Violent gusts whipped loose soil into the air as I hiked through Cappadocia’s Love Valley. Pink- and yellow-hued hillsides coloured the rolling landscape scarred with deep red canyons, and chimneystack rock formations loomed in the distance. It was arid, hot, windy and devastatingly beautiful. Millennia ago, this volatile, volcanic environment naturally sculpted the spires surrounding me into their conical, mushroom-capped shapes, which now draw millions of visitors to hike or hot-air balloon in the central Turkish region.
But beneath Cappadocia’s crumbling surface, a marvel of equally gargantuan proportions lay hidden away for centuries; a subterranean city that could conceal the whereabouts of up to 20,000 inhabitants 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 was in near-constant use for thousands of years, changing hands from 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 faced defeat during the Greco-Turkish war and fled abruptly en masse to Greece. Not only do its cave-like rooms stretch on for hundreds of miles, but it’s thought the more than 200 small, separate underground cities that have also been discovered in the region 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. While renovating his home, the poultry would disappear into a small crevasse created during the remodel, never to be seen again. Upon closer investigation and some digging, the Turk unearthed a dark passageway. It was the first of more than 600 entrances found within private homes leading to the subterrestrial city of Derinkuyu.
Excavation began immediately, revealing a tangled network of underground dwellings, dry food storage, cattle stables, schools, wineries and even a chapel. It was an entire civilisation tucked safely underground. The cave city was soon spelunked by thousands of Türkiye’s least claustrophobic tourists and, in 1985, the region was added to the Unesco World Heritage list.