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Turkey’s 22 Underground Cities

Turkey’s 22 Underground Cities

A staircase in Derinkuyu.

It was 1963, and a Turkish farmer had a strange problem: his chickens kept passing through a small crack in his house’s walls and disappearing. When the farmer began to excavate, he rediscovered a vast underground city, dating to at least the 7th century BCE. Derinkuyu, as the city is called, is only one of 22 large-scale underground cities that have been uncovered in Turkey’s central Cappadocia region. The soft volcanic rock that dominates the area is perfect for these structures—Derinkuyu alone could support around 20,000 inhabitants across 18 levels of tunnels that housed chapels, schools, living quarters, and even live animals.

These underground cities are the result of soft volcanic tuffs from the Cappadocian Volcanic Province that, because of their high porosity, are easily carved and sculpted. When exactly they were built is still debated, though Derinkuyu was likely begun by the Hittites, then passed from empire to empire for hundreds of years. Whoever was inhabiting Derinkuyu and its sister cities were attracted for the same reasons. The underground cities provided a stable climate, free from the daily temperature fluctuations on the surface. Living below ground is also the perfect camouflage to protect from a marauding army on the surface.

A fairy chimney in Göreme, Turkey.

Cappadocia’s wonders are not just human-made. The volcanic deposits have also formed what are called fairy chimneys, long spiraling towers that dot the landscape. They are formed from erosion carving through the soft tuffs, leaving behind a tower of volcanic rock topped with a bit of tougher basalt. Some of them are big enough that they were carved into surface dwellings in the same manner as the underground cities hidden below.

Derinkuyu covers an area of 26,000 square feet with a maximum depth of 270 feet—across dozens of tunnels are kitchens, armories, wine cellars, and of course toilets. To keep a city like this functioning, Derinkuyu has 52 ventilation chimneys that could also be used for communications between different floors. Its tunnels are long, narrow, and sometimes maze-like to confuse invaders, with tunnels also connecting neighboring cities into one massive underground complex. Today, the cities are designated World Heritage Sites, with some of the levels open for any visitor that is not too claustrophobic.

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