When the invaders came, Cappadocians knew where to hide: underground, in one of the 250 subterranean safe havens they had carved from pliable volcanic ash rock called tuff.
Now a housing construction project may have unearthed the biggest hiding place ever found in Cappadocia, a region of central Turkey famous for the otherworldly chimney houses, cave churches, and underground cities its residents carved for millennia.
Discovered beneath a Byzantine-era hilltop castle in Nevşehir, the provincial capital, the site dates back at least to early Byzantine times. It is still largely unexplored, but initial studies suggest its size and features may rival those of Derinkuyu, the largest excavated underground city in Cappadocia, which could house 20,000 people.
By Jennifer Pinkowski
First published in National Geographic, March 26, 2015
In 2013, construction workers demolishing low-income homes ringing the castle discovered entrances to a network of rooms and tunnels. The city halted the housing project, called in archaeologists and geophysicists, and began investigating.
A 300-year-old paper trail between the local government and Ottoman officials suggested where to begin. “We found documents stating that there were close to 30 major water tunnels in this region,” says Nevşehir mayor Hasan Ünver.
In 2014, those tunnels led scientists to discover a multilevel settlement of living spaces, kitchens, wineries, chapels, staircases, and bezirhane—linseed presses for producing lamp oil to light the underground city. Artifacts including grindstones, stone crosses, and ceramics indicate the city was in use from the Byzantine era through the Ottoman conquest.
Like Derinkuyu, the site appears to have been a large, self-sustaining complex with air shafts and water channels. When danger loomed, Cappadocians retreated underground, blocked the access tunnels with round stone doors, and sealed themselves in with livestock and supplies until the threat passed.