Sunday, October 20, 2013

Turkey's underground cities

Once upon a time, some few million years ago, there was a lake in the region of Turkey now known as Cappadocia. As Africa collided with Europe, the resulting volcanoes spewed ash, lava and obsidian, and the lake filled with fine settling ash, culminating a couple of million years ago with a thin capping layer of basalt over the once watery lake. The ash consolidated into a 10,000 square km expanse of tuff with unusual properties. The tuff is soft when first dug into, but hardens to a concrete like consistency when exposed to air, and once humans appeared on the scene they started burrowing.

We have already covered the famous surface fairy towers (, but less well known is an ancient set of underground cities excavated deep into the rock at an unknown time around the dawn of civilisation. Extended by every community since, from the bronze age Hittites to early Christians, some of them have up to 18 explored levels, and large tracts of their extent remain unknown and unexcavated. The oldest galleries are rough hewn, and get more sophisticated the deeper one goes. Turkish archaeologists suspect their beginnings date from the Neolithic era, when early towns such as Catal Huyuk were centres of the obsidian trade around 8000 BCE. The earliest mention of them in literature was by Xenophon around 500 BCE.

The cities are well defended, with narrow low corridors and stairs between levels, that could be sealed off using tuff doors while boiling oil was poured down ventilation shafts onto prospective invaders below. The towns had all the necessary facilities, from schools and churches to breweries, wineries, bakeries and stables with fodder bins dug into the floor. Chimneys and ventilation shafts opened some way away in order to keep the location hidden. Communication shafts through which one could shout linked the levels.

Derinkuyu, found in 1965, is the largest of the 40 discovered so far, and housed an estimated 30,000 people. It is linked by a 10 km tunnel large enough for three to walk abreast to another underground city nearby. Many smaller villages have also been found, and who knows how many more remain to be discovered. The reason for dwelling underground are unknown, but could include danger from invaders and the harsh weather of the region.

Image credit: Easteighth on flikr.


Badlands National Park in South Dakota consists of approximately 243,000 acres of land. The Lakota people originally called the landforms that comprise the region “mako sika,” or “land bad.” This area has extreme temperature fluctuations and little water, so the name is certainly appropriate.

The Badlands was designated a national park in 1978. Prior to this, and as of 1939, the area was considered a national monument. This means that the area has significant items of scientific, historic, or prehistoric value. A national monument designation usually protects only one significant resource. The region does, in fact, possess rich fossil life; preserved organisms from the Oligocene epoch (some 23 to 35 million years old) are found here. With a national park designation, on the other hand, a larger area and many other significant features found within it are preserved, such as the largest protected grasslands in the United States, and the magnificent buttes and sharp peaks that make up the landscape of the region. National park areas are set aside for public use for natural beauty and scenery; I can tell you firsthand that this area certainly does have breathtaking features, since I hiked the hills of the Badlands this past August.

As a lover of fossils, I am glad this region has been protected so that we can learn more about the life that came before us. As a lover of beautiful landscapes, I am also happy to know that I can come back here in the future and take it all in again.
I took this photo while on a hike in Badlands National Park in August 2013. I hope you enjoy it!

For more on the geologic history of this region and other badlands topography, please see: