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How Cappadocia's underground cities were discovered

How Cappadocia's underground cities were discovered

Cappadocia in Turkey has one of the most unique and surreal landscapes in the world. But how did this landscape come to be and what does it conceal?

Cappadocia’s towers are known as "fairy chimneys"—tall outcrops rising to 130 feet, many of them topped with large round boulders of basalt. They are an iconic part of Turkey's landscape. The rock is so soft that it can be easily excavated, so for thousands of years the people of the region have been gouging out homes, churches, storerooms and staircases—a kind of architectural order imposed on the random forms that nature has provided. How did the fairy chimneys come to be? And what other marvels of town planning does the landscape conceal?

The history of Cappadocia

Cappadocia The landscape of Cappadocia is interlinked with political and religious history. Credit: anatols 

Cappadocia sits in the middle of the vast Anatolian plain in Turkey, at the point where trade routes linking Asia and Europe intersect. The Hittites flourished here from about 1800BC, and built a powerful empire that threatened even the Egyptians. Later this was the land of the Phrygians—famed in Greek mythology for the vast wealth of King Midas. The plain was criss-crossed by invaders as well as traders: Persians, Alexander’s Greeks, then Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Ottoman Turks.

The labyrinthine landscape of central Cappadocia provided a refuge against these waves of intruders, and the fairy chimneys could serve as defensible hideouts. Early Christians retreated here to escape three centuries of Roman persecution, turning Cappadocia into an important Christian hub and making it the setting for some of the first Christian monasteries.

"The landscape of Cappadocia provided a refuge against intruders and the fairy chimneys served as defensible hideouts"

In the fourth century AD, St Basil, a founding member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, was bishop of Caesarea Mazaca (now Kayseri) in Cappadocia. This was at the time when Christianity was becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire, so many of the fairy chimneys in the towns and valleys became churches with elaborately painted interiors dating from the later Byzantine era. Conflict came again to Cappadocia in the 12th century, as the Seljuks then the Ottoman Turks challenged the Byzantines for supremacy across the region.

Constructing the underground tunnels

Derinkuyu caveThe tunnels being underground meant the people of Cappadocia could store items at cool temperatures. Credit: maroznc

Throughout this turbulent history, the people of central Cappadocia were not just gouging out the fairy chimneys, they were secretly digging into the thick layer of tufa—compacted volcanic ash—beneath the surface. Most of this subterranean architecture is in areas outside the main clusters of pinnacles around Göreme, such as Derinkuyu and Kaymakli to the south, and Özkonak to the north.

No one knows quite when these excavations started, perhaps in the times of the Hittites or the Phrygians. They may have begun as underground storeroomsthe temperature beneath the ground remains constant at about 17°C while the climate on the surface veers between bitter winters and intensely hot summers.

Over the centuries, further rooms and interlinking passageways were probably added piecemeal; it has been estimated that a single worker could dig out a space about 16 square feet in a day. Derinkuyu has the largest network of rooms and passages discovered so far, with some 200 rooms on about eight levels, dropping to 280 feet below the surface. The levels themselves are difficult to count, as they are not superimposed like the floors of a building.

"No one knows quite when these excavations for the tunnels started"

There are stables for livestock, storerooms, kitchens, wine or oil presses, chapels and a large room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling that may have served as a religious school or a meeting room. The larger rooms are supported by rock-cut columns – essential for structural integrity. Fresh water came from a well that doubled as the main ventilation shaft, and there were numerous other smaller ventilation shafts leading to the surface.

The tunnels also served as underground hideouts

Look out point in CappadociaThe tunnels served as more than just places to store items. They could also be used as hideouts. Credit: Johann Muszynski

At some point these artificial caves became underground hideouts, as witnessed today by their elaborate defence mechanisms. At strategic points along the interconnecting corridors there are huge round stones with a central hole, with some of these being 5ft high and weighing half a tonne. In an attack, they could be rolled across the passageways from the inside and wedged into position, providing an impenetrable barrier against attackers. The attackers, crammed into the low, narrow corridors, were then vulnerable to spears that the defenders could jab through holes in the walls, or boiling oil that could be poured through vents in the ceiling.

"These artificial caves became underground hideouts, as witnessed today by their elaborate defence mechanisms"

Similar features have been found at the two other large underground cities, Özkonak and Kaymakli. Özkonak also has communication tubes, enabling inhabitants to speak to each other between the levels.

Subterranean shelters

Cappadocia Some claims that 50,000 could live in the underground cities may be exaggerated. Credit: frantic00

Estimates vary as to how many people could live in the underground cities. For Derinkuyu, a figure of 50,000 is frequently cited, but this looks far too high; 2,000 seems practicable, perhaps 4,000 in an emergency—and only for a short period. Conditions would have been difficult at the best of times in these dark, cool spaces, and so they were probably only ever used as temporary boltholes. Unlike many of the surface dwellings and chapels of Cappadocia, the rooms are rudimentary, and even the chapels lack the murals or sculptural adornment that might be expected if they had been used for long-term habitation.

The underground cities of Cappadocia are rumoured to be linked by passages several kilometres long, but none has so far come to light. The hidden entrances and ventilation shafts, coupled with the impenetrable interiors, may have provided sufficient escape routes when the warrenlike complex was under siege. But the cities’ strongest defence may simply have been concealment. They seem to have been totally secret: there is virtually no written record of them from any time throughout their long history.

Forgotten cities

During the Seljuk and Ottoman conquests, the Christians of Cappadocia evacuated the towns, or else converted to Islam. Their underground refuges were abandoned and forgotten. It was only in 1963 that a homeowner in Derinkuyu, in the course of some renovation, happened on the maze of rooms and passages beneath his house. This came as a complete surprise both to him and to historians of the region.

No one knows how many underground cities lie beneath the crust of Cappadocia. In all, around 40 with at least two levels were found, but 50 years on none has been fully excavated. Among the last excavations was a huge underground medieval caravanserai at Gaziemir. It served as an inn and depot for camel caravans and is a vivid reminder of the ancient trade route that passed through Cappadocia, even before people began to hew towns from the living rock.

Banner Credit: Coppadocia (goinyk)

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