Amid the strange fairy chimney stacks of eroded rock that litter the landscape of Cappadocia in central Turkey, little more than an inkling suggests that a sprawling subterranean city lies under the arid ground beneath one’s feet.
For centuries, the inhabitants of the Anatolian plateau have been carving dwellings, monasteries, and troglodyte villages out of the local soft volcanic rock, conjuring what look like scenes from a Tolkien novel today. There’s plenty enough to stir imaginations aboveground, luring tourists to hike and hot-air balloon in Cappadocia; meanwhile, an underground world with hundreds of miles of chambers and passages rests unseen below.
Called Elengubu in ancient times, after its recent rediscovery this cavernous city borrowed the namesake of its overlying district, Derinkuyu, in Nevşehir province. Abandoned centuries ago, the intricate tunnel network of Derinkuyu once offered safety and concealment for those seeking refuge amid persecution.
Yet the city was—and still is—intertwined with stone structures and dwellings overland. After it was abandoned, and after fading from public knowledge in the early 20th century, Derinkuyu’s accidental rediscovery in 1963 was credited to a home renovation. According to locals, a Turkish man who was expanding his domicile tore down a wall only to discover an abysmal passageway that seemed to go on forever, which led to the underground city’s prompt excavation. This was the first of some 600 entry points found connecting Derinkuyu with structures above.
Gargantuan in size, Derinkuyu spans some 275 square miles (445 square kilometers), descending 279 feet (85 meters) underground with some 18 levels. Once a bustling sub-terrestrial city, Derinkuyu is beset with living quarters for some 20,000 inhabitants, stables for livestock, wine and oil presses, cellars, chapels, schools, wells, and other amenities. This made the underground metropolis a fully self-sustaining community whose inhabitants could sever themselves from an outside world that was often fraught with danger in times of invasion or occupation.