Land of the lost cities
Words: Daniel S. Bahrami
Photos: Nikolaj Thaning Rentzmann
Cappadocia in Turkey is a kaleidoscopic collision of nature and culture. It is a combination of a bizarre fairytale-like landscape with intricate underground cities. This ancient population’s grasp of engineering, mathematics and physics is far beyond our comprehension, and serves as evidence of their ability to adapt to barren surroundings. Several millennia later, modern engineers are looking to this tribe in order to learn more about how to survive in the future.
In the middle of Turkey, only half a day’s drive from the seaside resort cities of the south, and four hours from the eccentric metropolis of the country’s capital, Ankara, you’ll find the picturesque area of Cappadocia. Spanning around 10.000 hectares of land, it is almost like time has stood still, and the seemingly endless rock formations and barren landscape bear testament to the great powers of Mother Nature and her elemental forces.
The geologic formations of Cappadocia are thought to date back almost 10 million years. It is said that three giant volcanoes constantly erupted and covered the vast land in tuff - a raw material formed by compressing volcanic ashes and dust over hundreds of thousands of years. The multi dimensional valleys and mountains are made from natural erosion caused by the elements. Heavy rains, furious winds and shattering earthquakes delicately shaped this soft rock material into beautifully sculpted pieces of naturally made art, that silently tell the story of the days of yesteryear.
Those areas where the soft tuff is covered by the harder volcanic basalt rock can often endure these erosions and stand the test of time. The most famous results of these rock plateaus are the conically shaped formations named the fairy chimneys. Although these fairy chimneys stood unaltered for several millennia, they would later serve a much more important purpose than that of turning this empty field into an otherworldly moonscape.
The area has always been surrounded by mysterious activity, from claims of magnetic fields that locals have sworn had healing powers, to a rich history of UFO sightings dating back thousands of years. Cappadocia’s historical location along the infamous Silk Route - a passage used for centuries to transport goods across the continents also aids in telling the tale of our world’s history. This lucrative position meant that different empires - the Hittites, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Ottomans - all fought for this land. This was because whomsoever controlled Cappadocia subsequently controlled the trade routes and was guaranteed parts of all the riches that would cross these borders, making Cappadocia a violently dangerous place for anyone to call home.
The pagan population who first inhabited these dramatic surroundings often found themselves greatly outnumbered and immensely inferior in weaponry, so to ensure their survival, they had to adapt to the circumstances, and defend themselves by creating a new underground world. The moldable tufa rock that covered this burnt landscape was easy to carve into, while the sturdier layer of basalt was the perfect means of protection.
It began with simple carvings to shelter them from the harshest weather conditions, but like that of an iceberg, only a fraction of this engineering would be visible to the human eye at first glance. These simple and seemingly primitive caves that the ancient people of Cappadocia would superficially carve, would act as portals into intricate networks of tunnels, far beyond what we thought was humanly possible at the time. These tunnels would, with time, turn into a massive network of underground cities and fortresses, some of which were capable of sustaining up to 20,000 people - and did so for almost 2,500 years up until the 1300’s. During these times the inhabitants were dependent on their mole-like environments, but when the Ottoman Empire stabilized their position, they started to thrive in open villages above ground and many of these underground labyrinths were sealed off and forgotten.
Modern day archeology
It wasn’t until the 1960’s when locals, based on urban legends being passed down for generations, unfolding the stories of their ancestors’ subterranean homes, started exploring these closed off tunnels beneath their homes. No one could imagine just how elaborate and massive they were. It was like civilization had finally found the secret underwater city of Atlantis only carved in stone - and far more complex and impressive.
Today over 200 intact cities have been discovered underneath Cappadocia, including one found in 2014 that some experts say dates back an astonishing 5,000 years, although this has yet to be proven. This city was 11 levels deep, had over 600 entrances and 7 kilometers of tunnel, as well as hidden churches, galleries, kitchens, bathrooms, ventilation shafts and more. But even this can be surpassed in greatness as experts believe in the potential existence of hundreds more to be found in the area.
Exploring these cities has left historians, archeologists, and scientists in awe of the complex knowledge it took to build these. Hittites, along with Egyptians and Mayans, are considered some of the most advanced primitive civilizations whose mathematical and engineering feats have remained impossible to explain even for the brightest minds in their fields. The intricacy and inexplicability of these cities almost make one wonder if the Hittites somehow successfully explored the all too similar and innate complexities of ant colonies.
However, not only do the tunnels leave us in wonderment of the Cappadocians. Underground water wells, ventilations shafts and air tunnels were key elements to their survival, but as the dangers outside grew, Cappadocians were forced deeper and deeper into the ground. This led them to create booby traps in case intruders found a way in. Narrow halls with low ceilings meant enemies could only enter in single file formation. Small openings in the ceiling, allowed spears to be thrust down, striking the enemies in the head from above. Gigantic round stones, weighing up to two tons, allowed defensive groups to easily roll the stone in front of the narrow openings, blocking the way for enemy troops. Because the stone was heavy and could only be rolled from one side, it was impossible for attackers to enter. Most impressive was last line of defense. An enormous empty room with strategically placed holes in both walls and ceiling, so the acoustic would allow sound waves to travel several levels up. Standing in an exact place it would only take a whisper for the information to reach its target. This allowed Cappadocians to instruct and inform each other without the enemy realizing. The battles fought here were a resourceful demonstration of power. Unfortunately it didn’t last. Around 1200BC the mighty Hittites disappeared, leaving these amazing tunnels to be taken over by other civilizations in centuries to come.
A post modern adaptation of Cappadocia
Now, in an ironic twist of fate, humans are once again adapting to this beautiful Turkish solitary. As opposed to our ancestors who carved their ways deep into the tunnels seeking protection from their nemeses, the modern civilization is now using these exact same quarters for something quite different. Today several boutique hotels and bed & breakfasts are offering souls imbued by wanderlust the opportunity to avoid the run of the mill and unimpressive travel accommodation and instead bunk up in one of these ancient sanctuaries. The surrounding area still offers standard hotel housing, as well as touristy merchandise shops selling local gadgets akin to that of the typical tourist capitals of the world. All whilst a stone’s throw away, local villagers still live a primitive life disconnected from the luxury resorts.
It is peculiar to think, that this adaptation was created to fulfill humans’ most basic needs for safety and survival - something that many of us today take for granted. Now, thousands of years later, the rooms are being used as a means for people to fulfill their need of self-actualization and transcendence, adding a more ironic twist to the history of Cappadocia. Where our ancestors once had to hide in the shadows in flocks of thousands, living off stored food and drinks, now many places have been replaced with the comfort of king-size beds, natural sunlight being admitted directly from windows, and gourmet food and drinks only a room service call away.
The possibility for us to even be able to still occupy these quarters is remarkable and shows just how incredibly innovative the Cappadocians were. Their way of adapting to unendurable surroundings and creating a safe haven for generations to come is something we can only learn from. As our planets resources are tapping out, our brightest minds are starting to think generations ahead.
Although not a city as intricate as Cappadocia, Amsterdam has also been forced to think creatively in order to adapt to the changing environment. As a city noted for its many canals and cyclists, the many vehicles in town are a growing problem. For obvious reasons the ancient people who planned the construction of the city did not foresee the volume of cars to be a problem, leading the city to think of underground building in order to retain the idyllic charm of the city. These canals are actually a factor that could make this proposal possible, as it gives a direct access to a world below the surface, which could remove thousands of cars from the sidewalks. Likewise, Helsinki has already accomplished building a church, hockey rink, data center, swimming pool and shopping mall in the bedrock beneath the city. At present, officials in Helsinki aim to further increase the useable space underneath by creating a network of tunnels making it easier to travel underground from one place to another.
Overpopulation in the future
While these examples are more a means of convenience rather than of survival, overpopulation and deterioration of the world’s natural resources, also have some scientists thinking ahead in means of habitable underground spaces. Chicago is the third most populated city in the United States and especially here overpopulation has led to the city thinking if it is possible to create a totally habitable place for people to live. Although the project is still in the hypothetical phase, factors such as sunlight, self-sustainability, safety, engineering and air ventilation are amongst the biggest problems they are facing. Problems that Cappadocians overcame, in spite of how technologically inferior they were to us.
Another popular hypothesis in doomsday theory is whether or not colonies on Mars will be the way for us to ensure our survival in the future. Hundreds of movies and TV-shows set in the future deal with the theme of a dystopian world, forcing humans to seek refuge in realms outside of this world. Although often exaggerated for dramatic affect, it still begs the question if this could be the future of mankind. Once our oceans and natural resources have been polluted and exploited past the point of no return, will our only option be to learn to self-sustain on Mars? If this happens, it would be a plausible resolution for us to look no further than Cappadocia for inspiration to learn exactly how.
Thanks to Cappadocia expert Elvan Özbay for contributing to this story.