Cappadocia, a region of central Anatolia in Turkey, lies within the triangle of Nevsehir, Aksaray, and Kayseri. It is bounded by the now dormant Mount Erciyes in the east and Mount Hasandag in the south. Prehistoric eruptions of these volcanoes blanketed a wide area with a 1,500-foot (450-meter) layer of ash and detritus. The hardening tufa was carved by nature into thousands of distinctive pyramidal rock formations known as “fairy chimneys,” within which generations of settlers have created astounding subterranean cities. Guesses at the total number vary from 30 to 200. Carved from the living rock to a depth of at least twenty stories, and each able to house tens of thousands of people, the underground cities result from 3,000 years of continual adaptation and extension. Derinkuyu and Kaymakli, described below, are only two of such architectural feats in the region.
Who were these intrepid constructors, who built downward instead of upward, and whose houses were framed with shafts and corridors rather than columns and beams? Over millennia Cappadocia has been occupied in turn by invading Lycians, Phrygians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, and Seljuk and Ottoman Turks. The indigenous Hittites were probably first to build underground. In the fourteenth century b.c., retreating from Phrygian invaders, they made excavations, normally of no more than two levels. The next major wave of building was not until the fourth century a.d. Always strategically vital, fertile Cappadocia became a Roman province in a.d. 17, and its towns flourished under stable Roman rule. Within about 200 years it became a center of eastern Christianity and when the persecution reached its final peak around a.d. 305, the Christians withdrew to the mountain fastnesses, building secure subterranean places in which to live and worship. The peril passed with the Edict of Toleration (a.d. 313) but reemerged for different reasons under the excesses of iconoclasm (726–843), as well as the incursions of Arabs. The Christian response to renewed threats was to build rock-cut churches and monasteries, often adapting and extending much older underground houses. The Göreme Valley abounds with well-hidden churches and monastic buildings—the number has been estimated at 600 to 3,000—carved out of the soft tufa. Most were built in the tenth century. The Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert (a.d. 1071) and then spread over Anatolia. They were followed in the fourteenth century by the Muslim Ottoman Turks. None of these changes put the Christian communities of Anatolia under threat, but by then rock-hewn architecture had become an established cultural expression.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a Jesuit named Guillaume de Jerphanion began a long study
of the well-preserved wall paintings that adorned many of the churches. International interest in Cappadocia was awakened when he published his research in 1925, but the great underground cities were not discovered until the 1960s. Two of the largest so far unearthed are Derinkuyu, located in 1963, and Kaymakli, 6 miles (10 kilometers) to the south, a year later. They were once joined by a well-ventilated tunnel, almost certainly wide enough to allow three people to walk abreast.
Derinkuyu, probably dating from the eighth century and capable of housing a population of between 10,000 and 20,000 inhabitants, was built around a 280-foot-deep (84-meter) main air shaft. The ventilation system had at least fifty smaller vertical vents linked by narrow horizontal corridors. This network formed a multistory building “frame,” so to speak, and rooms—very comfortable living spaces, community kitchens, meeting rooms, chapels, stores, and even cemeteries—were cut to open from it. To date, eight levels have been excavated to a depth of 165 feet (55 meters), with twelve or more still buried. The top three levels appear to have been used as private and communal living quarters. Some scholars believe that each family unit had its own living room, bedroom, kitchen, toilet, and assorted storerooms. The lower levels housed storerooms and churches, and the lowest was a last resort of retreat in times of danger. It is possible that Derinkuyu was not permanently inhabited but served as a refuge at such times. Security was thus the main determinant in its planning: entrances were small and defensible, the ventilation outlets were carefully hidden, and there were several wells and a large cistern at the lowest level. Each section of the city could be isolated by large stone gates. Kaymakli was much the same, but only four of the eight levels remain accessible. The cities were last occupied during an Egyptian invasion in 1839.
Because of its unique geomorphic and cultural features, the entire region was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1985. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the underground cities, constructed as they are of soft tufa, are under threat from two main sources. Increasing tourism is exposing them to accidental and, sadly, deliberate damage. More significant, climatic changes are turning the once-fertile surrounding agricultural land to desert. As farmers leave, the ecology changes: rainwater, once absorbed by vegetation, now permeates the soil, damaging the subterranean structures. Although appropriate technology is available to at least reduce deterioration, the severity of the problem and the fragility of the stone limit its application to the fascinating underground cities of Cappadocia.