A Man Knocked Down A Wall in His Home And Found A Sprawling Underground City Below

Have you ever thought about what hidden treasures might be awaiting you just a few feet beneath your own home? Well, in 1963 a man in Turkey discovered that secrets really do dwell beneath the surface of the mundane world. The story goes that the man, who lived in Turkey’s Nevşehir Province, was renovating his home when he accidentally stumbled upon the key to one of history's most ancient mysteries.

A major clue

Perhaps one clue was right in front of him his entire life. According to reports, the man lived in the town of Derinkuyu, which means “Deep Well.” Nestled on the high plateau of Cappadocia, Derinkuyu is a modest, conservative, and predominantly Muslim region where life revolves around the cultivation of beans and potatoes.

Hidden chamber in the basement

But this discovery was bound to change this unassuming town forever. Upon demolishing a wall in his house, the aforementioned resident discovered a hidden room that led to something nothing short of extraordinary. Indeed, it drew international media attention, and a stream of scientists, tourists, and scholars, to the area.

The start of something larger

The hidden room was, however, just the start of the mystery; far greater wonders lay below and beyond. After discovering the secret chamber, the Turk decided to dig down beneath its surface, and it was here that he found an entrance. What’s more, beyond the entrance was a tunnel, receding into darkness and obscurity.

Ancient secrets

As it happened, the man had actually stumbled upon a hidden entrance to a vast, abandoned, subterranean city. And this profoundly ancient underground city has witnessed millennia of drama and change and, indeed, the rise and fall of untold empires.

The Cradle of Civilization

The Cappadocia plateau sits within the wandering course of the Euphrates River. It is located upstream from the fertile lands and city-states of Mesopotamia – also known as the Cradle of Civilization – and has been traveled, inhabited, and warred over since the dawn of antiquity.

Fairy chimneys

The plateau is an arid and eerie place punctuated by weathered hills and mushroom-like pinnacles, which are known as “fairy chimneys.” But while its bed of volcanic rock has been sculpted by nature over millions of years, it is just soft enough to allow the excavation of tunnels by human hand, too.

Facts in dispute

Unfortunately, since these tunnels have been dug out of natural rock, the underground city cannot be carbon-dated by archaeologists, and historians disagree over who actually built it. That said, we do know that some of Derinkuyu was tunnelled 3,000 years ago by the Hittites – a tribe of fierce horsemen and charioteers from the late Bronze Age.

Innovators of a lost age

Others, such as Turkey’s Department of Culture, claim that the tunnels were built between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE by the Kingdom of Phrygia after the collapse of the Hittite civilization. The Phrygians are considered among the most accomplished architects of the Iron Age, and if Derinkuyu is their handiwork, you can see why.

Persian grandeur?

A third theory claims that the tunnels were the work of the Persian Empire. The Greek geographer Strabo observed a large assembly of Zoroastrian Magi in Cappadocia, while their sacred text, the Avesta, recalls King Yima and his “palaces underground to house flocks, herds and men.”

Protection against the desert

Whoever built these strange underground tunnels, though, they were probably first constructed to shelter the local population from the harsh Cappadocia winter and to preserve foodstuffs from the searing heat of summer. Later, as episodes of war and turmoil unfolded through the region, they were used for defensive purposes, too.

Shifting empires

Early Christians were among the first to seek refuge in Derinkuyu’s incredible underground city. After the Byzantine Empire consolidated control of the region, the secret tunnels were significantly extended to protect against marauding Arab armies. Who knows how many lives these passages saved over the years?

Buried and forgotten

But in the 12th century, Cappadocia fell under the control of the Ottoman Empire, and it has remained in Turkish hands ever since. Furthermore, when the region’s long-standing Greek population was displaced in 1923, the underground city of Derinkuyu was built over and forgotten about.

An immense area

Yet it’s not just Derinkuyu’s ancient history that makes it so remarkable; it’s its size, too. This city was huge: large enough to accommodate 20,000 people over approximately 18 floors – only 11 have been excavated – with a depth reaching just under 280 feet. Today, this extensive warren of chambers and passageways lies blackened from the soot of burning torches.

An underground maze

The labyrinthine tunnels are exceedingly narrow, too, having been cleverly designed to force invaders into single file. Circular stone doors, each weighing up to 1,100 pounds, sealed the many secret entrances to the city, which are believed to number more than a hundred.

A complex community

But the city was not just a defensive burrow; it was a working community, too. Schools, Christian places of worship, wine cellars, oil press facilities, shops, and arsenals all operated within its subterranean vaults. Meanwhile, thousands of ventilation shafts supplied clean air, and an underground river and irrigation system fed water to the inhabitants.

Another sunken metropolis

What’s more, in the depths of Derinkuyu, archaeologists uncovered a partially collapsed three mile-long tunnel leading to another underground city known as Kamakli. And indeed hundreds of similar cities are believed to be hidden in the honeycombed strata of Cappadocia’s hills. To date, just a handful of these below-ground dwellings have been excavated.

It's amazing how this find keeps leading to more and more breakthroughs. In 2013 bulldozers were demolishing buildings near a Byzantine castle in Nevşehir when they accidentally uncovered a new city. Hailed as the “new Derinkuyu,” this new discovery could, it’s anticipated, span an incredibly large area, too.

A treasured site

The historical importance of Cappadocia has not escaped the United Nations, either, which awarded it World Heritage Status in 1985. UNESCO noted, “The rupestral dwellings, villages, convents, and churches retain the fossilized image of a province of the Byzantine Empire… Thus, they are the essential vestiges of a civilization which has disappeared.”

Footsteps of the ancients

Naturally, Cappadocia is also firmly on the tourist trail. Lonely Planet described the region as “a whimsical fairytale… set down upon the stark Anatolian plains.” And should you ever decide to visit, you’ll be treading right in the footsteps of the ancients. And on the western side of Turkey, archaeologists unearthed another lost city that is rewriting the history books.

The lost city of Ani

The city of Ani, located in the northeastern region of modern-day Turkey, is more than likely the greatest city you’ve never heard of. In the metropolis’ 11th-century heyday, it was a booming power thanks to its location along the lucrative Silk Road trade route. With some 100,000 inhabitants, it was also one of the world’s most populous cities. Fast-forward some one thousand years to the Ani of today, however, and, incredibly, what remains of this once-buzzing metropolis is an abandoned and forgotten set of ancient ruins.

A true ghost town

Indeed, today Ani is an almost entirely forgotten city. Once one of the planet’s biggest metropolises, with tens of thousands of residents, Ani is no longer inhabited by humans at all. Instead, it has been reduced to a ghost town. Now, streets that once rang out with a cacophony of voices stand almost silent.

From greatness to ruins

Enough remains of the city’s former buildings to tell the tale of its past greatness, though. It may now be abandoned, but the eerie ruins of Ani serve as a latter-day reminder that, at its peak, Ani was among the world’s major cities. These isolated remnants in the Turkish countryside were created by a power to be reckoned with on the world stage.

Strategically located

Situated upon highlands whose formation made them hard for enemies to attack and protected to the east by the ravines of the Akhurian River, it’s easy to see why the area attracted settlers. They subsequently constructed city walls in the 7th century AD, when the Kamsakaran family was in power. And it was little wonder that the Armenian ruler Ashot III chose the city to be his blossoming empire’s capital in 961.

Armenian Golden Age

Moreover, Ashot’s choice of capital city proved to be a judicious one. Both Ani and the wider Bagratuni kingdom flourished between 961 and 1045 AD during an era famed as the “Armenian Golden Age.” In fact, at its peak, the city of Ani was a bustling cosmopolitan center of culture, art, and ideas.

Trade hub

The city’s location provides an essential clue to its success. Ani was situated at the intersection of a number of trade roads. In particular, it lay on the lucrative Silk Road connecting important centers of trade in Europe and Asia. As you might expect, its glory days saw Ani awash with merchants – and their money.

City of 1,001 churches

It was during this blaze of glory that Ani first came to be referred to in such glowing terms as the City of 1,001 Churches and the Cradle of Civilizations. The former name came about, of course, due to Ani’s abundance of places of worship. And given the deep pockets of its rulers and city merchants, they tried to outdo one another in architectural splendor.

Cultural and religious center

Although it’s somewhat unlikely that Ani did indeed once house 1,001 churches, evidence has thus far been found of some 40 churches, chapels, and mausoleums in the city. As a cultural melting pot to rival New York or London today, these architectural gems weren’t only made notable by their quantity, but also by their quality. Ani was home to some of the finest architects and artists of the day.

Still impressive

Another testament to the glory days of Ani is its eponymous cathedral, built in the final years of the 10th century. Created by the famed Armenian architect Tdrat and a feat of architectural excellence, the Cathedral of Ani, even now, in its ruined state, is impressive in its size. Surveying the remnants below, this monument of Ani’s glory days serves as a reminder that the faded metropolis was once among the world’s most powerful cities.

Standing Strong

Also reminding modern-day visitors of the glories of Ani’s past is the Church of the Holy Redeemer, which was finished in around 1035. It was built in a singular, architecturally impressive style at the behest of Prince Ablgharib Pahlavid. What’s more, it purportedly housed a piece of the True Cross upon which Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified. Though damaged after being struck by lightning in the 1950s, half of the church remains, clinging doggedly on.

An eerie wasteland

But just how did such a bustling, booming capital fall so far – and so fully – from glory and grace? After all, modern-day Ani is an eerie and deserted place where on any given day ruined buildings likely outnumber the people who walk its streets. The tale of Ani’s decline is a sad one, involving invasions, the might of Mother Nature and the slow, ravaging creep of time. It’s certainly one worth telling as well.

The start of a long struggle

The end of Ani’s glory days perhaps began when the Byzantine Empire seized the city in the 11th century. Having initially resisted a series of attacks by Byzantine armies, the Bagratunis eventually ceded the city of Ani to their enemies in 1046. This ominous occasion was to herald the beginning of many conflicts over control of Ani.

A costly siege

Sure enough, less than ten years later, a new set of rulers, the Seljuk Turks, seized the city for themselves. Moreover, these new conquerors quickly sold the city to the Muslim Kurdish Shaddadid rulers. First, though, they set in motion more of the city’s ruin, massacring large swathes of Ani’s populace during a bloody three-week siege.

Banding together

During the decades that followed, Ani remained a site of ongoing conflict. The Shaddadids were a Muslim people, which led to tensions with the city’s large – and disruptive – Christian population. The Ani Christians asked the neighboring Georgian Empire for help in overthrowing their rulers, thereby ensuring Ani remained embroiled in dispute and disintegration.

The Zakarid Dynasty

Following continued assaults, the Shaddadids were eventually ousted by Georgia’s Queen Tamar in 1199. Thanks to her efforts, at the cusp of the 12th century, a new Zakarid Dynasty began ruling. After years of conflict, here came at last a chance for Ani to rebuild herself from the remaining vestiges of her former glory.

Standing since 1215

Unfortunately, the Zakarid Dynasty never did quite manage to restore Ani to its position as a power on the world stage. That said, the city nonetheless enjoyed a prosperous period with the Zakarids at the helm. Testament to this period’s relative affluence is the Church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents. Built in 1215, it remains the most intact major building in the city today.

Further disintegration

The era of peace and prosperity in Ani once again proved short-lived, however. The arrival of the Mongols in the city in 1236 was yet another calamitous development in the complex history of the city. It was once again devastated by the mass murder of much of its population. And Ani’s disintegration into a city of ghosts looked set to continue.

Under the weight of rubble

Next, nearby Turkish dynasties assumed control of the once-mighty metropolis. But although human hands might have then, finally, allowed the city the chance to rebuild, Mother Nature now stepped in to play her part in the decline of Ani. A devastating earthquake in 1319 meant that the city continued to crumble. Its population fled; its buildings collapsed.

Enemies on all sides

But while Ani may have crumbled after the 1319 earthquake, a much-diminished city still somehow survived. It came for a time under the command of the Persian Safavids before being assimilated within the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the late 1500s.

Completely isolated

A small population clung on within the historic walls until the 18th century. It was then, finally, that the city came to be deserted entirely. After the departure of its last living residents – a group of monks – in 1735, Ani was inhabited only by the ghosts of its glorious past.

A pivotal war

Having lain fallow and forgotten for many years, however, Ani was to come to the world’s attention once again. By the 19th century, the city was under the control of another new power: this time, Russia. This change of hands came about after the Ottoman Empire was defeated by Russia in the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s. And it proved to be a significant one for Ani.

Excavation begins

The richness of Ani’s archaeological heritage was recognized by its new rulers, who began excavations in the city in 1892. Here, again, came a chance for Ani to rise from its rubble. A chance for Ani to be restored, if not to its former position of economic and political importance, then at least to a place of cultural significance.

Revived interest

Led by the Georgian archaeologist Nicholas Marr, annual excavations occurred at Ani between the years 1904 and 1917. As well as these investigations, the city benefitted from reconstruction work on its most endangered buildings. In addition, a museum was also constructed to house the many and varied artifacts that were being unearthed there. So, was this ghost town about to get a new lease on life?

The shadow of war

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. There would be no meaningful rebirth for the city, no harking back to the great days of former glory. Instead, Ani’s Russian-led renaissance proved short-lived. Soon, it fell foul of the territorial tensions of World War I and fell under the jurisdiction of the Ottomans once again.

Changing hands

However, this renewed Ottoman rule only lasted until Turkey’s surrender at the end of World War One. Symbolically, this period saw Ani return to Armenian control. Just as in its glory days when the city was the shining light of the famed Bagratuni Empire, it was the Armenians who were now at the helm there.

The last capture

But alas for Armenia, Ani was to change hands one final – and very significant – time. This took place in 1920, when the city was captured by the neighboring Turkish Republic. And that development was to prove definitive: indeed, Ani remains under Turkish control to this day.

Soft power

Nonetheless, for a place whose population today numbers precisely zero, the ghost town of Ani has played a surprisingly important role on the world stage in modern times. The city is just a stone’s throw from modern-day Armenia. But as the border between Turkey and Armenia remains resolutely closed due to disputes between the two nations, there’s no access to Armenia from Ani. Unsurprisingly, the city has found itself a focal point of these hostile relations between Turkey and Armenia over the past century – and continues to do so, even today.

Culturally significant

Key to understanding why is the special importance of Ani to Armenian culture. The city may be situated within Turkey’s contested borders, but it is to neighboring Armenians that it holds a significant cultural value. Separated from the country by just a river gorge, while Ani is outside Armenia’s larger geographical boundaries, it nonetheless remains close to Armenian hearts.

Jewel of an empire

The clue to the city’s cultural significance to Armenia today lies in its history as a metropolis a millennium ago. Lest it be forgotten, Ani was at one time among the world’s largest – and greatest – cities. It was the jewel in the crown of a powerful Bagratuni Empire, the cosmopolitan capital during the Armenian Golden Age.

Symbolizing a high point

Ani’s impressive ruins are a testament to that distant time when Armenia ruled over a powerful empire; one of the world’s mightiest, in fact. As historian Razmik Panossian explains it, Ani is one of the most visible and tangible symbols of the greatness of Armenia’s past. Unsurprisingly, it is, as such, a great source of pride.

Tense relations

This cultural importance to Armenia, then, has seen Ani loom large in Turko-Armenian relations. In fact, the chief of Turkey’s Eastern Front forces in 1921, Kazim Karaberkir, claimed he was instructed to wipe the once-great city “off the face of the earth.” While this affront to Armenians wasn’t actually executed, Ani was nonetheless subjected to a degree of damage at the hands of the Turkish troops.

Two worlds apart

The advent of the Cold War again put Ani in a delicate position. Indeed, the city found itself on the border between the Soviet Union and NATO-member Turkey, placing it squarely along the infamous Iron Curtain. Once the intersection point of a mix of cultures and creeds, Ani was now a dividing point along which cultures and countries were bitterly separated.

Failed proposal

During the 1950s, Ani was among the Soviet Union’s attempted claims on Turkish territory. The following decade, during negotiations between the two nations, it was suggested that Ani might be returned to Armenia in exchange for two Kurdish villages. This proposal failed to lead to any action, though, and so the city that speaks most of Armenia’s glorious past remains firmly entrenched in Turkish lands.

Trapped by politics

Ani’s contested ownership explains why, until as recently as 2004, visitors needed to obtain a pass from the authorities in Turkey before being allowed to visit its stunning ruins. During the 20th century, in fact, the city found itself in a wasteland under the control of the Turkish military. Little wonder, then, that Ani disintegrated still further into the eerie ghost town it is today.

Purposely neglected

The spat between Turkey and Armenia over the ancient city of Ani rumbles on. The Economist has reported that Armenians have accused Turkey of purposefully neglecting Ani, as a symbolic gesture against the Armenians to whom the city is so important. Turkey’s response has been to claim Ani has been damaged by work in a quarry on the Armenian side of the border.

International attention

But despite this constant controversy and the continued disintegration of Ani, could there be a glimmer of hope on the horizon for the once-great city? As the Landmarks Foundation asked, could a metropolis devastated by “earthquakes in 1319, 1832, and 1988, army target practice and general neglect” be resurrected from its decaying glory once more? Could new life be breathed into what is now a ghost town?

UNESCO Heritage Site

Perhaps. The city has benefited from a number of recent developments that recognize its cultural and historical significance – and its economic potential as a tourist attraction. Most important of these may be the city’s designation in 2016 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This has given Ani’s remarkable ruins the belated recognition they deserve.

Removing the permits

Also giving a new lease of life to this ghost town is an initiative by the Turkish government that was launched in 2018 to restore Ani’s ruins and promote tourist visits to the site. An army permit is no longer required to walk Ani’s hallowed streets, for example, and the city has been winning increasing attention as a must-visit tourist destination. The Lonely Planet has described its ruins as “an absolute must-see.”

Instagram-worthy landscapes

So it seems that Ani’s future may lie in its ancient origins. By harking back to its beginnings as a medieval metropolis, new life might just be breathed into this ghost town. Could Ani be set to once again welcome, as it did with merchants and traders during its Silk Road heyday, a mix of visitors of many cultures and creeds – this time armed with selfie sticks and smartphones?

A bright future ahead

Watch this space: it just might. As Ani’s cultural, historical, and archaeological significance – and tourism potential – come to be recognized, its day might come once more. For this once-great city – a medieval metropolis – the page might just have turned on a new chapter in its history.