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Middle East Andrew Dispatch

Welcome to the Underground (Turkish Style)
March 4, 2000


My introduction to cave people began about twenty five years ago with Fred and Barney (you know, The Flintstones!) More recently my education was rounded out to include the underground cities and caves of Cappadocia, in Central Turkey.

Normally when I think of a caveman, I think of a large sloping forehead, a massive overbite, a lot of grunting, flea bitten skins for clothing, and fairly unexciting cuisine. That may well have been true once upon a time, but it was no Barney Rubble who constructed the impressive underground cities that sprawl beneath the earth in this interesting part of the planet. So who did? And why?

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Do you recognize this man?

No one is sure for how long, but the underground cities have been around for a long time. Our old friends the Hittites (you remember them from a few weeks ago, right? Rhymes with tick bites!) used the underground cities, as did the Romans and the Byzantines. At least, as best as we can guess, they all did. No one can be completely sure since there are no accurate records kept from those times concerning this area. Fast forwarding to the fourth century CE, it is fairly certain that some of the early Christians inhabited these underground labyrinths. Why were they there in the first place? What attracted them to the caves and the underground cities? For one thing, it was a good place to hide. And why should they need to hide? Well, early Christians did not enjoy the popularity and tolerance that they have today. Back then it was a fairly new religion, and there were a lot of people who were hostile towards them. Underground cities were an excellent place from which the early Christians could safely practice their religious obligations, far from the people who wished them harm. (The first book of the Bible, Genesis, has some stuff about Hittites and caves, around GEN 23:20, 49:30, 50:13.) There are several old tombs and churches inside these underground cities. In fact, the cities also have bedrooms, food storehouses, wine cellars, animal pens, and water reservoirs.

While the more namby-pamby Trekkers were in warmer regions, basking in the sun on the beach or enjoying night life in Istanbul, Monica and I were shivering, up to our knees in snow in this gloriously cold part of Anatolia. Our guide, Volcan, whose handsome face could grace the cover of any teenybopper magazine, is not himself a cave dweller, but he is from a long line of cave people. His parents were the first to make the leap from cave to apartment. Anyway, with his help, and with a few other wide eyed adventure seekers, we slipped down into one of the underground cities.

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It's similar to a hotel 8 floors deep...

Looking at the diagram of these strange dwellings, it seemed like the sort of home that ants create for themselves. But these would have to have been very large ants, since these caverns creep down more than 90 meters (about 295 feet)! Have I explained that these underground cities were not natural rock formations, but rather excavated by hand? Indeed, a lot of labor on the part of many people made these subterranean structures.

Now, digging an underground city is not as easy or as pleasurable as reading my dispatch, and a lot of the information is uncertain, but, we have a pretty good idea how the people carved out these cities. Get comfy while Uncle Andrew explains:

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Everything was excavated by hand

With cooperation between nature and human effort, Cappadocia is an ideal place to dig into the earth. The earth here is mostly volcanic tufa and lava. It is not so tough to dig out as one might think. In fact, it is very soft, and once it is dug out and exposed to air, it hardens even more. That makes it stable and allows for the eager beavers to dig down deeper. So, you have soft earth, which makes the digging not so difficult, and then you have a strong foundation from which to continue digging. Simple? Not quite.

An obvious problem in digging is the piles of dirt you end up with. Where do you put it? It seems that the hilly and mountainous area made it easy to hide the excess dirt. Hide, you ask? Yes, these cities were largely a secret for many years, and even when enemies found out that they existed, they still did not know exactly where they were.

And how do you breathe in one of those places? Well, from the very start of the digging it seems that they constructed airshafts in a very organized manner. These airshafts were also used to communicate from one level to another- basically, they shouted from one floor to the other through the central shafts.

Some of the underground cities have eight levels; can you imagine an eight-story building, completely underground, dug out from the earth, with no machines and only crude tools? It is pretty amazing. And some estimates say that over 10,000 people lived in them at once. That is a lot of people to have stuffed down a hole in the ground.

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This looks like fun?

Monica and I, along with the others, walked into the spacious and well-lit entrance hall of this particular underground city. It has light brown walls, a rounded roof and no furnishings. It was everything you would expect a human-made cave to be: dark, dreary, but somehow exciting and potentially a fun place to live, if they would install the Internet and a few other modern conveniences. But no heating is necessary. It is consistently slightly chilly, but comfy, in this place.

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Not built for tall people...

Wandering down the well-worn stone steps deeper into the cavernous quarters, we soon had to stoop and squeeze through the more narrow passages. Monica could walk upright through most of the tunnels, but I had to stoop a bit. A less vertically challenged person would have a tough time indeed navigating these tight tunnels. In fact, why did they make the tunnels so darn small? Were the people smaller or was there another reason?

Well, since we do not know who made them and when, we do not know how big they were. However, common sense tells us that there is an important reason that the tunnels were so snug. It is probable that whoever built these underground cities did so, among other reasons, for defense against enemies (since humans are always fighting with each other). So, if you have a narrow little passage through which an enemy is entering, even if there are more of them than you, only one can come through at a time, and they can be picked off one by one. Also, those passages can be blocked to prevent the enemy from getting in at all. Unfortunately, that also means that the enemy could block YOU into your little underground fort. But that is why there are so many secret entrances and exits to these cities; just in case one was discovered, it was blocked up, and another was used. These people copied the moles, rabbits, and ants.


Labyrinth - An intricate combination of passages
Subterranean - Existing or operating beneath the surface of the earth
Cavernous - Hollow or deep; full of small cavities
Tufa - Porous limestone rock

Where did they go to the bathroom? WellŠ I anticipate this question since it is one that people always ask of astronauts in zero gravity and people living in trees. In this case, it is suspected that people used chamberpots, which is basically a big bowl that is used for (you know) and later emptied elsewhere, hopefully above ground.

Is it odd that people made these places to live? Well, humans do strange things all the time. For example, humans make sweaters and hats for dogs, go to tanning salons, jump up and down on trampolines and eat cotton candy, all activities which I think are very, very weird. I even heard of one Trekker who lived up a tree. Now that is wacky. So, the fact that these people decided to dig down and get into the earth is not so bizarre. And think of how fun it would be to live in a place like that. Unfortunately, the underground cities and most of the caves are no longer lived in, and are mostly for tourists. But, I suppose that if you wanted to go out in your back yard and make your own subterranean world, you could begin your own new civilization. But please ask permission before you start digging.

- Andrew

p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Related links


Abeja - Walking on the Moon?
Jasmine - A Day at the Grand Bazaar
Kavitha - Istanbul's Beloved Jewel
Kavitha - Karina of Circassi Part III: In the Hotbed of Intrigue and Deceit
Monica- Troy Through the Eyes of a Thirteen-Year-Old
Jasmine - Black History Month continues...Dare To Dream!

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