Cappadocia Has a Basement

In 1963, a man knocked down a wall in his basement and discovered a massive underground city from the 8th century BC. At least that’s the story we were told when we decided to test our claustrophobic threshold and venture into Cappadocia’s underbelly to explore two of these gargantuan subterranean cities. 


Our battle plan was to visit Derinkuyu and Kaymakli on two separate mornings so we could arrive at each of them right when they opened. We figured the crowds would be minimal at this time and this plan was spot on.


Years ago we clambered our way into the center of the Great Pyramid of Giza and got stuck inside waiting for the tide of people to flow back in the direction of the exit. This was when I realized being trapped in small spaces is not my jam. So this time we had a plan and arrived at 8am just as they opened–a bit of brilliant claustrophobic trade craft right there. We wandered and crawled and climbed and scuttled our way through the labyrinth below without much traffic. 


This network of underground homes is gargantuan—housing perhaps 20,000 people at depths that reach a gobsmacking 280 feet below the rock formations at the surface. Some locals claim there are as many as 200 of these cities, in various sizes, beneath Cappadocia’s sweeping valley floor. The labyrinth of rooms, churches, and ventilation shafts is a mind-blowing.  


On the second morning, however, while visiting Kaymalki, we lingered there longer than we should have and our empty tunnels began to clog with people. High above us in the parking lot, a giant bus had pulled in and belched out a throng of tourists that began to back up the passageways like a bad case of heartburn. In one particular stairway shaft, our only escape route back up and out to a higher level was a formidable and very long tunnel upwards that could only handle one-way traffic. Unfortunately we were at the bottom when a stream of tourists began to descend like a river, dregs of humans poured into the cave room we were in. This flow kept going and going and going. Soon the room filled with people and a slight hint of claustrophobia began to rise in my blood. We could not go up unless the flow of people stopped and the cave room was almost at its max. Mark was handling it all with the calm and tranquility of a reassuring boat captain, however I was not.


When the flow of incoming traffic began to thin, I called up the shaft and told the people to stop—this doesn’t work very well when few of them speak English, so I followed it up with a look that meant ‘I’m about to lose it.’ My panic starting to rise I surged forward and crouched into the tunnel and managed to turn the tide upward. Following behind me was a small stampede of people who were also questioning their decision to come down so far and likely reaching for their Xanax. Halfway up the tiny narrow shaft, we met more people coming down—an impasse. The tunnel was just wide enough for one direction. The people coming down, still unaware of just how far into the belly of the beast this wormhole would take them, were still in full control of their emotional well being and therefore happy to backtrack and let us continue our ascent. 


I finally made it to the top and didn’t care that upon bursting out of the cave, my eyes were hit with a million shafts of blinding light. Who needed to see? I had made it and I was going to live.


About twenty minutes later, Captain Mark arrived back on the surface looking cool and calm like he’d lived his whole life as an ant in one of those plastic toy ant farms. Not a care in the world. 


Cappadocia’s underbelly is certainly something to see. But as for me and my cave house, I prefer the ones lodged in the vulnerable places above ground. I’ll take a hostile raid any day.


Meaning “deep well,” this is the largest of the underground cities and by far the most popular to visit. Eight levels of tunnels, homes, churches, and air shafts that was home to 20,000 people. Derinkuyu has a stable and winepress inside, and of course a church. This church, I decided, is where I would have spent most of the time, had I lived down there, praying we could live up on the surface in a normal cave home.

Our friend Marcel making his way through cave city.


There are likely eight levels of tunnels in Kaymakli as well, and it feels remarkable different from Derinkuyu with a few rooms that feel open and expansive—though these were mainly for churches or cattle.

The way down to them is through small burrowed shaft you have to crouch down to walk though.  The photo below is what I call “Caustrophobia Alley” 

and it descends four or five stories (I lost count) down to the big chamber photographed above. The big chamber actually looks and feels quite roomy doesn’t it? And it is–right up until if fills with several bus loads of people and becomes something like a mosh pit.


And if you want to get out of this room, you’re gonna have to wait for the stream of humans to hit its max capacity until it has no other option left but to throttle back upwards. 

There’s an interesting NETFLIX series called,


Ancient Apocalypse

-Episode #7 “Fatal Winter”


Graham Hancock has a fascinating take on the purpose of these underground cities and show an excellent 3D illustrated cross section of the tunnels.

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