One of the ancient peoples to settle in Turkey were the Hittites from Europe. They were attacked by invaders from Thrace around 1200 B.C. Those Hittites living in the area now known as Cappadocia literally took to the hills for refuge, but they also went underground because the rock was so soft that they could build and hide in caves from marauders. Many of these underground caves grew so large and interconnected that they formed complete underground villages. After the Hittite Empire fell, however, many of these complexes fell into disuse.

Over a millenia later, early Christian communities formed in the wake of the Apostle Paul’s evangelizing in the region, beginning around the end of the 1st and beginning of the 2nd centuries A.D. Although the area was then part of the Roman Empire, it was neglected by the Romans and the Christians prospered.

Between the rise of Muhammed and Islam and the time of the Crusades, that is, from the 7th to the 11th centuries A.D., Arab and Turk raiders plundered the Cappadocian steppe and the Christian settlers, like the Hittites before them, took to the hills and the underground refuges. Over time, they considerably enlarged and improved these underground complexes to such an extent that they had constructed complete underground cities. So far, more than 40 such settlements have been found.

Yesterday, we visited one of them, Kaymaklı, uncovered in 1964. As we passed through the entry, we were asked by a gentleman hanging around the turnstile if we would like a guide. We said yes, and Mustafa joined us for a tour of the five levels of this underground city that have been opened to the public (there are 3 more that are still closed).

We immediately headed down past the first level, which is where livestock were kept, to the area where grain and other dry foodstuffs were stored and milled. Here’s Mustafa explaining to Dale that the bins on the wall were used to store grain and the hole in the floor held a large clay jug containing either water or wine..

There were so many passageways and interconnecting tunnels that we would have never found our way out without a guide. In fact, that was the idea when the complex was built: to create a labyrinth so that intruders would get lost and could be killed from hidden defensive positions.

The third level included areas for the storage of grapes and the making of wine. Scattered throughout the 2nd, 3rd and 4th levels were numerous living quarters, some small for poorer families, but others quite large for the more wealthy. This one was for a “middle class” family; you can tell, in part, by the low ceiling. Mustafa said that as many as 3,000 people lived in this underground city for as long as six months at a time!

The people that lived here are believed to have only lived underground when they were under threat of attack by marauders; otherwise, they lived and farmed on the surface. But they were well prepared when threatened. Every living quarter had at least one emergency escape passage, like this one.

Each main passageway could be blocked from below by rolling large, circular stones like this one across the opening. These circular stones fit perfectly into the wall so that they could not be dislodged from above.

The rooms were built around a central shaft that was used for ventilation, for transport of waste to the surface and supplies from the surface, and, at the bottom, as a well. Handholds were cut into the rock to form ladders for descent or ascent; here’s a picture looking down in the direction that would have terminated in a well.

Mustafa described the complex as being so busy that there were people going in all directions, doing all sorts of things, all the time, like a giant ant hill. As I looked up at the levels above, I couldn’t think of a better metaphor.

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