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Going underground

This month we visit Turkey and Food and Travel’s Joe Worthington takes us on a tour of the underground cities of Cappadocia

The Central Anatolian region of Cappadocia is world-renowned for its extensive tunnel and cave systems that date back centuries, but while many tourists often only head to the region to stay in one of several unique cave hotels or to take a hot air balloon ride over the caves, there are whole underground cities in Cappadocia just waiting to be discovered.

Throughout Cappadocia, in the town of Göreme and right across Monks Valley, there are hundreds of distinctive “fairy chimneys” that were once home to Bronze Age troglodyte cave settlers and early Christian refugees escaping from persecution under the Ancient Romans. The many settlers that have called Cappadocia’s caves home over centuries have left their marks, with underground churches, bedrooms carved into cliffs, and abandoned shops lining pathways between the cave settlements. The underground cities of Cappadocia are a spectacular sight and unlike anywhere else in the region.

The whole region of Cappadocia is covered in a lunar-like white powdery sand, the towering pointed mountains are littered with holes big enough for a fully-grown person, and at sunset eerie shadows are cast all around, following you like a ghost trying to drag you deeper into the caves. It’s easy to mistake the cave and tunnel system of Cappadocia as the set from a Star Wars movie, especially at night when candle lights flicker inside the caves and locals venture out in cloaks to keep warm.

Underneath these natural towers and caves there is a subterranean world quite unlike anywhere else in the world. As many as 20,000 residents called the town of Derinkuyu home, a settlement built completely underground for locals to hide away from potential foreign invaders. And in the 21st century, these underground tunnel systems have found a new life, with entrepreneurial locals using them to grow fruit and vegetables in the nutrient-rich soils and away from the hot midday sun. Cappadocia’s underground cities are once again proving their worth to the region of Central Anatolia.

Kaymakli Underground City
The settlement of Kaymakli dates back to the Hittite period, around 1600 BC, and was developed over the following centuries both as a retreat from marauding tribes looking to capture Anatolia, but also as somewhere for locals to live away from the unbearable summer temperatures. Kaymakli’s underground town in the most expansive in the region, spanning over 8 floors, with uniquely designed ventilation shafts, and even places of worship. Kaymakli really was a complete underground settlement.

The first floor of Kaymakli’s underground caves was used for stables, where locals who lived in the tunnels would keep their livestock. Each floor was connected to the next by steps carved from the rock, and intricate archways were carved between rooms. Remains of uniquely shaped wooden doors can still be seen today.

On the third floor, perhaps the most important communal area in the underground city, were the wineries and kitchens. As the subterranean tunnels were used extensively throughout the Bronze Age, there is extensive use of rocks and metal smelting to create copper pans for use in cooking over large open fires. A block of andesite rock with several holes can be seen in Kaymakli, into which residents would have poured molten copper to create pots, pans, cutlery, and plates.

On the fourth floor there is a number of inter-connected rooms that would have been used as bedrooms and communal living areas for the thousands of settlers who once called Kaymakli home. Although only 4 of the 8 floors have been excavated and opened to the public, the Bronze Age settlers of Kaymakli pioneered the system of tower block living that we know today.

Derinkuyu Underground City
Derinkuyu is the deepest underground tunnel and cave system in Cappadocia, and potentially the whole world. There are some 600 doorways hidden away in the gardens of houses leading deep underground to a depth of 85 metres in some places. Just like in Kaymakli, there were rooms dedicated to animal husbandry, cooking, wine production, sleeping, education and worship.

Derinkuyu is located around 30 minutes outside of Göreme, the most famous “fairy chimney” town in Turkey. Quite unique for Derinkuyu, the ground floor of the underground city houses a cruciform plan church and a missionary school with individual rooms set aside for lessons. Nearby there were also rooms for holding the dead and discarded food and broken pottery until they could be taken to the surface when conditions were safer.

There is also a huge bathhouse complete with towering ceilings to allow steam to rise, and a system of shafts and false doors that could be moved whenever necessary to trick invaders skilled enough to find their way into Turkey’s subterranean world. It is impossible to know whether these ancient tricks worked, but they are impressive nonetheless.

Derinkuyu would have been a vast and impressive city above ground, but underground it is more so. When you take the steep steps down to the first floor of the hidden city, the first thing that comes to mind is questions about how ancient Anatolians, without modern excavation machinery, were able to dig these caves and tunnels and make them last for future generations to discover. Cavernous rooms, some as tall as two fully-grown adults, would most certainly have been difficult to create, and this is what makes Derinkuyu underground city one of the world’s most spectacular sights.

Nevşehir Underground Church
In the town of Nevşehir, archaeologists have discovered one of the world’s largest and best preserved underground churches. The archaeologists working on the regeneration of Nevşehir Castle were not expecting to discover a 360,000-square metre church deep underneath, and most importantly, did not expect to find preserved frescoes and wall paintings that shed some light on Orthodox Christianity in the Anatolia region in the 5th century AD.

The cavernous ceiling and intricately carved walls of the church have been painted with frescoes of the crucifixion of Jesus, the Ascension to Heaven, and showing the faces of saints that have long been forgotten. These paintings are some of the oldest Christian paintings in the world, perhaps some of the oldest displaying the key parts of Christian faith.

Nevşehir’s underground church shows that the settlers of Cappadocia’s subterranean cities had everything that they needed to lead their lives deep underneath the modern-day cities that we know today.

Cappadocia’s Underground Cities Today
Unlike most places in the world, Turkey has not abandoned its Bronze Age settlements completely, with the extensive underground tunnel systems coming to life with the entrepreneurial endeavours of locals living in the region.

The tunnel systems rarely get above 13 degrees Celsius, so they are great for keeping fruit and vegetables fresh. In underground tunnels near Ortahisar, more than 6 metres of crates filled with fresh lemons line the floor, being transported from Turkey’s Mediterranean coast and stored for up to 4 weeks until they are transported to markets in Europe, Russia, and further afield.

Cappadocia’s modern uses of the underground passageways do not stop at lemon storage – thousands of tonnes of apples, oranges, pears, potatoes, cabbages and cauliflowers are also hidden right underground the feet of the thousands of locals and visitors venturing to the region every year.

Yunak Evleri Cappadocia
Tourists visiting Cappadocia who want to experience what it is like living in the caves and tunnels of the region should really stay in the Yunak Evleri Cappadocia hotel. The hotel truly is a magical experience, with 7 full caves houses and 40 rooms carved into the side of the mountains in the village of Urgup. Some of the carved rooms date back to the 5th century AD, and the main building was a 19th century Greek mansion.

Flickering lights illuminate roughly carved walkways between the low carved bedroom doors, and natural shapes in the mountains allow strips of light to flow through at sunrise and sunset, creating heavenly glows right across the hotel compound. There is even a heated outdoor swimming pool carved between the rocks.

The bedrooms are all uniquely decorated, some standard rooms, some larger family rooms, and others full cave houses available to rent. Naturally coloured walls, complete with striped patterns that have emerged over centuries. There are marble floors in each room, marble bathroom fittings, handcrafted lace curtains, antique cupboards and tables, traditional bed coverings, antique lights, and impressive kilim carpets. There is nowhere quite like Yunak Evleri hotel, and there is nowhere else in the region where you can live like locals once lived millennia ago.

Cappadocia is a special place to experience at any time of the year. Underground tunnels offer a glimpse into a subterranean life that has largely disappeared. Miles of tunnels link cities tens of metres under the feet of modern Anatolia, connecting rooms that were once filled to the top with wine and food, families eating together around open fires, and people getting on with their lives as wars were fought above ground.

The underground cities of Cappadocia may only be a tourist attraction and place for storing food today, but the region has many hidden and impressive secrets just waiting to be discovered.

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