Derinkuyu is one of many underground cities in Cappadocia, but is the deepest excavated at 250 feet. Incredibly it can contain 20,000 people. This multi-level warren of labyrinths and living spaces carved out of soft yet stable volcanic rock is testimony to fleeting civilizations. When you explore, keep in mind the cross-section below as you’ll see identifiable features of daily life. But be warned of crowds at peak season.
I decided to visit Cappadocia off season to avoid infamously long lines and crowds – I can’t imagine how claustrophobic the height of September rush would be. You have to crouch in many passageways and steep staircases between levels, with room for people heading in one direction at a time. In early April, I ran into only a dozen people and could fully explore all the accessible levels of the deserted city in an hour. I’m overcome by awe in silent, cool, sterile tunnels, lit by sickly yellow lights.
Nothing organic remains of the hundreds of families who lived here over 3,000 years ago. But indications of daily life are everywhere chiseled in stone.
Derinkuyu Underground City has 18 levels – only eight accessible – of bedrooms, bathrooms, food and weapons storage spaces, stable and pens, oil and wine presses. There are also churches, communal halls, schools and tombs. Over fifty ventilation shafts with thousands of smaller arteries distributed air throughout the entire city. Derinkuyu’s complex well water system ensured it was protected from sieges and the risk of poisoning at the sruface. It’s clear the city was built as a refuge an is loaded with defensive features. Each level connects to the next via a passage or steep stairway, originally were protected by stone doors. Narrow passages forced any invader to attack single file, some were dead end to confuse enemies.
The scale is mind blowing, the large community not only herded livestock – goats, sheep, cattle – they even making wine underground. Just who were these incredible people survived and thrived here?
(Below left – food storage area, right – wine making chamber)
The city was established either over 3,200 years ago by the Hittites or 2,800 years ago by the Phrygians, according to scholars. It served as refuge from the millenia of tribal warfare, invasion and conquests of the Anatolia region, a rich trading hub between the continents. Hattians, in 2,300 BC, and later Hittites traded with Assyrians in the region; then in 17 CE, the Romans conquered conquered Cappadocia, establishing a province under Emperor Tiberius.
It was during the beginnings of Christianity that Christian colonies fled to Cappadocia. The underground cities were their safe havens from Roman persecution. And in the 7th century from Muslims and Persians. Greek Christians arrived around this time, sheltered in Derinkuyu until early 1900s when Turks massacred hundreds of thousands of Greeks, and forced the rest back to Greece. And the last major community had to finally abandoned this ancient refuge.
Below left – Gathering hall; right – One of many vents airing the whole city
- Wear good shoes – the place is massive and rock floors unforgiving. It’s slightly chilly but temp remains stable at 55F year round so bring a light jacket. Note – no bathroom facilities underground!
- You can skip Kaymakli as I did, once you’ve explored this grandaddy of underground cities. Archaeologists believe a 70km tunnel connects both cities.
- To get here by bus – Nevsehir is the only large town with a direct bus (about 45 minutes, last stop) to Derinkuyu which is one of the most southern points in the tourist map. Transiting from other towns Uchisar/Goreme will add at least another 2 hours.
- Tip – If it’s peak season, booking a tour to get there will save transit time, as public or mini buses are not well-scheduled. But you will arrive when its most crowded. Or get a driver with car for a day (I negotiated for 100 Euros) and do a full day’s tour of Ilhara Valley, Belisirma Village, Guzelyurt. Driving time – Uchisar-Derinkuyu 30 min; Goreme – 35 min;
- Tip – Hiring a tourguide at the entrance (which wasn’t available when I visited) will really enhance the experience but you don’t have to spend more than an hour here.