Underground cities of Cappadocia

The incredible rock houses and underground cities of Cappadocia

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The region of Cappadocia in central Turkey is home to one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world – deep valleys and soaring rock formations dotted with homes, chapels, tombs, temples and entire subterranean cities harmoniously carved into the natural landforms.

Cities, empires and religions have risen and fallen around these unique underground havens, yet they remain occupied to this day. Through the ages, the Hittites, Persians, Alexander the Great, Rome, The Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Empire, and Turkey have all governed this spectacular region of Central Anatolia.

Cappadocia covers the region between the cities of Nevşehir, Ürgüp and Avanos, the sites of Karain, Karlık, Yeşilöz, Soğanlı and the subterranean cities of Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu. One hundred square miles with more than 200 underground villages and tunnel towns complete with hidden passages, secret rooms and ancient temples and a remarkably storied history of each new civilisation building on the work of the last, make Cappadocia one of the world's most striking and largest cave-dwelling regions of the world.

The landscape of Cappadocia

Standing 1,000 meters above sea level, the Cappadocian relief is a high plateau, pierced by volcanic peaks that create a visually stunning landscape, which includes dramatic expanses of rock, shaped, into towers, cones, valleys, and caves. From a distance, Cappadocia appears like a deserted land, however, with closer examination, it is possible to spot the small, winding paths and beautifully-carved homes scattered within the unique land formations.

The town Göreme with rock houses in front of the spectacularly coloured valleys nearby.

The town Göreme with rock houses in front of the spectacularly coloured valleys nearby. Photo credit: Wikimedia

The rock formations that make up Cappadocia were created by volcanic eruptions, erosion, and wind. Over three million years ago a volcanic eruption deposited a blanket of ash across the 1500 square mile landscape which formed into a soft rock. This rock, slowly eaten away by wind and time, has created some spectacular forms.

Rock formation known as ‘fairy chimneys’, near Gorëme in Cappadocia

Rock formation known as ‘fairy chimneys’, near Gorëme in Cappadocia . Photo credit: Wikimedia

Although the area has been extensively used and modified by man for centuries, the resulting landscape is one of harmony and consideration of the intrinsic values of the natural landforms. But nowhere else is the ingeniousness of the ancient architecture more visible than in the nearby subterranean cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymakli.

Derinkuyu is eleven levels deep, has 600 entrances, many miles of tunnels connecting it to other underground cities, and can accommodate thousands of people. It is truly an underground city, with areas for sleeping, stables for livestock, wells, water tanks, pits for cooking, ventilation shafts, communal rooms, bathrooms, and tombs. And Derinkuyu is not alone. More than forty complete underground cities and 200 underground structures have been discovered in the Cappadocia, many of them connecting to each other via tunnel.

A visual depiction of Derinkuyu

A visual depiction of Derinkuyu . Photo credit: Wikimedia

Most people didn’t live in the underground cities full time. Underneath the cities was a vast network of tunnels, connecting each home in the area to the city. When the area came under attack, families would flee to their basements, rush through the dark tunnels, and gather in the underground city.

Unwary soldiers could be caught in the many traps laid throughout the labyrinthine corridors, such as stones which could be rolled to block doorways, and holes in the ceiling through which spears could be dropped. Invaders were further outwitted by the Christian builders who made their tunnels narrow, forcing their enemies to fight, and be picked off, one by one.

One of the many underground structures in Cappadocia

One of the many underground structures in Cappadocia . Photo credit: Wikimedia

The earliest beginnings of these tunnels and chambers are unknown.  Some archaeologists believe they were started by the Hittites (c.1200 BC). Others date them back even further to a time predating metal, for it is believed the tunnels were hewn using stone, as opposed to metallic tools. It is known that most of the levels were dug out by early Christians to provide them with refuge from persecution — first during Roman times, and later from invading Arabs.

The ancient history of Cappadocia

Cappadocia has an enduring history dating back thousands of years.  Neolithic pottery and tools found in Cappadocia attest to an early human presence in the region. Excavations at the modern town of Kültepe have uncovered the remains of the Hittite-Assyrian city of Kanesh, dating from the 3rd millennium BC. The tens of thousands of clay tablets recovered from the remains of an Assyrian merchant colony at Kanesh are among the oldest written documents ever discovered in Turkey.

Göreme was inhabited as early as the Hittite era (1800 to 1200 BC) and later sat uncomfortably on the boundary between rival empires; first the Greeks and Persians and later the Byzantine Greeks and a host of rivals. This precarious political position meant that residents needed hiding places—and found them by tunnelling into the rock itself.

Comments

I had the great fortune to visit Cappadocia about ten years ago and found the dwellings and landscape utterly fascinating. Truly, a site worth visiting.

This article doesn't mention that many of the walls throughout the region are covered in early Christian frescos that are well over a thousand years old. The sad thing is, following WWI and the Turkish civil war, part of the Turk's purge of all things non-Muslim, they took hammers and defaced every single fresco - hundreds, if not thousands of artworks were damaged beyond repair.

Seeing that it was clearly just the face of each figure that was obliterated I kept pressing my tour guide for more information on the destruction of the ancient art and was deflected with cavilier comments about "misbehaving teenagers" and "vandals" rather than owning up to religious zealotry being the sole reason for the destruction.

The story the guides emphasize during tours is that early Christians sought refuge from persecution in these caves and tunnels for millennia yet it was recent persecution that defaced these ancient religious artworks. The very same people who drove out the Christians and intentionally destroyed those ancient artworks now turn around and cash in on those same sites as tourist attractions. The hypocrisy was not lost on me. And yes, I also understand that this is just the latest incident and that the ancient Greeks, Romans, Persians and other conquering horde committed similar atrocities.

This is fascinating, can you imagine being out and about riding along time ago, and you come across this place and spot it from a far, how breathtaking would it be to see it in full swing, everyone going about there business.

I like this website you always bring little known sites to light, keep up the good work!

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