Underground Cities in Cappadocia
By Daud Shad
The sky of Cappadocia, the surreal region of central Turkey, is often speckled with colorful hot air balloons. These tourist attractions contrast with the ground’s sandy color. The landscape is characterized by sprawling volcanic formations like hoodoos (colloquially known as fairy chimneys) homes built into caves, and rocky terrain.
Walking around, you can feel a light snowfall that doesn’t seem too cold as the smell of testi kebaps from a lantern-lit restaurant warms you. In Cappadocia, millennia’s worth of peoples have integrated their lifestyles with nature. There are Byzantine frescoes and huge monasteries where monks may have once gotten lost in meditation.
But the most incredible features of Cappadocia are easy to miss. Many have passed over them unknowingly, as they are hidden underground. Hundreds of feet below the soft earth of Cappadocia lie miles of chambers and tunnels – underground cities which provided amenities to occupants for two and a half millennia. Elaborate ventilation systems, wells, stables, kitchens with stoves, cellars, bedrooms, and chapels were tediously dug to create liveable conditions for these dwellers. The cavernous rooms were ruggedly-crafted, cool and slightly damp to the touch. For various groups in history, these were accommodations for the worst of times.
There are many such cities, carved into the soft rock by different peoples over the ages. The largest discovered city, Derinkuyu, may have been inhabited by over 20,000 people at its peak. After decades of abandonment and concealment, Derinkuyu was stumbled upon in 1963 by a man remodeling his home. Even today, cities and chambers are being found in central Turkey. For instance, The Daily Sabah reported this past summer that shepherds in Kayseri discovered a 52-chamber, horizontally designed city. Most underground cities are still being excavated by archaeologists, and the ones open to the public are very popular.
The cities are thought to have been constructed by the Phrygians, an Indo-European people, in the first millennium BCE as shelter from invaders. Later on, early Christians escaped Roman persecution by going underground for indefinite periods. Subsequent groups – up until the early 20th century – used and added to the refuges. Walking through the dimly lit, narrow passageways where children once played is discomforting. The dingy rooms and enclosing walls invoke a feeling of helplessness. For many, abandoning their homes for the honeycomb maze of darkness they found below was a harrowing experience.
The confining underground cities invoke the atrocities being committed around the world today. From famine in Darfur to genocide in Rakhine, the persecuted and marginalized are still burrowed in abysses of darkness. Mainstream news coverage and international action is scarce on problems that can be walked over. Those forced into perpetual fear are seldom remembered, but their perseverance under adverse conditions and determination to survive is astonishing. The gloomy shelters the Cappadocian Christians took did not allow them to live freely, but did allow them spiritual comfort and free thought, securing their history and future.
To look at Cappadocia, you would never know of the cities deep below the fairy chimneys and restaurants. The natural beauty and rich culture of the place leaves you detached from its blood-soaked past. For too long, society has failed in protecting the powerless, leaving many hidden underground. For the innocent in bunkers getting shelled and slums getting walled, the Cappadocian underground cities are not too foreign.
How many today are trapped under the rubble of beloved homes, piled under bodies at sea, or abandoned under oppressive regimes? Little has changed since the underground cities were used. It’s still just as easy to ignore the misery in our own communities. To paraphrase Pastor Niemöller, if you can help those fleeing war and persecution and do not, ultimately there will be no one to help when you are forced underground. We must uplift those we know are being persecuted to prevent these rudimentary underground societies from continuing. Everyone has rights to fresh morning breezes and starry night skies.
Daud Shad ’21 is a prospective Political Science major in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.