Not far below the modern day city of Cappadocia, in the Central Anatolia region of Turkey, an ancient marvel of engineering was discovered in 1963, and scientists are still continuing to learn more about it. Reaching depths of over 250 feet, the underground city of Derinkuyu once may have been home to more than 20,000 people.

A Subterranean City

Although there is no concrete evidence as of yet to determine the age of Derinkuyu, some scholars believe that it may have been built around 1200 BCE by Hittites following the collapse of their empire into smaller subgroups. However, other experts disagree, stating that, had the Hittites been the architects and inhabitants of the underground city, it was likely built before 1200 BCE. Others still speculate that the Hittites may not have built the city at all, but that instead it may have been built by the Phrygians, who migrated to that region of present-day Turkey from the Baltics after 3,200 years ago. If they had been the ones to build Derinkuyu, its age would be between 1200 and 800 BCE.

The first written accounts of underground dwellings in the region came from Xenophon, a Greek historian and soldier, in 370 BCE. He described the entrances as well-like holes that opened up into larger spaces, which people could enter via ladders, as well as tunnels burrowed for livestock to come into the subterranean cities. As modern exploration has shown, the chambers underground are indeed large enough to house cattle and other animals, alongside humans.

Chambers within the city varied in size and purpose. Small hollows in the walls were used as graves, similar to catacombs, while larger rooms served as living spaces, stores, homesteads, and common rooms. Tunnels brought air down from the surface, and a series of smaller ducts carried fresh air throughout the city and deep into the lower chambers. Archaeologists have discovered classrooms in the city as well as wineries and other amenities, suggesting that the underground city of Derinkuyu was not intended for use merely as a place to hide, but as a place of long-term occupancy. Additionally, being underground protected the inhabitants from the extreme variations in temperature experienced at the surface. While the summers scorched and the winters froze everything above ground, down below, the temperature remained a relatively consistent 55 degrees Fahrenheit, making it easy to keep food fresh and animals cool.

A Place Of Refuge

For millennia, the Anatolia region has been a hotspot of trade, connecting seaports on the Mediterranean and eastern European countries with the trade routes in western Asia. Control over the area was in a constant state of flux, as a result, and the region itself was extremely volatile, often landing in the middle of, or very near to, active combat. During the early days of Christianity, around the beginning of the Common Era, Christian colonies sought refuge in the underground city, hoping to escape persecution by the Romans.

Several centuries later, in the 600s, Muslim and Persian groups once again drove Christian Greeks into hiding. It is believed that, during this time, the refugees hiding in Derinkuyu worked on expanding the city to the 16-level network that exists today. It wasn’t until the early 1900s when the Turks invaded the underground haven and massacred hundreds of thousands of individuals, driving out any who survived. Since then, the city has remained abandoned.