The Cappadocia region of central Anatolia in Turkey earned a World Heritage site designation some time ago for its underground cities. They’ve been there for millennia, but most were forgotten when they were no longer needed for protection from invaders. In 1963, Derinkuyu became a popular tourist destination shortly after a man discovered a man-made passageway linked to subterranean tunnels while renovating his home.
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In 2013, a public urban building project unearthed a complex of hand-carved rooms and tunnels beneath a Byzantine-era hilltop castle. The newer find in Nevşehir Province includes artifacts and hidden rooms interconnected by miles of tunnels that may date to 3,000 BCE. The new site appears to be even larger than Derinkuyu, an impressive 18-story underground city that once housed around 20,000 people. Millions of years ago, the region was buried under layer upon layer of volcanic ash. The hardened volcanic rock, known as “tuff,” provided a natural building material that was easy to work with. Because the caves are carved from natural rock, archaeologists can’t date their first use, but most agree that the Anatolian Hittites are the original builders.
When the region’s ancient inhabitants retreated to their subterranean homes, everyday life continued as usual. They carved out sprawling underground cities that featured apartments, stables, worship centers, ventilation shafts, tombs, water tanks, kitchens, and communal rooms. Some contained functional freshwater wells and stone doors for added protection. There are also arsenals for storing weapons, wineries, chapels, schoolrooms, staircases, and bezirhane—linseed presses for producing lamp oil to light the underground city. Hidden escape routes offered residents a last chance for a getaway.
Over time, the need for hidden shelter varied. When dangerous invaders threatened, Cappadocians went underground, blocked the access tunnels with stone doors, and sealed themselves in with livestock and supplies until the threat passed. They lived comfortably in the year-round consistent temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit. In peacetime, people returned to building and living on the surface, using the subterranean city as cold storage for food and stables for livestock.