Step inside the unbelievable underground city of Derinkuyu, which has sat hundreds of feet below the Earth’s surface for centuries
This housing construction project may have uncovered the biggest hiding place ever found in Turkey, an incredible underground city hidden for more than a thousand years. Built to protect the ancient inhabitants, the underground cities gave thousands of people shelter to live their lives in total secrecy. What archaeologists and historians found when they started exploring still has them baffled to this day.
The find of the century
Picture this: You and your significant other decide it’s time that your home gets a makeover. The carpet needs to be stripped, the furniture changed, and you might even knock down a wall or two for that “open concept” layout HGTV is always bragging about. Because you’re an adult — its time your home reflects that.
You anticipate there will be hiccups along the way, whether it’s some faulty wiring, plumbing, or wood planks that need to be replaced. But what if you accidentally discovered a forgotten city? Turns out, that’s what happened in 1963 when a Turkish homeowner stumbled across a lost underground city that had been hidden from the world for centuries.
It all started in the basement
What was supposed to be a simple DIY project, but it turned into the find of the century. Unable to hire a professional contractor to renovate his home, the humble homeowner decided to take matters into his own hands. He was looking to expand his home to accommodate his growing family.
He decided the basement was a good place to start. Taking a sledgehammer, he knocked down a few walls (hey, its cheaper than therapy) and slammed into wood and stone. He chipped away tirelessly for hours, which eventually turned to days. Ever try to tear down a stone wall? It’s going to take a lot more than a little elbow grease.
Behind the stone wall
The homeowner hammered into the wall. After what felt like an eternity of cracking through plaster and hard stone, he finally created a hole big enough to look into. Much to his surprise, as the stone wall crumbled, the debris fell through to the other side. The area behind the wall was hollow.
The hole got bigger and bigger. As he pulled away crumbled stone, he realized that there was something behind his wall. Perplexed, he took a closer look. Plaster dust spiraled around him. It was too dark to see what lied beyond. He whipped out a flashlight and pointed it toward the darkness, expecting only to find a small alcove. What he found instead left our homeowner at a standstill.
Breaking the (fourth) wall
Behind the stone wall, our unnamed homeowner discovered a hollow opening. And as he continued to tear down more wall, he realized that the opening was much bigger and much deeper than he thought. The air, though stale, felt cool and ventilated. The homeowner set down his tools and allowed his curiosity to get the best of him.
He ventured through the opening and began a slow and steady descent down into the Earth. Turkey’s Cappadocia’s region is a landscape of volcanic rock that is pocketed with underground caverns. When our homeowner reached the supposed “end” of the opening, he at first believed that he stumbled upon an underground cave. But it turned out to be much more than that.
Spiders, snakes, and scorpions
He entered the pitch-dark chamber, flashlight in hand. The man didn’t know what he would find. So far, all he could see was his feet as he stepped further into the darkness. The rooms inside were narrow and cramped. He was initially disappointed — he thought there must be something more to the caverns than meets the eye. Turns out, there was.
So, he goes down deeper, fumbling his way through the dark with only a single beam of light. He knew he had to be careful. He knew venomous snakes, spiders, and scorpions were common in the area, and they like cool, dark places — this place could be littered with them.
An eerie silence
As he ventured deeper, the man was amazed by how expansive the tunnels were. There wasn’t a single sound in the chamber, except for his breathing and the hard tread of his footsteps. A sudden echo — a fallen stone — made him jump in his skin. What was this? The tunnels were an endless maze of smooth stone, dusted with sand.
It reminded him of something out of a horror movie (The Descent comes to mind). He figured it was best to keep close to the light, and a hand on the walls to guide him. But he pressed on in the dark, going deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of tunnels and caverns.
Couldn’t be nature
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he wondered how much further he would go before he turned back. It would only take one fall, one slip in the dark to injure himself. If that happened, he might find himself in a tomb instead of a cave. Not only that, but there were a lot of crossroads and turns within the tunnels, so he had to keep tabs on his movements to avoid getting lost.
To his surprise, he saw things like stairs and door archway and thought that nature probably wasn’t responsible for creating the caverns. The more he felt his way around and saw whatever the beam of his flashlight could reveal, the more he realized he had discovered something man-made.
People lived here
There were other features of the cave that indicated it was man-made. The layout felt intentional. But if the caves were man-made, it only raised more questions. Who constructed this impressive network of caves, and why did they leave it?
The air tasted like sand and smelled like cold well water. As he continued to fumble his way through the darkness, he found long shafts that carved deep into the mountain. But that’s not all the homeowner found. As he went deeper, room after room appeared before him, and he realized something — these were meant to be living quarters…and there was a lot of them.
It turned out to be 2,500 years old
With this realization, the man began to see the network of caves differently. What he thought were caverns turned out to be smooth-carved hallways that led to chambers designed to accommodate a family (just as he had originally intended). At first, he thought he had stumbled across an extension of a small cave used as a storage facility, or perhaps a tomb.
After all, there were many ancient temples, all of which are thousands of years old, close by. The Turkish homeowner would soon realize that he uncovered a subterranean bunker more than 2,500 years old. He had found an entire underground city that had been lost to the world.
The Turkish government is notified
The chambers were built like a maze, and it was a miracle that the unofficial explorer didn’t get lost on the way back to his house. In the end, he returned to the Earth’s surface and notified Turkish authorities. When the authorities investigated, they didn’t initially realize they had come upon one of the biggest archaeological finds in history.
After further investigation and research, archaeologists realized that they had discovered the lost subterranean city of Derinkuyu. At first, many scholars believed the city was just a myth, akin to the sunken city of Atlantis, or El Dorado, the South American city of gold. But the city turned out to be almost 3,000 years old. Carbon dating pinned its construction between 780-1180 BC.
The lost underground city of Derinkuyu
Who built this vast and labyrinthine network of tunnels and nooks? To this date, historians don’t agree. Turkish Department of Culture offered up a theory. They asserted that Derinkuyu was built by the Phrygians, an Indo-European people, who initially came from the Southern Balkans, or southeastern Europe. Their most famous king was Midas, who in Greek mythology is known for turning any object he touched into gold.
However, according to contemporary Assyrian sources, the real name of the Anatolian ruler was Mita-a. We’re willing to bet you did not learn that in the classroom. Once archaeologists heard about the discovery of the hidden city, they flocked to the location, hoping to learn more.
The underground city ran 18 stories deep
The ancient underground city is believed to have been enlarged in the Byzantine era and had the capacity to support over 20,000 people. After careful excavations, archaeologists found that the caverns ran 18 stories deep into the Earth. It is one of the largest known ancient man-made underground structures in the world.
It stretches 200 feet under the surface, and its engineering is immaculate and precise. By comparison, its about the same height as the Statue of Liberty if she was buried underground with only her shoulders and head sticking out. Think Planet of the Apes minus Charlton Heston screaming on the beach and you’ll get the gist.
Biblical peoples might have occupied the city
Researchers were determined to find out more about the lost city. They discovered that the first known inhabitants of the area were the Hittites. The Hittites were an ancient Anatolian people who created their empires around 1600 BC and settled along the Fertile Crescent (aka, modern-day Turkey).
However, when their empire fell, the region became a place of political strife. During a power struggle between several nations, the Persian Empire prevailed and ruled over modern-day Iraq until around 330 BC. Many scholars believe it was during this period in history that the Persians began the construction of the underground city. However, researchers wanted to dig deeper on the issue (ba-dum-cha!).
Who came first: The Hittite or the Phrygian?
While excavating, archaeologists connected Derinkuyu to Hittite settlements. They found Hittite-style artifacts in the caverns. Most scholars agree that the Hittites were most likely the ones who began construction in the city. However, it was the Phrygians who migrated into the area after the collapse of the Hittite Empire and populated the underground fortress.
If that’s the case, then the underground city could be more than 5,000 years old. And as time passed, multiple civilizations would call the area surrounding Derinkuyu home. This included the Persians, Macedonians (think Alexander the Great), Greeks, Armenians, and other ancient empires. So who was responsible for building the enigmatic city? The question has stumped scholars for decades.
Ancient life ain’t easy
Why build an underground city? Well, shortly put, livin’ in the ancient world wasn’t easy. If famine and disease didn’t get you, then warfare was always right around the corner. It was one of the bloodiest ages in early history. Invasions were common, and finding solid refuge from invaders was a high priority.
The underground city provided shelter and protection against the outside world. If you think this underground city looked like some barbarian’s cave, you would be surprised by the sophistication of this network. Cave? It’s more along the lines of an underground palace. Inside, archaeologists found multiple kitchens, large bedchambers, and even a place of worship.
They were hiding from Alexander the Great
So, who were the Phrygians exactly hiding from? The answer can be found in Macedonian history. Once upon a time in the ancient Middle East, the Macedonian empire eyed the great Persian territories. At the time, Alexander the Great was Emperor of Macedon and started his ten-year campaign — one that reached the borders of India.
Alexander the Great was ruthless and wanted to expand his empire. As he embarked on his campaign, he took one look at Persia and thought, “Hey, I’m gonna’ take Persia! Let’s expand.” And so, they did. Alexander drugs his heavy bronze sword across the East and conquered Persia between 336–323 BC.
Caught in the crossfire
Fast forward by three hundred years and we see the deterioration of the Roman Empire, which then became the Byzantine Empire. When it was clear that the Byzantine Empire was in decline, the Muslim Arabs rose in Arabia and pushed back their Roman neighbors. For four hundred years, the conflict between two empires raged on, and with it, bloodshed and hardship across all nations caught in the crossfire, including Derinkuyu.
As war swept through what was known as Asia Minor, citizens were left defenseless. Fortunately, the people of Derinkuyu found a place of momentary peace: underground. Once they holed up beneath the surface, citizens were out of sight from pillagers and plunderers eager to strike against Constantine’s empire.
Defense was their best offense
This wouldn’t be the only time when the people of Derinkuyu would use the subterranean metropolis as a haven. They frequently went underground, taking their ancient livestock and provisions with them. As of this writing, archaeologists have discovered 100 entrances to the hidden city.
If an invading army found one of the entrances, the entryway would have been too narrow, allowing only one man through and bottle-neck the flow of invaders. If any threat were to enter the caves, Derinkuyu would go from defense to offense and easily cut them down, one by one. Like Pac-Man after he eats a couple of pellets.
They weren’t completely helpless
Don’t think that the citizens of Derinkuyu were defenseless farmers capable of only retreating at the first signs of war. There’s more depth to their society than being evaders. Security was tight in the underground city. Inside the crazy labyrinth, each level had a series of narrow hallways that was only wide enough to fit a single human body.
Along with the single-file strategy, every level of the underground city could be closed off and sealed by large boulders, which were always ready to be utilized at a moment’s notice. For someone unfamiliar with the network, and retaining the ability to restrict access and movement, the city gave its inhabitants an advantage over invaders.
And all the amenities
The city is made up of 18 levels, and the underground citizens could easily flee to the lower levels and hide until the upper-floors were cleared. With food, water, and enough ventilation, the occupants had the means to survive for weeks at a time. All they needed was a little patience — they would live to see another day.
It’s amazing they accomplished such a feat especially considering that it was all constructed by firelight. For their water needs, they had underground wells that were only accessible from the underground city allowing the residents to have no fear about invaders poisoning their water source. They even had intricate ventilation systems that connected to the surface to promote airflow.
They blended with their surrounding environment
Like their narrow hallways and entrances, the ventilation system was methodically planned so that no one could wiggle themselves in unexpectedly. Wherever the connected to ground level, they were strategically placed. If any raiders saw the ventilation holes, they would think it was natural landscape divots that are common in the area, oftentimes housing snakes and other dangerous critters. Along with the many secret doorways, the ventilation systems were hidden behind bushes, walls, and courtyards.
At a moment’s notice, the people of Derinkuyu could make their city on the surface appear to be nothing more than a ghost town. And let’s face it: The only good thing about an abandoned town from the perspective of a raider is shelter. But it appeared there was nothing to take. Believing they had nothing to gain, invading armies would move on.
With 20,000 residence underground, Derinkuyu provided shelter for the population for extended periods of time. Archaeologists have discovered not just living quarters and kitchens, but also stables, wine cellars, stores, and classrooms. These people were prepared to stay hidden for months at a time if necessary.
And you think WWII and nuclear bunkers were a crazy concept? The ancients thought of hiding below ground long before we thought of the idea. However, unlike our underground bunkers, the underground city was meant to function like any living and thriving society, because it was pretty much WWII a majority of the time in the ancient world.
The sacrifice for security
No one huddled in fear beneath the soil. Citizens of the underground city had jobs and families. They treated it like home and adapted to the fact that they would have to hide for long periods of time, hidden from any kind of contact with the outside world. They spent much of their time making it more secure and fortified in case of an attack.
Some sacrifice had to be made in exchange for security. Among them: sunshine, a cool breeze, a fierce storm, or a starry night. The only thing they could do is stay busy and be patient. The people of Derinkuyu frequently returned to their underground haven between 780-1180 BC. For over four hundred years, the people of the subterranean world were able to evade invaders and war.
They had escape plans
Should their positions below ground become compromised, the tunnels in Derinkuyu connected to neighboring cities without ever having to set foot above the ground. In the unlikely event of full capture, the population had escape routes that led people to safety while closing and barricading the tunnels behind them to slow the enemy.
They would seal off various levels in the event that enemy soldiers found a way into their underground home. If they did, they were equipped with the weaponry needed to combat their enemies. Some residents even dedicated themselves to stand guard and patrol the tunnels should anything go awry.
Of course, life underground isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. There were challenges to living underground, and disposal issues as well. Being such a vast city with a large population, Archaeologists began to wonder: How did the Derinkuyu handle their dead?
The ancient architects of Derinkuyu integrated temporary tombs into the city’s plan. They were most likely used for placing the dead in these isolated chambers to keep them cold and preserved until the conditions up top were suitable enough for a proper burial. Once the war was over and it was safe to resurface, arrangements could be made.
New war, new occupants
We’re not exactly sure what happened to the original inhabitants of the city. Time marched on, and the city of Derinkuyu slowly disintegrated in a series of revolutions, evolution, expansion, and progress. Cities were built, new generations were born, and there were fewer wars then there was during the city’s heydey.
Eventually, the once-proud Byzantine Empire would slowly become engulfed and annexed by what would be the Ottoman Empire in the early 15th century. Once the Christian Empire fell, fleeing Christians used the underground city to hide from the Turkish Muslim rulers. More war, more refuge from the world above.
It was well used into the late 20th century
Fast forward through time, back to 1963. Our man, trying to renovate his home, finds a sacred place of hiding and great history. It turns out, there are a number of underground cities in the area, many of which were in use for centuries. Derinkuyu was still in use as late as the end of the 20th century.
The majority of these occupations were to escape prosecution in the cruel world above. But once the people of the Christian faith were pushed out of Greece in 1923, there was no longer a need for Derinkuyu and the subterranean city. It, along with the 200 others mini earth cities, was abandoned.
There were other underground cities
Derinkuyu is not the only underground city. In fact, the Cappadocia’s Nevşehir Province is peppered with over 200 underground cities. Unlike Derinkuyu, however, the two hundred other cities are only a measly two to four levels deep and relatively “new” when compared to the 18-story famed city.
In this province of Turkey, people decided that they were all going to band together and create underground cities where they can hide from their aggressors and have a second chance at life. Does it sound so crazy? And like Derinkuyu, the various other cities had the means to shield, protect, and defend its citizens.
Not just for war between nations
Today, who exactly was responsible for creating the miraculous underground city is still an enigma to many archaeologists and scholars. However, the Turkish Department of Culture holds fast that Derinkuyu was built by the Phrygians. The city remains the largest underground settlement in Turkey today.
Despite educated assumptions, there are those who firmly believe that the ancient city was built with the assistance of those who live beyond the stars. There’s always that one person, that one believer, who thinks the underground city built to amass over 20,000 people couldn’t possibly be for mere warfare, and somehow involved extraterrestrials. Can’t rule it out, we suppose.
Face the facts
Needless to say, whether it was the product of war-torn nations or the work of extraterrestrials, the underground city of Derinkuyu was an architectural feat that rivals other wonders of the world, such as the Egyptian Pyramids. Though it is still unclear as to who (or to some, what) built Derinkuyu, we do know one thing — it was built by the hands of ancients.
The city was built under the oppression of multiple nations. Its residents relied on ingenuity and strategy for survival. Its citizens were willing to adapt and compromise in order to live a life that will one day result in peace and prosperity, to not just the residents of Derinkuyu, but for the generations and various populations who continued to seek refuge in the underground city.