Türkiye is home to many diverse landscapes and geographies, but one of the most captivating is that of Cappadocia, in the centre of the country. Often described as a ‘fairytale land’, Cappadocia’s hills and valleys are filled with caves, tunnels, and ‘fairy chimneys’ (tall, thin rock formations), which have been home to multiple civilisations since ancient times, and traces of past ways of life can still be seen today in the region’s impressive rock-cut churches and underground cities.
Cappadocia’s unique geography has been shaped by both natural events and human hands throughout history. The area is dominated by a type of soft rock called tuff, which has been corroded by wind and water to create Cappadocia’s distinctive rock cones, pillars, pinnacles, and chimneys. Over time, people settling in the area added to these natural features and carved complexes of chambers and tunnels into the soft rock. The region also played an important role in early Christianity, providing shelter for Christians hiding from religious persecution, and later becoming an important medieval pilgrimage site scattered with unique rock-cut churches. The Rock Sites of Cappadocia were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
Over thirty underground cities are currently known across Cappadocia, and new ones are still being discovered. There is some debate surrounding the exact dates of their construction, but it is believed that as early as the Hittite or Phrygian periods people were carving such living spaces into the rock. Development of the underground cities continued under the Roman and Eastern Roman Empire, with occupants adding their own cultural and religious signatures such as churches. At their peak, these cities sheltered thousands of people.
Derinkuyu, in Nevşehir Province, is the largest underground city found in the region to date. The vast settlement is big enough to hold up to 20,000 people and extends c.85m down into the earth, with a complex network of tunnels and rooms spread across several levels. These underground spaces contain everything a city would need to function – stables, cellars, dining halls, churches, warehouses, wells, and even a school. The city is believed originally to have been created in the 8th-7th c BC and expanded over time, reaching its full extent in the medieval period.
Just 10km from Derinkuyu is Kaymaklı, another impressive underground city. Beneath a hill known as the Citadel of Kaymaklı, a vast maze of tunnels and rooms have been carved eight storeys deep into the earth (although only four can be visited today). The top level would have been used as stables and barns for livestock, while lower levels included living quarters, a church, storage areas and kitchens, and even a graveyard. Kaymaklı is thought to have once been home to c.3,500 people.
There are also other, smaller underground and rock-cut settlements – such as Özkonak Underground City, which is built into the side of Mount İdis – if you’re looking for somewhere slightly less well-known.
Cappadocia was also an important centre for early Christianity, and many rock-cut churches can still be found around the region today.
Some of Cappadocia’s best-preserved churches can be found in the Göreme Open Air Museum, situated in the Göreme Valley, which is home to more than 200 rock-cut churches in total. As Christianity spread during the Roman period, several early saints were buried in the valley, making it an important location for medieval Christians. A number of impressive churches were constructed in response to the growing numbers of pilgrims, and the area remained a centre of monastic life until the 13th century. One of the oldest and largest churches in the Göreme Valley is the Tokalı Kilise, or Buckle Church, dating back to 10th century, which is decorated with intricate and colourful paintings. Also worth a visit is the Dark Church (Karanlık Kilise), built in the late 12th/early 13th century, which is home to some spectacularly well-preserved frescoes depicting scenes from the New Testament.
Zelve Open Air Museum, north of Göreme, was once the site of a medieval monastic complex and is also home to several rock-cut churches, spread out across three valleys. These churches are generally less well-preserved than those in Göreme Open Air Museum, but include several 6th-century structures, of which only a few are known in Cappadocia.
The village of Çavuşin is also home to several cave dwellings and churches, including the Church of St John the Baptist, which dates back to the 5th century.
There are many other historical sites to see in Cappadocia as well, such as the village of Uçhisar, which is the highest point in the region and the site of Uçhisar Castle, a rock-cut citadel with spectacular views of the surrounding area. The village of Ortahisar also boasts an impressive rock-cut castle, towering over the small settlement, and is the site of several medieval rock-cut churches too.
Other locations with historical significance include the town of Avanos, often referred to as the ‘cultural epicentre of Cappadocia’, and an important centre of pottery production since the Hittite period due to its distinctive red clay from the Kızılırmak (Red River) river bed. Avanos is also home to a three-story underground town, discovered in 2019.
Tourists might initially be drawn to the area by its spectacular landscapes and scenery, its thriving viticulture, or the famous hot air balloon experiences on offer, but the wealth of rock-cut architecture found around Cappadocia also gives visitors a unique opportunity to travel back in time and experience the rich and unusual history of this spectacular region.
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