Our guide points to a crescent-shaped nook that’s been carved out of the rock with an entry and an exit for people to walk through.
“The idea is that they could enter through one point of the passageway and come out through the other end…,” I hear our guide explain, not really understanding what the residents who lived here thousands of years ago used this passageway for. Still, our group of about twenty lines up to enter and exit as instructed.
I’m within the tight walls of the nook with my brother Aaron in front of me, Jave behind me, and several people both in front of and behind us. Standing upright is not an option within the walls, and sharing the space with so many people means that ventilation is poor.
The only thing that consoles my claustrophobia is the light streaming through the exit about six feet and four people ahead. And just as I start to feel a sense of relief, panic ensues when the person who’s exiting decides to have someone photograph her exit. Even if only for a few more seconds, we’re stuck inside the walls of this passageway, and I don’t like it at all.
“Let’s keep it moving,” I say quietly under my breath as panic begins to rise in my chest. A few moments later, we’re able to inch our way out and back into the light. And though we now have room to move and breathe, it dawns on me that we’re still over 100 feet underground in Derinkuyu – one of Cappadocia’s many underground cities which at one time housed residents at a depth of 280 feet beneath the earth’s surface.
Christian persecution was a huge problem in ancient Turkey, and early Christians tried to escape from their persecutors by carving their homes and churches into caves or by resorting to life underground. Our guide explained that the enemies of these early Christians would sometimes make their way into the city, but the residents were prepared with booby traps like this so that when trespassers ran over them, they fell right in…
Like other underground cities, Derinkuyu is quite sophisticated with about 8 levels (not all of which are accessible to the public), 600 hidden doors leading to the city with access points in the courtyards of homes above the ground, and at least 15,000 vents that provide fresh air to flow deep below. At its height, it’s believed that Derinkuyu housed thousands of residents. Our guide explained that these underground dwellers even brought their horses and livestock with them as the city housed a stable. Derinkuyu had everything else its residents needed to live for long periods underground including a church, kitchens, meeting halls, water wells, wine and oil presses, a school, and even a cemetery. Although we could see the eerie path leading to the cemetery, it’s fortunately been blocked off from public access.
As we start to make our way out of Derinkuyu, not wanting to be discouraged by the many stairs ahead, I instead focus on the steps immediately in front of me. Some people pause for a breather as they step to the side to allow others to pass. I can sense relief amongst our group once we finally make our way out of the door that we entered and back into the light of day.
As our eyes readjust to the sunlight, we take in the surrounding neighborhood which is somewhat quiet and underdeveloped. Still, we can’t help but notice the contrast between the town of Derinkuyu as it is today and the remnants of the city still standing deep beneath the ground we walk on.