The Ancient Underground City Of Derinkuyu Goes 18-Stories Deep But It’s Not Alone
Until 2013, the story of Derinkuyu held the title for the most complex ancient underground city. In that discovery, a man in Turkey unearthed a little surprise behind a wall in his home; tunnels 18 stories down.
We already knew of Turkey’s underground settlements, especially in the Cappadocia region of Turkey.
Prior to 1963 discover of Derinkuyu, most of what we’d found were single or two-story tunnel systems. The exception was a big one in Kaymakli. Then, in 2013, a new housing project unearthed another tunnel system [read: underground city].
The tunnel cities of Turkey were not some novelty for the people who used them. They were the way they maintained security, surviving hundreds of years of persecution.
Each tunnel is more fascinating than the last, but first, who built them?
Tunnel Cities in Turkey
Between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, the Phrygians, an Indonesian-European settlement in the land we know as Cappadocia, may have first carved into the soft volcanic rock of the region.
Geologists call the rock tuff. It’s a product of volcanic ash, time and pressure. We don’t know for certain but believe they started with simple caves.
Over time, from influence by travelers like St Paul, the Phrygian people morphed into Christians. They spoke Greek, a close approximation of the Phrygian language, and were still using the caves.
Tunnel by tunnel, room by room, they expanded the systems to protect themselves from invaders. At first, it was the Muslim-Arabs, who attacked during the Arab-Byzantine Wars (780-1180 AD). It was during that time that they carved much of the Christian iconography and chapels into the tunnels.
After the Muslim-Arabs, came the Mongolian raids, in the 14th century AD. Once again, the people of Cappadocia hid in the tunnels when they needed to.
Even as late as the 20th century, the Cappadocian Greeks retreated from the persecution of the Turkish Muslims of the Ottoman empire.
We know that one tunnel system was still in use as the West fought the Great War.
Once upon a time, they called this place Enegup. Unlike the system in Derinkuyu, Kaymakli remained in use as storage even after people evacuated their homes in the tunnels.
It’s also a different architecture than Derinkuyu. In Kaymakli, tunnels are lower, more narrow. Descents are steeper. It’s also not as big. As in many of these systems, one will find ventilation shafts and independent water systems.
Kaymakli houses a large chapel, big enough to have a nave, two apses, and a baptismal font. There are burial sites, believed to be for religious leaders of the past.
Today, tourists can explore four stories down in this tunnel system. There they will find remnants of mining and smelting systems, wine and oil presses, and storage.
The people of Enegup maintained earthenware jars filled with supplies, an indication of affluence to anthropologists. Before the discovery of Derinkuyu, this was the biggest tunnel system in the area.
When you decide to make some changes to your home, you expect to find some surprises behind the walls. Usually, it’s inconvenient plumbing or outdated wiring.
When the (unknown) man who first rediscovered Derinkuyu knocked down a wall in his Turkish home, he found something unbelievable. There was a passageway.
An archeologist would balk as when they discovered the passageway lead to 18 stories of an underground city. The whole complex, inhabitants could close off from the inside by rolling a massive stone over the doorway.
The size of Derinkuyu is massive enough to accommodate about 20,000 people with livestock and food stores. There are individual quarters, tombs and escape routes throughout.
One room, in particular, has a barrel vaulted ceiling. Five levels down there is a church. The school has a separate study room.
A ventilation shaft, which runs the depth of the site, doubles as well for the surface. The underground well meant they could interrupt the water supply from the tunnels to prevent poisoning from above.
For over 50 years we believed this was the largest system until we found Nevşehir.
In 2013, after razing older low-income houses surrounding an old castle, construction workers found a network of rooms and tunnels. That put the kibosh on the housing project but opened up an archeological gem.
To date, we don’t know the total expanse of the Nevşehir site, but experts believe it may dwarf Derinkuyu. They estimate the total size at about 5-million square feet, about 30% larger than Derinkuyu.
Rooms in the Nevşehir site are more detailed. So far they’ve found many of the standard archaeological techniques, the air shaft, and living spaces. In the Nevşehir site, they’ve also found artifacts like grindstones, stone crosses, and ceramics.
It’s an unfathomable find, one that may take years to open. The tuff from which they carved the spaces is prone to collapse, so researchers must proceed with caution, but proceed they will.
These tunnel cities often connect through miles of underground tunnels to other systems. It’s plausible that we have so much discovery yet ahead. There could be even larger systems, connections across the nation.