15 Astounding Photos Taken Inside The Lost Underground City Of Derinkuyu

Published December 1, 2017
Updated May 25, 2023

Step inside Turkey's underground city of Derinkuyu, which has sat hundreds of feet below the Earth's surface for centuries.

Derinkuyu tunnels
Rolling Stone Door
Light in Derinkuyu
Tunnelways In Derinkuyu
15 Astounding Photos Taken Inside The Lost Underground City Of Derinkuyu
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After billions of years of steady erosion, the region of Cappadocia looks more like a magical realm out of a fairy tale than central Turkey. Here, rocky hills and stone spires called "fairy chimneys" rise up out of the dusty plains of the Anatolian peninsula, while serpentine tunnels meander below. Most of those tunnels are natural — however, some are man-made.

In 1963, a Turkish man took out a wall in his basement while renovating his house in Cappadocia and was surprised to find a whole other room behind it. Further digging revealed a labyrinthine network of rooms several hundred feet below the Earth.

This was the underground city of Derinkuyu, carved into the same rock that grows in such mesmerizing shapes above ground.

Here's what you need to know about this fascinating ancient city.

The Origins Of The Underground City Of Derinkuyu

The discovery of the underground city of Derinkuyu was not the first such discovery in the region, nor was it the last. The area is known for its underground cities, of which Derinkuyu is the largest. The city extends 200 feet into the ground and encompasses 11 floors, which is enough to shelter 20,000 people.

While only 2,000 square feet of Derinkuyu has been discovered so far, the Cappadocia tourism website says that it might extend to as much as 7,000 square feet.

According to Ancient Origins, the origin and purpose of the underground city were unknown. Estimates from the Turkish Department of Culture place the construction of the city to around 2,800 years by a group of people known as the Phrygians, an Indo-European people from the Iron Age who were notable for their skills as architects.

Derinkuyu upstairs

Annie Lambla/FlickrThe Underground City of Derinkuyu was carved into soft volcanic rock, and it is multilayered, allowing for up to 20,000 people to live within its caverns.

As Andrea De Giorgi, an associate professor of classical studies at Florida State University, explained to the BBC, "The Phrygians were one of Anatolia's most prominent early empires. They developed across western Anatolia around the end of the first millennium B.C.E. and had a bent for monumentalizing rock formations and creating remarkable rock-cut facades. Though elusive, their kingdom spread to include most of western and central Anatolia, including the area of Derinkuyu."

But although the Phrygians may have built the city initially, it was later expanded and inhabited by the Cappodocians during the Byzantine era, likely by Christians who were avoiding religious persecution.

Churches on the lower floors of Derinkuyu support this theory. In fact, the city and its tunnels were used for a similar purpose as recently as the 20th century, when those avoiding persecution from the Ottoman Empire may have once again hidden beneath the Earth's surface.

There are, of course, alternative theories regarding Derinkuyu's origins. Some historians have hypothesized that the city was actually built by Anatolian Hittites in the 15th century B.C.E. as a way of escaping their enemies. Others have suggested that the caves were formed at the same time as the mysterious Göbekli Tepe, during the Younger Dryas Event around 14,500 years ago.

This theory suggests that when a comet broke apart within Earth's atmosphere, the dust and soot it expelled blocked out the sun for months, leading the world into an Ice Age. Therefore, ancient humans began living underground to avoid the frigid climate above.

Another theory, perhaps unsurprisingly, attributes the creation of the underground city to aliens. In short, either aliens built, then abandoned, the underground cities, or humans created them to hide from invading aliens.

These latter theories are generally not accepted by the larger scientific community, however.

Life In The Underground City Of Derinkuyu

Underground, Cappadocians lived lives as fulfilling as those they'd led above. Derinkuyu was fitted with wine and oil presses, stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories, and chapels. They even reportedly had religious schools and studies for students. On the bottom most level was a cruciform church carved directly into the rock. All the while, a 180-foot ventilation shaft provided both oxygen and water to those living below.

Long Tunnel In Derinkuyu

Joe Wallace/FlickrOne of the many long shafts used to disperse fresh air and water throughout Derinkuyu.

Each level of the city was meticulously engineered for a specific use. On the upper levels, the Cappadocians kept livestock to avoid the toxic gases and smell produced by cattle as much as possible. The livestock also served as a layer of living insulation, helping to keep the city warm in the cold months.

The inner layers of the city held numerous amenities, including homes, cellars, schools, social areas, and even a winery. Derinkuyu was not used as a temporary shelter — those who dwelled within its caverns were prepared to spend months, or even years, inside.

But the city was not without its faults. Being underground naturally made it difficult to grow crops, and the lack of any sort of plumbing system meant that most of Derinkuyu's inhabitants had to relieve themselves in clay pots.

Derinkuyu also served a strategic, defensive purpose, though. The narrow hallways made it difficult for invaders to march in formation, and heavy stone doors could easily be used by inhabitants to block off passageways. The dim lighting would have made it difficult for invaders to see, while those living in the underground city would have been more acquainted with its darkness.

These advantages are likely what led the ancient Phrygians underground in the first place, only to later be replaced by the Persians and the Christians of the Byzantine Era.

Then, in 1909, the massacre of 30,000 Christian Armenians in the city of Adana drove the Cappadocian Greeks underground yet again. In 1923, most of the Cappadocian Greeks were expelled from the region in a population exchange between Greece and Turkey, an attempt to purge both countries of their respective religious minorities.

Afterward, Derinkuyu sat undisturbed until 1963, when the astounding underground city of central Turkey was rediscovered and finally brought into the light.

After this look at Derinkuyu, see the otherworldly beauty of Cappadocia and Socotra. Then, have a look at Nevada's most astounding geyser.

All That's Interesting
All That's Interesting is a Brooklyn-based digital publisher that seeks out stories that illuminate the past, present, and future.