The Derinkuyu Mystery

Derinkuyu Underground City is one of several underground cities in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. Cappadocia itself is a natural wonder that civilizations throughout history utilized for its landscape. The surreal vista of Cappadocia is dotted with stone volcanic chimneys known as “fairy chimneys.” People carved dwellings, churches and stables out of these chimneys and other stone in Cappadocia. There are even structures in the area that modern man refer to as castles, though they are very unlike European castles that the word typically brings to mind. In a way, wind, time, rain and construction techniques have rendered the structures of Cappadocia and the Derinkuyu Underground City something like an ancient above and below ground labyrinth..


One of the Security Doors in Derinkuyu

Derinkuyu Underground City was discovered in 1963, when a modern, aboveground home in Derinkuyu was being renovated. The renovations led to the discovery of a cave that led to the underground city. It was an astonishing discovery, considering it is the biggest of all the excavated underground cities in Cappadocia. It goes 280 feet into the ground, contains thirteen stories and can fit roughly 20,000 individuals, according to a History Channel Ancient Aliens presentation. According to other sources, it could fit as many as 50,000 people. It contains wineries, storage space, living quarters and even stables for keeping livestock. Ventilation shafts bring air from above and roughly 15,000 smaller shafts distribute that air throughout the city.

The age of Derinkuyu is hard to determine, though the most popular estimates put the date of construction between 1,000 and 800 B.C.E. We do know of later civilizations staying in the Derinkuyu Underground City, particularly early Christians. However, there is no clue as to who built it and why. There are seemingly no artifacts from the time of its building. Furthermore, the structure itself cannot be dated as it is carved right out of the landscape. There is no quarry to investigate, apparently no contemporary texts on the subject and not even an oral record of its construction.

One theory regarding the age of the Derinkuyu Underground City is that the Phrygians built it around 800 B.C.E. They were there at that time, but there is not much more to go by than that. Another theory is that the Hittites built it. That would put the construction of Derinkuyu at least 200 years earlier, but possibly even a few hundred more than that. Another is that it was built by the Persian King Yima was ordered to build it by the god Ahura Mazda to protect his people from an ice age, as written in the Vendidad. The bottom line on this theory is that caves do not protect from ice ages. People still need food, fresh water and air, which might be difficult in deep snow and ice. Besides, the last glacial period was several thousand years before the earliest estimate for the city — from 110,000 to 10,000 years ago. That would put the construction of the Derinkuyu Underground City at roughly 7,000 years before the Hittites would have built it.


Winery in Derinkuyu © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC-BY-SA-3.0

The very fact that it is underground suggests that the Derinkuyu Underground City was built as a shelter for residents of the homes aboveground. Its later use as just that only cements the theory. What is interesting about this theory is the sheer size of Derinkuyu. To construct such a massive shelter, there had to have been a good reason. War and other social turmoil could explain it. It could protect from certain natural disasters as well. Whatever the case, the amount of foresight and effort that went into Derinkuyu would rival even modern emergency shelters, if that was its use. Building an emergency space for tens of thousands of people that is specifically for that use is not modern practice.

 Another argument that it was a type of emergency shelter that protected its occupants from other people is its security system. The entrances to the city have large stone doors that can only be closed and opened from the inside. Each level is also protected by such doors. Now, this does suggest it was built to keep other people out. However, modern homes have locks. If people lived down there permanently, they might have had similar security.

An argument against Derinkuyu as a shelter is that it would have been easy to suffocate the people inside by closing up the ventilation shafts. The problem with this argument is that Derinkuyu was used for precisely that purpose later and there is no record that this ever happened. Even if it were used for everyday use, this would have been a weakness. The most likely explanation is that there was no way around this structural Achilles heel. There may have been greater hope of the enemy failing to find all of the shafts than there was of surviving an open attack aboveground. There may have also been warriors defending the city at ground level.

At this time, there is no way of knowing. In fact, there may never be any way of knowing. The city was occupied by people other than its builders later, effectively erasing whatever they may have left behind. One thing is certain, though. It made much more sense as a shelter than as a permanent dwelling. There were plenty of options for homes above ground and even ancient man appeared to know that open, clean air and separate dwellings for animals was the only way for a civilization to thrive.


Shelly Barclay writes on a variety of topics from animal facts to mysteries in history. Her main focus is military and political history. She is a writer for the Boston History Examiner, Military History Examiner and the Boston American Revolution History Examiner. She also writes for a local historical society newsletter. Shelly was a professional cook for 10 years and still has a passion for food. She cooks and writes about cooking nearly every day. She produces a wide variety of content, on top of her niches. Shelly is a stepmother, a former military, current veteran wife, sister of four and aunt of seven (so far).

  • Nathan Baker

    It appears a lot of work went into structures that were supposedly used only for temporary shelter. Too bad so little can be found about the original builders.