SUBTERRANEAN CITIES OF CAPPADOCIA

SUBTERRANEAN CITIES OF CAPPADOCIA

 

Immense underground labyrinths, home to tens of thousands of people; multiple levels reaching deep into the earth; low, twisting passages leading to rooms stocked with treasure.

The stuff of fantasy adventures? No! Millions people have already visited these underground cities, and you can too.

The cities under the ground lie in the central Anatolia (Asian) region of Turkey. This area, called Cappadocia has hosted over a dozen civilizations from ancient times to the present, and all played their part in the history of the subterranean cities. The Turkish government has opened some of these ancient labyrinths to the public, and almost 150 more lie unexcavated and unexplored, their hidden secrets awaiting discovery.

Millions of years ago extensive volcanic activity deposited three layers of rock across Central Anatolia: first, a thick layer of ash; above it, dust that gradually compressed into the stone that geologists call «tuff»; and finally, a thin layer of lava that hardened into sturdy basalt.

Eons of weathering removed much of the basalt and carved deeply into the soft tuff, producing eerie, surreal rock formations now called «fairy chimneys». From prehistoric times until just a few years ago, the region's inhabitants carved homes in the chimneys, sometimes elaborate dwellings with many rooms on several stores.

The rocky homes' built-in insulation held cool air in the hot summer days, warm air at night and the reverse during the area's frigid winters. The underground cities began in the same way, carved from the brittle, tawny-coloured tuff.

But at first these primordial cities served a different purpose, not living space but storage. The Hittites - who, as every Civilization board game player knows, occupied Asia Minor in the second millennium BC - carved the oldest rooms of the cities as granaries. The constant cool temperature, 10º-15º Celsius, preserved grain well.

After the Hittites came the Phrygians, their origin (around 1100 BC) as mysterious as the Hittites' disappearance. After four centuries Phrygia gave way to the Greek culture of the Lydian’s, the first society to coin money. Lydia's last king had plenty of it, too; we still remember the wealth of Croesus. Cappadocia's fertile plains brought wealth to all its rulers, but those plains proved hard to defend from rivals. So history saw a long parade of over a dozen civilizations, each in turn adding its influence to a rich mix of cultures: the Persians of the Achaemenid Empire (546-334 BC), Alexander the Great, the Seleucids . . .

But these early civilizations used their underground chambers only to store grain and, perhaps, as short-term shelter from invaders. The subterranean cities grew to their immense size abruptly - historically speaking - during the first centuries after the time of Jesus, when persecuted Christians sought places of worship hidden from the Roman Empire. In those three centuries they carved deep into the rock, adding to their cities everything they needed: bedchambers, water tanks, flour mills, and stables, as well as other rooms equally important to them: churches, confessionals, seminaries, baptismal fonts, and even wineries.

Secreted in these labyrinths, Christians in the tens of thousands practised their forbidden religion. After the Edict of Milan in 313 AD Roman persecution ceased. However, Cappadocians still hid in their expanded cities. The underground shelters improved on times past, for now whole towns could evacuate below and vanish.

Every home above ground had either its own entrance to the city, or a thin air duct they could use to talk with those below (we know of 15,000 air ducts). Perhaps residents then treated it as some householders do now, storing their possessions in a really, really big basement. In times of danger the city maintained sentinels on the hilltops at the horizon. A scout who sighted unwelcome visitors would blow a horn or otherwise signal a warning to the city. Citizens had time to retreat below with their livestock and possessions, where they could then hide or withstand weeks of siege.

No one today knows how well this worked. Over two millennia from the Hittites to the Byzantines, it must have helped sometimes, for each successive wave of invaders took over and enlarged the cities. By the same token, the cities did not provide fool proof protection, inasmuch as successive waves of invaders took them over.

During the seventh century AD the armies of Islam spread from Arabia to conquer Africa, Persia, and Asia Minor. After withstanding three severe campaigns the Byzantines finally evacuated Cappadocia, leaving the underground cities deserted. Their presence unsuspected by the Arabs, the forgotten cities fell into disrepair.

In 1963 townsfolk in central Cappadocia rediscovered the largest labyrinth, quite by accident. Other discoveries followed, and now we know of 150 underground sites, most still unexcavated.

Today, five of them are open for visiting and travellers can at last recognise these amazing places as authentic wonders of the world.

♦ Underground City of Derinkuyu - the largest & deepest excavated subterranean city, which could house up to 20.000 people
♦ Underground City of Kaymakli - the next largest excavated subterranean city, which could house up to 5.000 people

 

REGIONS AND SITES OF CAPPADOCIA

♦ Underground City of Derinkuyu - the largest & deepest excavated subterranean city, which could house up to 20.000 people 
♦ Underground City of Kaymakli - the next largest excavated subterranean city, which could house up to 5.000 people 
♦ Göreme National Park & Open-air Museum - cave churches with frescoes 

♦ Zelve Valley & Open-air Museum - an empty cave town with churches 
♦ Paşabağ (Monk Valley) - mushroom-shaped fairy chimneys 
♦ Ihlara Valley - the deepest gorge of Anatolia 
♦ Devrent Valley (Imagination Valley) - animal-shaped fairy chimneys 
♦ Uchisar Castle - A rock-cut castle. You’ll see it driving back and forth 
♦ Ortahisar Castle - Troglodyte village with rock-cut castle 
♦ Sobessos -  The only late-Roman/early-Byzantine settlement found in Cappadocia, mosaic pavements, Roman baths 
♦ Avanos Town - Town of pottery & craftsmanship 
♦ Hacibektaş Town - Centre of Bektasi sect of Islam 
♦ Gülşehir Town - First settlements in Cappadocia 
♦ Caravanserais - Inns, «caravan palaces» on camel trains through Asia Minor


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