320 km south of Ankara and in the middle of the Central Anatolian desert, there is a peninsula of more than 800,000 square meters that is called Cappadocia Turkey, an excursion for a few days worth doing. This area has a strange and surprising natural beauty, original and unique in the world, which has been the origin of many myths and magical legends. But if its landscape is surprising, its subsoil is even more so. Beneath its picturesque troglodyte villages like Goreme, roads and crops there are what many have defined as “the largest underground battlefield in the world”, of course, its dozens of underground cities in Cappadocia and nowadays famous worldwide with Cappadocia hot air balloons. Originally started digging by the Hittites, considered one of the most advanced people in the ancient world more than 4,000 years ago, cities span kilometers and have emerged unscathed from the bloody wars, struggles and conflicts that have always threatened to destroy them throughout the centuries occupied by different settlers. But why? Why build underground cities instead of on their surface? What did they fear?
For thousands of years this mysterious region was the battlefield of different invading empires, since its location in the middle of the Silk Road, the most important “highway” of antiquity made it highly coveted because whoever controlled Cappadocia controlled trade routes, and a percentage of all wealth transported. This route stretched over 11,000 km and connected important empires such as China, India and Egypt in the east and Greece and Rome in the west. Precisely because of this privileged situation it was so dangerous for its inhabitants. Romans, Persians and Mongols fought to control it, in addition the continuous tribal wars turned the region into a very dangerous area whose cities were continually decimated. Living underground was an ingenious solution to a constant threat, an adaptation to the environment of its inhabitants in the face of the long and warlike history of Cappadocia. These cities, of which 250 kms have been excavated, were built to protect their inhabitants from attacks by some of the most powerful empires on earth. Hidden underground are remnants of a mysterious pagan empire as well as a multitude of lost cities and defensive fortresses. The symbols of war have been buried for three millennia, and the great abundance of them means that practically in the basement of every human settlement that historically already existed in the remote past, there is an underground city that replicates it. But its construction was not easy. Drilling the terrain was possible due to the characteristics of the soft rock, the tuff, so abundant in the area due to the various volcanic eruptions of three volcanoes. First they were simple stone shelters that evolved as threats on the surface grew into cities up to eight stories deep! They could accommodate up to 20,000 people. And so it was until the 14th century. When the Ottoman Empire stabilized the region and prosperity came, these underground cities were losing their reason for being and were sealing and forgetting. In 1960 the settlers began to explore the tunnels that were under their houses since they had heard the stories of their ancestors, without being able to imagine the dimensions of what was under their feet. Currently there are about 200 cities excavated with an area of 250 square kilometers, many of them intact. As the Hittites previously pointed out, they were the first builders, reigning from 1795 to 1190 BC, and it is believed that they were the first inhabitants of the region to live underground. The Hittites thrived in this region for more than 500 years, but felt threatened by what they call “the people of the sea.” They disappeared without a trace in the 12th century BC, and quite possibly Cappadocia’s underworld was their last refuge. They bequeathed numerous hand-dug underground caverns that would be of great use to another persecuted group that came to their cities in the 1st century fleeing from the Romans: the Christians.
In the IV century Constantine recognized Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Christians, who lived underground underground, were able to emerge without fear to the surface. However, they continued to develop these cities. In Goreme Turkey, which was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1985, a Christian bulwark hidden from the eyes of the world was created. As I mentioned in a previous post, the monasteries and churches of Goremme were firstly the refuge of monks and ascetics from Syria and Egypt fleeing from Roman persecution, and later from Arab and Persian raids.
It is considered the first monastery in the Christian world with two hundred churches inside its caves. Following the idea spread by Saint Basil, he led a solitary, communal and austere life here. A self-sufficient community of monks was created that lived here until the Ottomans arrived and laid the foundations for what we now know as monastic life. Among the hundreds of churches and dwellings in the area, the Church of the Serpent stands out, a Christian catacomb. It still stands by the multitude of load-bearing walls of its construction. Decorated with more primitive frescoes and more elaborate ones, they perfectly show the progress of Christian artists. The Dark Church is spectacular, with the same architectural design as a cathedral and decorated with detailed frescoes based on the life of Jesus. The frescoes told the stories of the Bible for a largely illiterate audience, which is why they were so important.
Ozkonak is the third largest excavated city in Cappadocia with an area of 1,600 meters and two and a half floors. It was the old version of an air raid shelter with everything it could take to survive for months. Inhabitants quickly took shelter from excavated tunnels that connected their houses on the surface with the underground city so that when the invader arrived, they found the cities deserted. Inside there are dry wells where the water accumulated, or wet wells where the channeled water reached, which was essential. Also dozens of ventilation shafts and food reserves for months. The narrow tunnels and defensive traps served as protection by slowing the enemy advance since the fact that they entered one by one and hunched over made them very vulnerable. An effective defensive system that protected them was a large stone like a one-ton weight millstone that blocked access to the important rooms, locking the invading army between two stones. Thus tunnels were sealed. Furthermore, in some underground cities sound waves made it possible through conduits in the rock to give instructions. The barn used to be on the first floor, with its feeders. The inhabitants in the second. Derinkuyu had room for 10,000 people. Excavated in seven floors that reach forty meters deep, it is known that the Hittites before the Christians had already excavated and lived here, and we are talking about 1400 a.c. The troglodyte town of Uchisar is chaired by one of the oldest citadels in the world. Its 3,500-year-old and 150-meter-high rock castle was one of the three main citadels in the region, vital for the protection and defense of its inhabitants. And therefore the entire valley is crossed by caves, tunnels, rooms and passageways as if it were a hive. Agirnas sits atop another five-story underground city that stretches for 6 kilometers. Here the famous architect Mimar Sinán was born in 1489, who seems to have taken note of the characteristics of these buildings to adapt them to his own. Architectural elements such as the simple but ingenious triple arch system already existed in this city before he applied it to its beautiful buildings. What could be the largest and most sophisticated city in the region is currently being excavated and located in Gaziemir. It is a caravanserai or rest area for the 800-year-old Silk Road merchants. The town was strategically located and travelers from all over the world in search of livelihood and security paid a good price for it. In its 4,500 square meters there is a place for stables, fountains, bathrooms, dining rooms and rooms, saddlers … etc. All this ensured comfort on a very dangerous route. Thieves, Turkish-Muslims who fought against a weakened Roman empire attacking the whole world and also Mongol invasions. The underground cities preserve the dark and mysterious past of this land of legends and resist falling back into oblivion. Today, like their ancestors, the caves are reused again, although this time as tourist hotels.