Derinkuyu: Going Underground in Cappadocia

Derinkuyu: Going Underground in Cappadocia

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.

Aaron in front of me

“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.

A water well
Meeting hall
At church
Ancient writings on the wall

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.

The surrounding town of Derinkuyu
A minaret in the surrounding town of Derinkuyu



Have you experienced any of Cappadocia’s underground cities?

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  • You certainly got to see a lot of Cappadocia while you were there. Derinkuyu is our favourite underground city too, although at times, it does get quite stuffy exploring it

    • Dana Carmel

      I would love to check out some of the other underground cities the next time around now that I know to expect the onset of some minor claustrophobia. 😉

  • This is on my travel itinerary for February, but after seeing your pictures I am already having trouble breathing. I too have claustrophobia and suddenly second guessing my choice. Oh well, I have a few months to work up my courage…

    • Dana Carmel

      For the most part, the stairs leading deeper down into the city and the open spaces were perfectly fine. There was just one particular tunnel that we went through that made me feel a bit anxious. But overall, as long as you’re prepared to deal with a bunch of stairs, you should be fine. I hope you enjoy your trip!

  • Ooh, can’t wait to check that out when I visit Cappadocia. Tight spaces don’t bother me too much- I checked out some of the Vietnam War era tunnels and was fine (hooray for being short!), but Derinkuyu’s tunnels look a bit more cramped!

    • Dana Carmel

      Haha – I guess that being short has its advantages! For the most part, Derinkuyu isn’t cramped – but there are certain passageways that are kind of tight. You’re going to be fascinated when you explore it in person!

  • That looks pretty awesome! I’m heading there (Turkey) in the Fall and I’d love to check this place out.

    • Dana Carmel

      You definitely have to fit a visit to one of the underground cities in your itinerary, Jill. Being down there is so surreal!

  • This looks cosy! The only time I’ve been underground was in the Potosi mines in Bolivia and it was not a pleasant experience. An underground city is likely to be much safer though – and there’s plenty to see to take your mind off the claustrophobia!

    • Dana Carmel

      I guess that “cozy” is another way of looking at it. An underground mine sounds exciting but based on your experience it sounds like it may have been pretty claustrophobic as well!

  • What an amazing place! I too am not too good with tight spaces but would still go there just to see the marvelous work. They look like escape tunnels. The preparation to live underground is so amazing, given it was long time ago with less technological advancements (or did they have better technology?).

    • Dana Carmel

      I agree that Derinkuyu is fascinating. The fact that they moved their entire lives underground boggles my mind. It makes me wonder whether there are any present-day underground cities with people actually living in them.


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