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A world of cave cities

Turkey might be the world's most contested country. Its landscape is dotted with battlegrounds, ruined castles and the palaces of great empires.

travel Updated: Sep 06, 2010 12:00 IST

Underground cities, labyrinthine rooms deep under the earth's surface, secret palaces carved high into mountain sides...You read about them in fantasy tales, but these mystery places did exist hundreds of years ago and still stand in central Turkey's Cappadocia city. 

The underground cities are believed to have sprung up around 2000 BC or even earlier, according to tour guide Derya Kutukcu. "The Hitites used the cities around 1800-650 BC, then the early Christians used it, and it was also used in the Roman era," said the guide.

At first glance, the Kaymakli underground city in Cappadocia's Nevsehir looks like a small hillock. But underneath that mound of stone is a layered city, complete with interlinking rooms, tunnels, prayer rooms, air vents, chapels and tunnels. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1985, only four of the 18-20 storeys of the Kaymakli underground city are accessible to visitors.

It was a complete world for those who inhabited it - sheds to keep their domestic animals, wineries where they would crush their abundant grape crop with a small basin to collect the juice, rooms where they would stock their barrels or amphoras of wine, storage space for keeping grains, community kitchens, air vents for ventilation, long tunnels connecting one part of the city with another, and huge stone slabs to roll and block the main entrance doors in case of an invasion.

"People first began using the caves for protection from enemies. They discovered that the stone was easy to carve, but hard enough to provide protection. The stones are porous, so people were able to breathe inside a cave," Kutukcu told a visiting IANS correspondent.

During the Roman period, the Christians escaped into these cities to escape persecution. There are also chambers where monks would sit and meditate. The Kaymakli underground city is connected to another underground city, Derinkuyu, some 10 km away through a tunnel.

Kaymakli has 52 vents to let air in. At its deepest point, the city is 80 metres deep, though tourists are not allowed there. The deepest portion opened for viewing is 20 metres deep. And the tunnels are long and narrow. It may give a few nervous moments to those who suffer from a fear of enclosed spaces. But they are easy to get through, and lead into another spacious dwelling area.

Due to the porous or "breathing" nature of the rocks, the stored food items would remain fresh for months. Even today, underground storage places dot Cappadocia where grain and other food items are kept by traders.

"There are 300 underground cities in Cappadocia, and of them 10-11 are known well. But it is not safe to go there as the stone is very soft and the ground can collapse," says Kutukcu.

After the subterranean world come the astonishing dwellings carved into rocky outgrowth. From afar, they look like little pigeonholes on the surface of the hills, but they are entire dwellings - interconnected rooms, chapels, storage spaces - all carved into the soft volcanic rock.

Uchisar Belediyesi, a castle built into a mountain, consists of honeycomb-like rooms inside the mountain. It is believed to have been used by the early Christians, the Romans and later the Muslims. It was used by people to escape being attacked by invaders, especially the Mongols.

And a climb atop Uchisar provides a breathtaking view of Cappadocia, the expanse of unusual and stunning rocky outgrowths - created over millions of years ago by the many volcanoes in the region. They were active then and would keep spewing volcanic lava and ash. Over millions of years, the layers collected to form rocks - soft enough to carve but hard too. And they are differently coloured - pink, yellow, cream - the layers are clearly visible on the mountainside.

The river Kizilirmark and its tributaries over the thousands of years slowly wrought their own magic over the soft volcanic rocks - making them rounded sand dune like structures here, or mushroom like outgrowths, called "fairy chimneys", at another place.

The scenery looks like you are in another planet; only it exists in real terms and is ready to take you back in time.

IANS