With dozens of underground settlements and thousands of cave dwellings you could hardly accuse Cappadocians of being claustrophobic. I’d been fascinated by the idea of communities spending months underground so on our first full day in Turkey we visited Derinkuyu, the largest and deepest of Turkey’s subterranean cities around 40k from Gorome.
From ground level this looked like any ordinary town but concealed beneath is a city spanning eleven floors, reaching a depth of 85 metres and able to accommodate many thousands of people. It’s thought these cities were created by Hitites in the 7th-8th centuries BC as a refuge in times of war and later as a hiding place for Christians fleeing persecution. Some of the cities are actually linked together by miles of underground tunnels.
I was nervous at the thought of squirreling my way through a labyrinth of tunnels but the passageways were comfortable to walk through, well-lit and nicely cool. It was the idea of being so far underground that gave me the creeps but I really wanted to see this so took a deep breath and descended from the glaring sunlight into the gloom.
A honeycomb of tunnels, passages and sloping corridors link family rooms, stepped pits and communal spaces where people could meet, eat and worship. The cities were complete with areas for cooking, food storage, animal pens and even wine and oil presses. Inhabitants could live for weeks and months underground until it was safe to emerge.
A cruciform church sits on the bottom floor of Derinkuyu and is reached by one of many deep ‘vertical staircases’ which are just basic footholds cut into the rock. These are the only means of accessing any floors from the third downwards and so the lower levels are closed – only 10% of the city is accessible to the public.
The passage pictured below led to a temporary tomb which was used until it was safe enough to bury the dead properly. I made my way down this sloping tunnel but did get a bit jittery; I’m only five feet two and had to bend nearly double to get through – we had to keep going to the tomb area before being able to stand, turn round and come back. Probably the limit of my underground explorations at that point and my heart-rate definitely went up a gear! One big guy gave up a metre into the tunnel and backed his way out again.
Each of the floors in the city could be shut off from one another and from the outside world to keep intruders out. Huge circular stones, think Connect 4 with millstones, were rolled across corridors to seal entrances off from attackers. Of course these could only be operated from the inside. Dead-end corridors and labyrinths were also used to trap intruders and kill them.
Large ventilation shafts throughout the city allow fresh air to flow freely and were also used to communicate between levels. Deep wells sourced water from an underground river, from which the town Derinkuyu (deep well) takes its name; the city had everything it needed to survive a siege. I never did find the toilet though…
Derinkuyu was re-discovered in the 1960s when someone dismantled a wall and was surprised to discover a room behind it, which led to another room, and in turn to a whole subterranean city…