Cappadocia in central Turkey is known for its rocky, arid landscape—and its network of underground cities. These cave-like settlements provided refuge from invaders and religious oppressors for centuries. With hundreds of cities and miles of tunnels, a new Turkish hideout seems almost always on the (underground) horizon.
Houses built into the earth are attention-grabbing. But you can visit entire buried cities (plural!) in present-day Turkey.
Until recently, the largest known underground city was ancient Derinkuyu. Its tunnels carved into the area’s soft volcanic rock may date back to the 700s B.C.
Residents of the above-ground city of Derinkuyu built a maze of secret chambers as safe places during wartime. The buried city had 18 stories. Air shafts funneled fresh air below. Besides living spaces, the city contained kitchens, schoolrooms, water wells, bathing areas, stables, and more. Some historians say as many as 20,000 troglodytes (cave-dwellers) resided there.
Huge stone doors could block off entire sections of the city. Historians think early dwellers of then-Asia Minor—the Hittites and later the Phrygians—probably constructed the vast towns. A network of tunnels connected Derinkuyu to other underground locales.
Centuries later, persecuted Christians inhabited the city. They fled marauding Mongolians. During the 20th century, Christians of the Ottoman Empire hid from persecution too. Historians credit below-ground chapels and frescoes to these latter residents.
In 1923, Greek Orthodox Christians left Cappadocia after the Greco-Turkish War. After more than 1,000 years, Derinkuyu stopped being used.
The city remained forgotten for 40 years. Then in 1963, a Turkish man was repairing his house. His chickens kept disappearing through a hole in the wall. He found a concealed room. It was just one of an entire hidden city.
In 2020, archaeologists were restoring several ancient buildings in the above-ground city of Midyat. They discovered an even larger underground city. They named it Matiate, meaning “homeland” or “city of caves.”
This limestone marvel dates from A.D. 100-200. Like in Derinkuyu, early Christians used Matiate to escape persecution—something Christians have experienced since the time of Christ. They hid from the Romans.
Matiate is far larger than Derinkuyu. Diggers have unearthed 49 rooms—probably only about five percent of the city. Researcher Gani Tarkan says the underground haven may have held as many as 70,000 people.
With 200 underground houses and counting, there’s more to Turkey than what’s above ground.
Why? Underground labyrinths, religious persecution, vanishing chickens—the story of Turkey’s amazing subterranean cities is full of surprises!