this hindrance is by design, for it would have forced an assailant to hunch down—assuming a rather vulnerable posture—and raiding parties to travel in single file, handing a clear advantage to the defenders.
Besides fortifications, the city accommodated educational and religious activities. A spacious chapel with a barrel-vaulted ceiling on the second level is believed to have been a religious missionary school with adjacent study rooms. Additionally, a series of vertical stairways between the third and fourth levels leads to a cruciform church on the fifth level.
Derinkuyu is not the only underground city in Cappadocia, though it is believed to be the largest. There are as many as 200 underground cities on the Anatolian plateau, 40 of which descend three or more levels deep. Moreover, a 5-mile-long (9-kilometer) tunnel connects Derinkuyu with neighboring underground metropolis Kaymalki. It is conceivable that many of these underground cities are accompanied by interconnecting subterranean “highways” to facilitate safe travel between distant habitations.
Although these places gradually fell into disuse, the Cappadocian Greeks continued using them to escape periodic persecution as late as the 20th century. It wasn’t until the Turkish government eventually had Derinkuyu evacuated in 1923—its inhabitants extradited to Greece en mass—that it was finally abandoned. After its serendipitous rediscovery in 1963 and subsequent opening to the public in 1969, it has been spelunked by thousands, thoroughly explored, and in 1985 added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Today, visitors are welcome to explore the ancient metropolis for a meager 50 Turkish liras ($1.70). With eight levels of the city open to the public, visitors may set foot inside and lay eyes on a mere fraction of this once-bustling subterranean world, though they are advised to do so in the company of an experienced guide.