Cappadocia, Turkey, is a natural wonder that ancient groups throughout history utilized for shelter. The soft volcanic ash rock made it easy to dig extensive passages and homes that extend deep within the earth. In the Cappadocia region, there are there are approximately 36 ancient underground cities, and Derinkuyu is the deepest and most impressive. The ancient people who lived at Derinkuyu carved dwellings, churches, and animal shelters out of the natural rock chimneys and caverns that give Cappadocia its unique beauty. At a depth of more than 250 feet with over 600 separate entrance locations, Derinkuyu is an ancient engineering marvel.
Features of Derinkuyu
The Derinkuyu underground city was discovered in 1963 during the renovation of a modern above-ground home. The renovations led to the discovery of a cave that led to the underground. It was an astonishing discovery, considering it is the biggest of all the excavated underground cities in Cappadocia, Turkey. The enormous dwelling site extends 280 feet into the ground and contains thirteen stories. It accommodated about 20,000 individuals at one time. According to other sources, it could fit as many as 50,000 people. With wineries, storage spaces, living quarters, and stables for housing livestock, it is evident that the people planned for most of their living activities in the underground city. 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 underground city, particularly early Christians. However, there is no clue as to who built it. 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.
Theories About the 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. Other scholars speculate it was built by the Persian King Yima who was ordered to build the underground dwelling 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.
The Shelters of the Underground
The very fact that it is underground suggests that Derinkuyu was built as a practical shelter for residents during a time when there were many invading tribes in the Anatolian region. Its later use as just that only cements the theory. Experts do not believe the underground city was ever used as a long-term permanent dwelling. However, it was a fortified structure that ancient people may have used intermittently as necessary. 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 natural elements as well, such as extreme heat. Whatever the case, the amount of planning, foresight, and engineering expertise is astonishing.
The Continuing Mystery
Other experts counter the shelter theory by indicating that it would have been easy to suffocate the people inside by closing up the ventilation shafts. The problem with this argument is that other groups used the city precisely for that purpose later and there is no record that this ever happened. 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 later occupied by a variety of groups who effectively erased whatever the original inhabitants may have left behind. Now, the remnants of the once great Derinkuyu underground city leave only mysteries of the past for us to ponder.
Updated by HM staff on May 12, 2017.