The Cappadocia region of Turkey’s Central Anatolian highlands has long been treasured for its gorgeously alien geological formations and sinuous underground dwellings, but a new discovery in the Nevsehir Province may prove to be the crown jewel of the area’s archeological riches.
In 2013, the Turkish Housing Development Administration (TOKI) proceeded with the long-planned demolition of roughly 1,500 buildings as part of an urban renewal project. The structures surrounded the Byzantine-era Nevsehir fortress, a stone stronghold carved atop a conical-shaped hill. As workers shifted through piles of earth to prepare for new construction, they inadvertently uncovered a sprawling, serpentine network of underground tunnels and hand-carved chambers, which may date as far back as 5,000 years.
Hasan Unver, mayor of Nevsehir, applied to register the site immediately with the Cultural and Natural Heritage Preservation Board, and TOKI suspended the 90 million lira ($35 million) project.
“It is not a known underground city. Tunnel passages of seven kilometers are being discussed,” TOKI Head Mehmet Ergun Turan told reporters at the Hurriyet Daily News, the regional Turkish paper. “We stopped the construction we were planning to do on these areas when [the] underground city was discovered.”
The ancient region associated with Cappadocia was geographically bound by the Black Sea to the north, the Taurus mountains to the south, the Euphrates River to the east, and the Kizilirmak River to the west. The landscape itself is barren and hostile: a vast mirage of jagged stone spires and ravines formed by eons of volcanic activity and natural erosion by wind and water.
Today, Cappadocia is probably best known for its fairy chimneys, the seemingly magical stone pinnacles into which the resident troglodytes chiseled their churches and dwellings.
As a point of confluence for several major ancient highways, this inhospitable terrain played host to an entire prism of peoples that left indelible legacies in the political and cultural history of Anatolia. At one point or another, the stark lunar landscape bore the footprints of the Hattis, Hittites, Phrygians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, and Ottomans.
Cappadocia’s underground cities are believed to have been gouged as a means of escaping the frequent invasions of outside forces, though experts remain uncertain of who exactly began the excavations. Artifacts pulled from the region date the structures to the 15th century BC, yet the first written evidence of their existence doesn’t appear for another thousand years.
On the other hand, Christian use of these safe havens is very well documented. Inhabitants of the Nevsehir region were among the very first to adopt Christianity as their chief religion, at a time when polytheism still reigned throughout the Roman Empire. Some historians believe that the underground cities were likely defensively adapted with Roman invaders in mind, as evidenced by clever systems incorporated into the foundational architecture itself.
Understanding that Roman military tactics often relied upon movement in groups, the Cappadocians built narrow corridors that inhibited the passage of more than two to three individuals abreast at a time. This enabled guards to more easily pick off enemies as they progressed through the system of tunnels.
The underground labyrinth is also studded with dead-end chambers that functioned as death traps for opposing forces. Once invaders entered into the closed space, Cappadocians would seal the only entrance with an enormous round stone rolled out from a nook hidden in the wall. Holes bored in the ceiling allowed comrades to rain spears down onto the invaders from above.
Populations would have been able to survive for many months submerged in these stone sanctuaries. Vertical airshafts disguised as water wells plunge hundreds of feet deep, providing ventilation for the tens of thousands of people who would have lived in the subterranean refuge. Since the initial 2013 excavation, archaeologists have uncovered water channels, stables for livestock, wineries, kitchens, temples, tombs, and bezirhane, the linseed presses used to produce enough oil to fuel ongoing lamplight.
Özcan Çakir, a professor in the Geophysics Engineering department at the 18 March University near Gallipoli, suspects that inhabitants may have used the huge network of tunnels as a means of transporting and storing large amounts of grains and produce.
“We also estimate that one of the tunnels passes under Nevsehir and reaches a faraway water source,” he stated.
Through the use of geophysical resistivity and seismic tomography imaging, archaeologists estimate that the underground metropolis spans nearly five million square feet, or 460,000 square meters. That’s more extensive than every grand hall, corridor, and chamber of the Palace of Versailles, the Louvre, the Buckingham Palace, and the Palace of Madrid combined.
Assuming that these estimates prove to be accurate, the underground city at Cappadocia surpasses the largest-known underground city of Derinkuyu — which runs 18 stories deep and sheltered 20,000 inhabitants in times of need — by an entire third.
As for its future, Cappadocia’s underground city will remain untouched by the imposition of any housing complex, which TOKI agreed to relocate to nearby suburbs. Instead, the local government intends to open the ancient settlement to the public in the form of “the world’s largest antique park.” Art galleries and boutique hotels will keep visitors occupied aboveground, while walking trails and chapels will draw visitors below.
“This new discovery will be added as a new pearl, a new diamond, a new gold, to the historical wealth of the region,” Unver told National Geographic. “When the underground city beneath Nevsehir Castle is completely revealed, it is almost certain to change the destination of Cappadocia dramatically.”