Going underground


On a plateau in central Turkey, local people have dug a remarkable series of troglodyte dwellings and underground cities.

It was between the eight and tenth centuries when Arab incursions washed across the Near East like a series of tsunamis. Fearing the worst, people in Cappadocia, a region in central Turkey, fled down into caves and tunnels that had been excavated and developed for decades. They were underground cities; complexes large enough to house the population of several villages. Even animals were taken under shelter. Only when the raids were over did people resurface in safety.

The remains visible today are of remarkable beauty, with UNESCO listing the site in 1985. Thousands of years ago, volcanic eruptions drowned this area in a layer of volcanic tuff tens of metres thick. Over time, wind and rain gradually eroded the soft tuff, leaving only the hardened elements behind. The result was a landscape of dome-shaped chimneys; pillars, columns and towers stretching up to 40 metres.


Nature had done its part. Now humans were to make their contribution. With Monastic communities settling in the fourth century, excavated dwellings started to emerge in the sixth and seventh centuries. They later developed into underground cities. And with good reason. “Cappadocia had a very difficult period between the eight and tenth centuries because of the Arab incursions,” says Tolga Uyar, of the University of Paris. “The only thing we are sure about is that these towns were largely used during the incursions of this period.”

The cities were vast, protective and sophisticated. “The tunnels could be blocked with huge rolling stones, and things like that,” says Uyar. “This whole system was developed and constructed over several decades. Some of them were big enough to host the whole populations of small villages.”

Once people had hidden, the cities were designed to provide long-term shelter. They included residences, places for food storage and rooms reserved for religious worship. “We suspect these cities were used for longer periods,” says Uyar. “The incursions may have taken place for something like two or three weeks. These places were there just in case of emergencies; they were not regularly used. It wouldn’t have been healthy to live there.”


After the storms were over, the complexes declined to be used. “Before and after, some parts of these settlements may have been used by the locals in any case of security problems,” adds Uyar. But that was that. Some were filled with earth and rainwater at the lower levels, before being re-excavated. Today people no longer live in the dwellings. Rather, the site is reserved for researchers and tourists.

The region’s most famous area – the Göreme Valley – is now declared an open-air museum. But as with all historic sites, conduct matters. Uyar says touristic overexploitation is a serious threat to Cappadocia’s heritage. He laments the constructions raised, the use of 4WD vehicles and horseback trips. The most damaging is the popular hot-air balloon culture, which demands large supplementary crews and extensive logistical facilities. “They are absolutely destroying the region,” he says. “They don’t respect the environment.” So if you do decide to visit, remember to stick to your walking shoes.


Photos: Boris Stroujko, Prometheus72, SELAHATTIN GONULATES [all via].

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