Derinkuyu is a subterranean city with a population of 20,000. The astonishing creativity of ancient architects

Photo credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

An underground metropolis that can hold up to 20,000 people at once, for many months, sits under the wind-carved, conical surface of Cappadocia in Turkey’s west-central region, attracting millions of visitors every year.

Elengubu, now named Derinkuyu, has 18 storeys and 85 meters of subterranean ruins. Derinkuyu, the world’s largest excavated underground city, was populated by Phrygians, Persians, and Byzantine Christians.

Greeks of Cappadocia abandoned the castle and fled to Greece in 1920 after devastating casualties in the Greco-Turkish War.

The cave-like chambers continue for hundreds of kilometers, and over 200 smaller subterranean cities are said to be connected to the larger city, forming a huge underground network.

A villager who kept losing his chickens “rediscovered” Derinkuyu in 1963, according to Guide Suleman. When he was remodeling, birds flew into a new entrance and disappeared.

After digging further, the Turk discovered a concealed entryway. The entry to Derinkuyu was the first of almost 600 found in homes.

Soon, excavations uncovered a network of tunnels connecting to underground residences, food storage facilities, cattle barns, schools, vineyards, and even a church. A peaceful subterranean civilization.

Due to its UNESCO listing in 1985, the area began attracting thousands of tourists.

Derinkuyu’s founding date is unclear, however Xenophon of Athens mentions it in his 370 BC “Anabasis.” In or near Cappadocia, Anatolians opted for underground, excavated dwellings rather than rock-cut constructions.

Andrea DeGiorgi, an associate professor at Florida State University, believes Cappadocia’s dry soil and loose pebbles make it unique. A shovel or pickaxe may quickly break up calcareous soil, says Andrea DeGiorgi.

Near-surface components built chimneys like those in children’s stories from volcanic material.

Unknown who created Derinkuyu. A. Bertini, a specialist on Mediterranean caves, says the Hittites dug the first few levels while attacked by the Phrygians about 1200 BC. This means the Hittites designed the cave network. Artifacts from Derinkuyu reinforce his view.

Phrygians, who were skilled Iron Age builders and had the means to dig underground corridors, appear to have built much of the city.

Phrygians were a strong early Anatolian monarchy. At the end of the first millennium BC, a society formed in western Anatolia with a penchant for rock architecture. Andrea DeGiorgi said their kingdom “spanned western and central Anatolia, including Derinkuyu.”

Derinkuyu was a sanctuary for various civilizations that went through Cappadocia. Its primary purpose was likely to store goods.

According to DeGiorgi, successive empires impacted the Anatolian ecosystem, necessitating underground shelters like the Derinkuyu.

She said that shelters were used throughout the 7th-century Islamic invasions.

Derinkuyu’s population peaked in the Byzantine era, when 20,000 lived underground, although it had been colonized by Phrygians, Persians, and Seljuks.

You may experience underground living for 60 Turkish liras (approx. 3.25 euros). Feelings of impending doom come in as one navigates the narrow passages blackened by centuries-old fires.

The constructors showed inventiveness. Short aisles and Indian rows make intruders uncomfortable. Each level is secured with a half-ton round rock that can only be moved from the inside.

These gigantic “doors” have precisely spherical apertures that let defenders shoot arrows at invaders without letting them in.

Living underground was undoubtedly hard. People “defecated in covered clay receptacles, used torches for light, and buried their dead at predetermined areas,” said guide Suleman.

Each city level has a purpose. The animals were kept in stables closest to the surface to reduce odor and toxic emissions and to provide “living insulation” to keep the structure warm in winter.

Lower city levels housed homes, stores, schools, and public meeting spaces. The vaulted second floor houses the Byzantine school and study rooms.

DeGiorgi says wine cellars, presses, and tall, two-handled amphorae prove wine was made. These dwellings show that people might live below for months.

The city’s finest accomplishments are its advanced ventilation system and water well. These variables may have influenced Derinkuyu’s initial urban structure.

Over fifty ventilation shafts are carefully located throughout the city to safeguard its ventilation systems. These tubes circulate air between the city’s houses and color. Over 55 meters below, city residents may turn off the water well.

Derinkuyu is spectacular, but not Cappadocia’s sole underground village. It’s the largest of 200 underground villages beneath the Anatolian Plateau, encompassing 445 km2.

Forty municipalities have underground floors. Derinkuyu is reached via 9-km tunnels. All exits lead outside. Cappadocia’s ground still holds secrets. Nevsehir identified a bigger underground city in 2014.

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