Saturday, January 28, 2017
in depth history
A few years ago when I read Alan Weisman’s book 'The World Without Us' I came across a paragraph that raised my curiosity:
“No one knows how many underground cities lie beneath Cappadocia. Eight have been discovered, and many smaller villages, but there are doubtless more. The biggest, Derinkuyu, wasn’t discovered until 1965, when a resident cleaning the back wall of his cave house broke through a wall and discovered behind it a room that he’d never seen, which led to still another, and another. Eventually, spelunking archeologists found a maze of connecting chambers that descended at least 18 stories and 280 feet beneath the surface, ample enough to hold 30,000 people – and much remains to be excavated.”
Perhaps you already know about them, but they were new to me and more than a little extraordinary. So for those who don't know about them at all and for those who've had other things on their minds lately, I'll go ahead.
It was in 1963 that a man in central Turkey knocked down a wall of his home. Behind it, he discovered a mysterious room. He continued digging and soon discovered an intricate tunnel system with additional cave-like rooms. What he had discovered was the ancient Derinkuyu underground city, part of the Cappadocia region in central Anatolia, Turkey. The elaborate subterranean network included discrete entrances, ventilation shafts, wells, and connecting passageways. It was one of dozens of underground cities carved from the rock in Cappadocia thousands of years ago - quite likely 5,000 years although nobody knows for certain (the old thing about not being able to date rock).
The Cappadocia region of Anatolia is rich in volcanic history and sits on a plateau around 3,300 feet (1,000m) tall. The area was buried in ash millions of years ago creating the lava domes and rough pyramids seen today. Erosion of the sedimentary rock left pocked spires and stone minarets. Volcanic ash deposits consist of a softer rock – something the Hittites of Cappadocia and the Phyrgians (remember them?) discovered thousands of years ago when they began carving out rooms from the rock. It appears it all began with storage and underground food lockers since the subterranean voids maintained a constant temperature.
Then, as invaders moved into and across the territory, the underground tunnels served a larger purpose: protecting the people from attack. Miles of tunnels blackened from centuries of burning torches were strategically carved narrow to force would-be attackers to crawl single-file. Eventually the tunnels reached hundreds of caves large enough to shelter tens of thousands of people in separate family quarters.
As time went by Derinkuyu was inhabited by early Christians who expanded the caverns further by adding chapels, churches with ancient Greek inscriptions and frescoes. Over one hundred unique entrances to Derinkuyu are hidden behind bushes, walls, and courtyards of surface dwellings. Access points were blocked by large circular stone doors, up to 5 feet (1.5m) in diameter and weighing up to 1,100 lbs (500 kilos) were installed so each level could be sealed individually. The tunnelling architects included thousands of ventilation shafts varying in size up to 100 feet deep (30m). An underground river filled wells while a rudimentary irrigation system transported drinking water.
Commercial spaces included communal meeting areas, schools, dining rooms, grocers, religious places for worship (even shopping) while arsenals stored weapon caches and stables kept animals safe.
Just recently a housing construction project may have unearthed the biggest hiding place ever found in Cappadocia. Discovered beneath a Byzantine-era hilltop castle in Nevşehir, the provincial capital, the site dates back at least to early Byzantine times. It is still largely unexplored, but initial studies suggest its size and features may rival those of Derinkuyu.
Geophysicists from Nevşehir University who conducted a systematic survey of a 1.5-mile (4-kilometer) estimate the site is nearly five million square feet (460,000 square meters). These studies suggest the underground corridors may plunge as deep as 371 feet (113 meters). If that turns out to be accurate, the city could be larger than Derinkuyu by a third.
Cities, empires and religions have risen and fallen around these unique underground havens - 100 square miles with 200+ underground villages and tunnel towns complete with hidden passages, secret rooms and ancient temples and a remarkably storied history of each new civilization building on the work of the last. There are indications that many of these underground cities were connected by tunnels now collapsed or simply lost (for the moment).
It's an area I'd love to visit, but since that's not very likely (besides, I'm claustrophobic) and just a few are partially open to the public, I've settled for looking at some of the many online photographs and written accounts.
We inhabit a world both old and deeper than we might otherwise imagine.