The incredible rock houses and 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.
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. 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 . 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 . 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 . 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.
The site became a religious refuge during the early days of Christianity. By the fourth century AD, Christians fleeing Rome’s persecution had arrived in some numbers and established monastic communities there. The Byzantine Christian monks excavated hundreds of dwellings and monasteries, each beautifully painted and decorated, beginning in the seventh century, which endure in well-preserved isolation to this day.
In a spectacular landscape dramatically demonstrating the ingenuity and creativity of its inhabitants, Cappadocia provides a globally renowned and accessible display of landforms and man-made features, which are of great beauty, and which interact with the cultural elements of the landscape.
Featured Image: The rock houses of Cappadocia. Photo credit: Curious Expeditions Creative Commons
Watch UNESCO’s video about Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia
Cappadocia – Atlas Obscura
History of Cappadocia - Argeus
Cappadocia – Encyclopaedia Britannica
Cappadocia – National Geographic