Many of us have fantasized about having a door in our home that leads us to a hidden world, but can you imagine a buried city laying just behind the walls of your house? In 1963, a Turkish man knocked down a wall in his basement, only to discover the ancient 18-story underground city of Derinkuyu.
At one time housing up to 20,000 people, Derinkuyu is one of the largest underground cities in the world. Located in Turkey’s Cappadocia region, it’s one of over 200 subterranean cities that were carved into the volcanic rock. In fact, Derinkuyu is connected to some of these subterranean settlements by tunnels that run for miles. Part of what makes it so impressive is the city’s depth of over 250 feet, as well as the organization needed to meet the demands of a population living underground.
Several million years ago, volcanic eruptions spewed layer after layer of ash, called tuff or tufa. Over time the tuff cemented into a soft, easily carvable, yet relatively stable rock. Inhabitants of ancient Anatolia realized that they could carve out their homes right into the hillsides and underground. This placed construction at about 15th century BC, with the area being used to flee invading enemies by Anatolian Hittites.
It’s thought that the Derinkuyu underground city was used by the Phrygians, an Indo-European people, in the 8th to 7th centuries BCE. After the population became Christian in Roman times, they began to include chapels in their underground dwellings. It’s thought that the Christian population used the underground city to escape persecution by the Romans.
But it is during the Byzantine period that the underground city flourished. During the Arab-Byzantine wars from 780 to 1180 Derinkuyu was used as a refuge for Muslim Arabs—it was during this period that the tunnels connecting the subterranean cities were added.
life like in Derinkuyu:
Within the enormous eighteen levels of the city (only eight are accessible), researchers found kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms, food storage rooms, oil and wine presses, wells, weapons storage areas, churches, schools, tombs, and domestic animal stables. There were rooms of varying sizes for different needs. Small spaces turned out to be rock-cut tombs, while large spaces provided the ideal rooms for community meetings and schools. It is evident that the people planned to be completely self-sufficient. More than fifty ventilation shafts brought in air from above, while thousands of smaller ducts distributed that air throughout the entire city.
Some archaeologists believe that an 8-kilometer long passageway connects Derinkuyu to another amazing underground city in Kaymakli. This suggests that there was some degree of cooperation between the various civilizations of the Cappadocia region.
The people who built Derinkuyu designed it with safety features, which indicates that the underground dwellings served as refuges. Doors consisted of a rollable disc-shaped stone with a small hole in the middle that covered entrances and passages during raids. Some people speculate the hole allowed soldiers to shoot arrows out, or perhaps a strong beam through the hole allowed users to open and shut the door more easily. It may also have served as one of the first “peepholes.” Because the doors only opened and closed from the inside, the inhabitants within the complex had complete control. It was much easier to defend the village through a small opening versus a large opening through which anyone could easily walk.
Each level connected to the next level by a hallway with a similar stone door. Additionally, narrow passages forced people to go through in single file. Again, this made it much easier to defend against incoming soldiers.
The underground city had a water containment system that also took safety as a consideration. It appears that one of the main ventilation shafts also served as a large well. However, the wells within the city did not all link together, nor did they all go to the surface. This protected inhabitants from invaders who might think to poison the entire water system from the outside.
Derinkuyu also provided protection from the weather which was very hot in the summer and very cold and snowy in the winter. Daily temperatures also fluctuated widely. Underground, the temperature was fairly stable throughout the year at around 55 degrees, which made it ideal for keeping animals cool, maintaining fresh water supplies, and keeping food fresh.
Open to the public since 1965, the Derinkuyu underground city, along with nearby Kaymaklı, is a well-known tourist attraction in the region. While only 8 of the 18 levels are viewable, it’s an incredible opportunity to see man’s ability to adapt to their circumstances.