Through history, Anatolia’s rarely been the most peaceful region – just between Europe and the Middle East, it’s seen a stream of invading armies and battling creeds over the centuries. Little wonder, then, that beginning a long damn time ago (8,000 B.C. or 1400 B.C. depending on who you believe), someone around the small town of Derinkuyu decided on an obvious solution: if the other guy’s got an army and you don’t want to die, go underground.
Yes, this is obvious. Notice that in the popular imagination secret societies and super villains love, in all their chthonic splendor; underground passages, catacombs and hidden chambers. So too did the embattled denizens and dissident religious sects of Cappadocia, and there’s been over 200 such refuges located in this region, with 40 having more than three levels.
But Derinkuyu is different. This is a veritable city under the earth.
While Derinkuyu’s wikipedia entry is extremely contradictory, some more clarity is provided by this handy rumination, which notes that according to author Alan Weisman of The World Without US fame, Cappadocia’s underground cities might be the last thing to survive the sudden extinction of humanity.
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. One tunnel, wide enough for three people walking abreast, connects to another underground town six miles away. Other passages suggest that at one time all of Cappadocia, above and below the ground, was linked by a hidden network.
Massive millstones would be rolled in front of the entrance in time of attack, and there were, reportedly, many attackers, with Derinkuyu’s labyrinthine rooms serving as a refuge for early Christians persecuted by the Roman Empire (including other Christian sects), Byzantine Greeks fleeing Arab raids. Going back much farther, it’s not hard to imagine the site being used by fleeing Hittites in the nigh-total social collapse of the first dark age.
The sheer engineering prowess necessary to create and maintain something like this is even more incredible when you think about the primitive technology and limited resources available (Cappadocia’s never been a rich place). Derinkuyu had a large church, many separate living quarters, space for livestock, a winery, a religious school, wells, ventilation ducts that doubled for communication purposes (the original system of tubes). If you want to go check it out for yourself, a portion of Derinkuyu is a popular tourist site, with visitors from around the world. Excavations continue.
Seeing something like this should dispel some prejudices about what primitive societies are capable of, as well as giving cause to wonder what’s beneath our own feet. Maybe the fantastic isn’t so unbelievable after all.
And if this sort of complex can be made by cash-strapped villagers working with almost no modern technology, what could be done today?
(Thanks, Warren Ellis)