Heavy gusts kicked loose dirt into the air as I walked through the Love Valley in Cappadocia. Pink and yellow hued hillsides colored the rolling landscape marked by deep red canyons, and rock formations of chimneys loomed in the distance. It was arid, hot, windy and devastatingly beautiful. Millennia ago, this volatile, volcanic environment naturally sculpted the spiers that surround me into their conical mushroom shapes, which now attract millions of visitors to hike or ride hot air balloons in the central region of the Turkey.
But beneath the crumbling surface of Cappadocia, a marvel of equally gargantuan proportions had been hiding for centuries; an underground city that could conceal up to 20,000 residents for months at a time.
The ancient city of Elengubu, known today as Derinkuyu, burrows more than 85m below the Earth’s surface, encompassing 18 levels of tunnels. The largest excavated underground city in the world, it has been in almost constant use for thousands of years, passing from the hands of the Phrygians to the Persians to the Christians of the Byzantine era. It was finally abandoned in the 1920s by the Cappadocian Greeks when they were defeated in the Greco-Turkish War and abruptly fled en masse to Greece. Not only do its cave-like halls stretch for hundreds of miles, but it is believed that more than 200 separate small underground cities that have also been discovered in the area may be connected to these tunnels, creating a massive subterranean network.
According to my guide, Suleman, Derinkuyu was only “rediscovered” in 1963 by an anonymous local who kept losing his chickens. During the renovation of his house, the fowl would disappear into a small crevice created during the renovation, never to be seen again. After further investigation and some digging, the Turk unearthed a dark passage. It was the first of over 600 entrances found in private homes leading to the underground city of Derinkuyu.
Excavations began immediately, revealing a tangled web of underground dwellings, dry food storage, cattle sheds, schools, cellars and even a chapel. It was a whole civilization hidden safely underground. The cave town was quickly overrun by thousands of Türkiye’s less claustrophobic tourists, and in 1985 the area was added to the Unesco World Heritage List.