Subterranean Structures from the Ancient World

Ten Amazing Subterranean Structures from the Ancient World

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From ancient cisterns and water systems to mysterious caves, underground crypts, subterranean temples and even entire cities built beneath the earth, what our ancient ancestors have achieved is both mind-boggling and breathtaking. Here we feature ten incredible ancient sites that can be found underground.

The amazing subterranean Basilica Cistern

Subterranean Basilica Cistern

Hidden beneath the city of Istanbul, Turkey, are hundreds of ancient cisterns that stored and supplied water to its inhabitants in the ancient past. The largest of these is the Basilica Cistern. So spectacular is the cistern that one could easily mistake it for a sacred subterranean temple. The Cistern is located just 150m southwest of the famous Haghia Sophia, and was built by the Byzantine emperor, Justinian I, in A.D. 532. It is 138 m in length and 64.6 m in width, covering an area of almost 1,000 square metres. This cistern is capable of holding up to 80,000 cubic metres of water. An incredible work effort went into its construction, with 336 marble columns supporting the structure. It is said that the majority of these columns were recycled from older buildings (a process known as ‘spoliation’), possibly brought to what was then Constantinople from the various parts of the Byzantine Empire, as well as those used for the construction of the Hagia Sophia. Perhaps the most iconic example of spoliation is the re-use of the heads of Medusa as the bases of two columns located in the northwest corner of the cistern. According to tradition, the heads were oriented sideways and inverted to counter the power of Medusa’s deadly gaze.

The mysterious shell grotto of Margate

Shell grotto of Margate

Thirty-five miles north of Dover is the English town of Margate in Kent - a coastal town with 57,000 inhabitants and a proud maritime history. What makes Margate special is the presence of a mysterious grotto, which has come to be known as the ‘Shell Grotto of Margate’. In 1835, the local school principal, James Newlove, wanted to build a duck pond in his garden. While digging, his shovel disappeared into an opening underneath a displaced capstone. He lowered his son Joshua on a rope to retrieve the item. Upon returning the boy spoke of tunnels full of shell decorations. Excavations revealed a spectacular grotto covered by more than 4.6 million seashells, spread in a mosaic over 600 m2. Since the discovery in 1835, people have speculated about the true meaning of this place. What makes the shell grotto of Margate so mysterious is that there is nothing known about it. We do not know when the grotto was built, by whom and for what purpose.

Derinkuyu and the underground cities of Cappadocia

Derinkuyu and the underground cities of Cappadocia

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. 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. But nowhere else is the ingeniousness of the ancient architecture more visible than in the nearby subterranean city of Derinkuyu. 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 have been discovered in the Cappadocia, many of them connecting to each other via tunnel.

Qanat Firaun, the most spectacular underground aqueduct of the ancient world

Qanat Firaun

The Qanat Firaun, otherwise known as the Gadara Aqueduct, is an ancient aqueduct that was built to supply water to the Roman-Hellenistic Decapolis, which now lie in present-day Syria and Jordan.  Although the Arabic name ‘Qanat Firaun’ means ‘Canal of the Pharaohs’, the massive canal, which demonstrates incredible engineering abilities, was not Egyptian but Imperial Roman, most likely influenced by the Persians. The 170-kilometre pipeline is not only the world’s longest underground aqueduct of the antiquity, it is also the most complex, and represents a colossal work of hydro-engineering.   The construction of the aqueduct demonstrates remarkable precision. The gradient of the tunnel was found to be 0.3 per thousand, meaning that it dropped only 30 centimetres per kilometre – an amazingly shallow angle of decent. Along the main road of Gadara, archaeologists found basal pressure piles which suggested a siphon structure in order to supply the western outskirts of the city with fresh water, supposedly from sources 100 kilometres away. By the time work ceased on the aqueduct, workers had excavated over 600,000 cubic metres of limestone, comparable to more than a full quarter of the Great Pyramid’s total volume.


Justbod's picture

There's something very evocative and otherwordly even to us 'modern-day' humans about entering an underground 'womb-like' space, specially one that is man-made and full of unknown mysteries!

Great collection above, some I had not heard of. Great to see two from the UK and thanks to Hoog for recomending the Hellfire Club caves - I learnt about the Hellfire Club at school, and even attended a nightclub of the same name (!) but didn't know that you could visit the caves. Another one for my ever-growing list of places to visit! Life's never dull!

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Another interesting cave system in England is a place called Hellfire Caves in West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. A cave built by a local wealthy man who founded a secret society called the Hellfire Club in which members went down into the depths and (basically) drank a lot, had orgies, and talked blasphemy. Still, it's a good visit if you're ever in the area. Dates back to somewhere like 17th Century. 

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