Strong gusts blew loose soil in the air as I walked through the Valley of Love in Cappadocia. Pink and yellow hillsides colored the rolling landscape, marked by deep red canyons, and in the distance rock formations loomed like chimneys. It was dry, hot, windy and devastatingly beautiful.
Millenia ago, this volatile volcanic environment naturally carved the towers around me into their conical mushroom shapes, which now draw millions of visitors to hike or hot-air balloon in central Turkey.
But beneath the crumbling surface of Cappadocia has been hidden for centuries a wonder of equally gigantic proportions; an underground city which can hide the whereabouts of up to 20,000 residents for months.
The ancient city of Elengubu, known today as Derinkuyu, lies more than 85 meters below the Earth’s surface, spanning 18 levels of tunnels.
is it himThe largest excavated underground city in the world and was in almost constant use for thousands of years, changing hands from the Phrygians to the Persians to the Christians of the Byzantine era.
It was finally abandoned in 1920 by the Cappadocian Greeks when they faced defeat in the Greco-Turkish War and suddenly fled en masse to Greece.
Not only do its cave-like chambers stretch for hundreds of kilometers, but it is believed that more than 200 separate small underground cities, which have also been discovered in the region, may be connected by these tunnels, creating a massive underground network.
According to my guide Suleman, Derinkuyu was only “rediscovered” in 1963 by an anonymous local resident who kept losing his chickens.
While he was renovating his house, the poultry would disappear into a small crack formed during the remodeling, never to be seen again.
After further exploration and some digging, the Turk discovered a dark passage. It was the first of more than 600 entrances discovered in private homes leading to the underground city of Derinkuyu.
Excavations began immediately and revealed a tangled network of underground dwellings, dry food warehouses, cattle sheds, schools, warehouses. and even a chapel.
It was an entire civilization hidden safely underground. The cave city was soon visited by thousands of less claustrophobic Turkish tourists, and in 1985 the region was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The exact date of the city’s construction is still disputed, but Anabasis written by Xenophon from Athens around 370 BC, is the earliest written work that appears to refer to Derinkuyu.
In the book he mentions the people of Anatolia, in or near the Cappadocia region, who live underground in dug-out houses, rather than the more popular rock-cut caves, also well known in the area.
According to Andrea De Giorgi, associate professor of classical studies at Florida State University, Cappadocia is particularly well-suited for this type of underground construction because of the lack of water in the ground and its malleable, easily molded rock.
“The geomorphology of the region favors the excavation of underground spaces,” he said, explaining that the local tuff would be fairly easy to carve with simple tools such as shovels and picks.
This same pyroclastic material was naturally forged into the fairytale-like chimneys and phallic spiers jutting from the earth above.
But to whom to credit the creation of Derinkuyu remains a partial mystery.
The basis for the extensive network of underground caves is often attributed to the Hittites, “who may have dug the first levels into the rock when they were invaded by the Phrygians around 1200 BC,” according to A. Bertini, a housing expert . troglodytes of the Mediterranean, in his essay on regional cave architecture.
Adding weight to this hypothesis, Hittite artifacts have been found at Derinkuyu.
However, most of the city was probably built by the Phrygians, highly skilled Iron Age architects who had the means to build elaborate underground structures. “The Phrygians were one of the most famous early empires in Anatolia,” explained De Giorgi.
“They developed in western Anatolia around the end of the first millennium BC and had a penchant for monumentalizing rock formations and creating remarkable rock-cut facades. Although elusive, his kingdom spread to include most of western and central Anatolia, including the Derinkuyu area.
Derinkuyu was probably originally used to store goods, but its main purpose was as a temporary refuge from foreign invaders, as Cappadocia experienced a steady stream of ruling empires over the centuries.
“The succession of empires and their impact on Anatolian landscapes explains the resort to underground shelters like Derinkuyu,” explains De Giorgi.
“Welles during the Islamic invasions [del siglo VII, en el Imperio bizantino predominantemente cristiano]However, when these dwellings were used to the maximum“.
While the Phrygians, Persians, and Seljuks, among others, populated the region and expanded the underground city in the following centuries, Derinkuyu’s population grew to its peak during the Byzantine era, with nearly 20,000 inhabitants living underground.
Today, you can experience the harrowing reality of life underground for just 60 Turkish liras (about $3).
As he descended into the narrow, musty tunnels, the walls blackened with soot from centuries of burning torches, he began to feel a strange sense of claustrophobia.
However, the ingenuity of the various empires expanding into Derinkuyu soon became apparent.
The short and deliberately narrow corridors forced visitors to navigate the maze of stooped and single corridors and dwellings, an obviously uncomfortable position for intruders.
Dimly illuminated by the lamplight, round halftone rocks blocked the doors between each of the 18 levels and could only be moved from within.
Small, perfectly round holes in the center of these sturdy gates would allow residents to attack invaders while maintaining a secure perimeter. “Life underground must have been very difficult,” added my guide Suleman.
“The inhabitants relieved themselves in sealed earthen vessels, lived by the light of torches, and disposed of the dead bodies in designated places.”
Each city level is carefully designed for specific purposes. The cattle were kept in the pens closest to the surface to reduce the odor and toxic gases produced by the cattle, as well as to provide a warm layer of residential insulation for the cold months.
The inner layers of the city contained dwellings, cellars, schools and gathering places. The second floor houses a traditional Byzantine missionary school, recognizable by its unique barrel-vaulted ceilings, along with adjacent study rooms.
According to De Giorgi, “proof of winemaking is based on the presence of cellars said to press grapes and amphorae [tinajas altas de dos asas y cuello estrecho]”.
These specialized rooms show that the inhabitants of Derinkuyu were prepared to spend months below the surface.
But most impressive is the complex ventilation system and protective well that would have supplied the entire city with clean air and clean water.
In fact, it is believed that the early construction of Derinkuyu focused on these two main elements.
More than 50 ventilation shafts, which allowed natural air flow between the city’s numerous dwellings and corridors, were distributed throughout the city to prevent a potentially fatal air supply attack.
The well is dug more than 55 meters deep and can be easily dug out by the townspeople and accessed from below.
Although the construction of Derinkuyu is truly ingenious, it is not the only underground city in Cappadocia. With 445 square kilometers, it is simply the largest of at least 200 underground cities beneath the plains of Anatolia.
More than 40 of these smaller cities are three or more levels deep below the surface. Many of them are connected to Derinkuyu by carefully dug tunnels, some of which stretch up to 9 km.
They are all equipped with emergency escape routes in case an immediate return to the surface is required. But Not all the underground secrets of Cappadocia have been revealed.
In 2014, a new and potentially even larger underground city was discovered beneath the Nevsehir area.
The living history of Derinkuyu ended in 1923 when the Greeks of Cappadocia evacuated. More than 2,000 years after the probable establishment of the city, Derinkuyu was abandoned for the last time.
His existence it was all but forgotten in the modern world until some wandering chickens brought the underground city back to light.