Skip to main content

Explore Derinkuyu: The Ancient Underground City in Turkey

Kelley has great interest in ancient cultures throughout the world and has read many books and magazine articles about history.

Derinkuyu from within

Derinkuyu from within

Ancient Subterranean Cities of Turkey and Future Impact

First people lived in caves, and then they built underground cities. This seems a logical development, doesn’t it?

The modern nation of Turkey holds some of the greatest archeological treasures of the world, including underground cites. Also known as Asia Minor and Anatolia, Turkey is a country of crossroads for modern nations as well as that of the various fabulous civilizations of the ancient Middle East. Greeks, Romans, Hittites, Medians, Persians, Assyrians, Byzantines, and many other peoples roamed over this rocky, mountainous land for thousands of years, building empires and/or conquering that of others.

Perhaps one of the most interesting archaeological sites in Turkey is the mesmerizing underground city of Derinkuyu. Located in the Nevsehir Province in central Turkey, Derinkuyu is the largest subterranean city in Turkey and may have housed from 20,000 to 50,000 people when inhabited in ancient times.

Let’s explore this startling achievement of ancient engineering and find out what Derinkuyu can teach us about the past in one of the most fascinating locales of the world.

History of Derinkuyu

Built in the soft volcanic rock of the Cappadocia region, it is widely believed that Derinkuyu was built by the people of the Median Empire from 1,400 to 1,000 B.C.E., though nobody knows for certain who built it and when. Xenophon, a Greek soldier, and the writer mentioned Derinkuyu in his book, Anabasis, written as he ventured through Cappadocia with an army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries about 400 B.C.E.

Unfortunately, these mercenaries, hired by the Persian Cyrus the Younger, were killed while trying to usurp the throne of his brother, Artaxerxes II, leaving the army with no leader and in hostile territory, a “lost army” story often burrowed by writers of fiction, incidentally.

A succession of empires may have inhabited the Derinkuyu over the ages. Around 500 B.C.E., the Persian Achaemenid Empire may have used the city as a refugee settlement, and centuries later the Byzantines may have enlarged parts of it; some of their artifacts have been discovered in the miles of winding tunnels that comprise Derinkuyu.

The lowest levels of Derinkuyu descend from 60 to 85 meters, and it was a very nice place to live—at least by ancient standards—having many ventilation shafts, water wells, wine and oil presses, stables, cellars, storage areas, dining rooms, and chapels. A vertical stairway leads to the fifth level of the city, where a cruciform church had been dug from the rock.

All Cities Need Doors

Circular stone blocks five meters high and weighing up to 500 kilograms were used to close-off areas of the underground metropolis, presumably during times of war or inclement weather. Holes had been drilled into the blocks, perhaps so the occupants could see who had come for a visit and thus keep out enemies.

Only eight levels of the city have been visited by archaeologists, anthropologists, and other scientists, but as many as 20 levels have been discovered and these lower levels may eventually be cleared of debris, explored, and perhaps opened to tourism.

Fascinatingly, some 600 ground-level entrances have been located that lead down into the city.

There are numerous underground cities in Turkey, perhaps as many as 200 or more. In fact, Derinkuyu connects via an underground tunnel with Kaymakli, another subterranean city some eight kilometers distant. Interestingly, at least 40 of these netherworld settlements contain three levels or more.

Why Derinkuyu Was Built

Nobody knows for certain why these underground cities were built. Perhaps they were constructed so the people in the area could play an underground game of hide-and-seek. This has actually been suggested! Underground habitats would also be very quiet places filled with solitude. But the most likely reason is that the people of ancient Anatolia may have felt safer living underground.

Moreover, many religious people in the area wanted to build churches that would be hard to find and therefore more easily protected from vandalism. The Eskigumus Monastery, the southernmost of the Cappadocia monasteries, remained unknown to the European world until 1963! In times past, the monastery held numerous priceless artifacts and relics and these days offers some of the most impressive Byzantine frescoes in the region.

The simple convenience of constructing such areas may be a reason too because many sections of these underground cities are still occupied by people and/or used as storage areas and stables.

At any rate, building such cities is a great way to create habitable areas that will last for decades, centuries, and even thousands of years. In a land where earthquakes are common, the underground cities of Turkey are still in good condition – they simply need a little tidying up so scientists and tourists can enter and gape at such wonders!

Ancient Aliens and Derinkuyu

On the History Channel’s program Ancient Aliens, one expert suggests that in terms of engineering complexity the construction of Derinkuyu rivals that of the building of the Pyramids of Egypt and that surely the people of another more advanced civilization—perhaps one from outer space—must have built it. The producers of the show suggest the followers of Ahura Mazda, the sky god in Zoroastrianism, built it as a refuge from the Ice Age, which ended some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

Well, it’s hard to date rock using modern archaeological techniques, but it seems safe to write that most reputable scientists think Derinkuyu couldn’t be much older than three thousand years.

Wouldn't you like to live here?

Wouldn't you like to live here?

The Future of Derinkuyu

Derinkuyu and other underground cities in Turkey are great tourist attractions, and it seems certain many in Turkey profit much from their continual visitations. But places such as Derinkuyu could one day be occupied as they were in ancient times.

As the world explodes with civil strife, Derinkuyu may once again be used as a refuge of last resort. And then there are natural disasters from which people may need to flee. During terrible times, what would be a better place to live than an underground city with plenty of living room, fresh air, and drinking water?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Kelley Marks