Tunnels in the underground city of Naours, France

The Underground City of Naours: A Subterranean Settlement Complete with Bakeries and Chapels

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Many stories have been told about hidden underground cities or realms. Examples from fiction include the underground compound inhabited by the Morlocks in H.G. Well’s, The Time Machine and the underground Elven city of Menegroth in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Most underground cities in fiction tend to be mysterious places that are governed by hidden magical forces or are located in exotic science fiction settings. There are, however, real underground cities too. And these subterranean settlements can also cast a spell of deep interest over their visitors. One famous example in France is the cité souterraine de Naours (underground city of Naours).

Hiding Out in Naours

Real underground cities were usually built for protection from raiders or the elements or for sacred purposes. The underground city of Naours, which is only a few miles east of the modern village bearing the same name, served different purposes over its occupation.

Naours, France.

Naours, France. ( ADRT80)

The subterranean city is 22 meters (72 ft.) underground (some sources say 33 meters (108.27 ft.)) and its pathways run 1-2 miles (1.6-3.2 km) in a westerly direction under the streets of modern Naours. In total, there are 28 galleries and 300 chambers that make up this underground settlement.

But a city was not the original goal for the site, it began as a limestone quarry that was first built by the Romans during the 2nd century AD. Over the centuries, the quarry fell out of use and locals began to use it for storing goods and hiding from invading armies. With the onset of the conflicts that rattled the late Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages, people began to use the quarry increasingly as a place to hide. It apparently happened so often that they eventually began to construct wells, stables, bakeries, and chapels. They planned things very well and the chimneys from the bakers’ ovens and any other fires were routed through cottages and other existing structures aboveground so no one would know what was going on below.

In the underground city of Naours, France.

In the underground city of Naours, France. ( Veronique Lesperat – Héquet )

Evidence also suggests that in the 9th century AD Viking invaders inhabited the underground settlement. But it was in the 17th century when the underground city reached its peak with a population of 3,000. This accompanied the carnage of the Thirty Years’ War and the increased need for finding places to hide from marauding bands of soldiers.

Later History of the Underground Site

The city was eventually abandoned as Europe became more stable and secure. It was rediscovered in 1887 as a man was renovating his house. After its rediscovery, it became a major tourist attraction. During World War I, it was apparently a popular destination for sight-seeing while off duty for soldiers. The city actually has a one of the highest volumes of historical graffiti dating to that era of any WWI site. Writing about the caves in January 1917, Allan Allsop from Mosman, Sidney, wrote in his diary:

Striking a hospital tent in the morning and erecting it again in another part of the grounds. At 1 p.m. 10 of us went to the famous Caves near Naours where refugees used to hide in times of Invasion. These Caves contain about 300 rooms, one cave being 1/2 mile long.  

WWI Graffiti in the underground city of Naours.

WWI Graffiti in the underground city of Naours. ( Somme tourisme )

The underground city experienced yet another interesting chapter in its history when it was used as a headquarters by the Nazi occupation forces during the Second World War. Today it is a tourist attraction and one of the largest tunnel networks in northern France.

Another Famous Underground City

Naours is not the only city that was ever built underground and there are many such cities across the world and across many eras, usually built for the purpose of protection, secrecy, or because the city had some other special function that necessitated it being underground.

Another famous example is the city of Derinkuyu in the Cappadocian region of modern day Turkey. The first levels of Derinkuyu were built possibly around 1200 BC during an uncertain time of conflict and invasion. The people delved into the volcanic rock to make a sanctuary to keep themselves safe. The earliest inhabitants may have been Hittites escaping invaders during the waning days of the declining Hittite Empire. Later it was occupied by Christians during the Byzantine Era, possibly to escape invading Muslim armies. By the time it was abandoned, it was an 18-story complex capable of holding 20,000 people. There were ventilation shafts, granaries, chapels, chimneys, winepresses, and many of the features of an ancient city. Despite its grandeur, after it was abandoned, it was forgotten and not rediscovered until the 1960s.

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