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Burial sites and artifacts unearthed within and around the complex of Derinkuyu tend to support the hypothesis that some Christian settlements had already existed there during the first half of the 7th century, earlier than at Kaymakli, nine kilometers to the north, or at Çardak, Nevşehir, Gülşehir and Özkonak, still farther north. We may safely assert that the first Christian settlers came here via Nigde, where several ancient trade routes converged.
Probably, the complex at Derinkuyu, or at least a large section of it, already existed when the Christian migrants arrived and took possession of the excellent shelters, which they later enlarged by carving out more rooms, food stores, assembly chambers and churches.
The identity of the original builders of this magnificent underground «city» will perhaps remain an enigma forever, although the Phrygians are prime suspects: there are many Phrygian burial mounds in the region.
The subterranean complex shows only Spartan simplicity. Ignoring all aspects of beauty, its builders concentrated on the problems of security, created a fortress, honeycombed with a forbidding labyrinth of galleries and shafts, the order of which was known only to those who used them.
There are eight known levels and the combined length of accessible tunnels is in excess of thirty kilometers. Some principal shafts are seventy meters deep (ca 230 feet) and had once served as wells, air inlets and additional escape hatches.
A multi-branched section on the seventh level is described by local guides as an “early-Christian church”—probably because its general layout follows the outline of a cross (one arm of which, however, is shorter than the other). The central chamber of this complex features three kewn pillars with chain-holds, which may have pillars of punishment, where disobedient slaves flogged, as the official guide explains. But if we accept this “explanation” the place should not be associated with any Christian church. The migrants, themselves fugitives, were unlikely owners of thousands of slaves, the manpower necessary to excavate so vast a complex. Needless to say that no Christians would imprison and torture slaves in a church.
A short semicircular recess here, described as the “confessional” by local guides (see floorplan), should have had another purpose, perhaps to cast ballots in privacy. In the period of Christian occupation of Derinkuyu the act of confessing had not yet been introduced into Church rituals.
There are several outlying underground colonies in the vicinity of Derinkuyu, all which had been connected with the main settlement by tunnels, in some cases several kilometers long. According to local saga, Derinkuyu and Kaymakli, another complex nine kilometers to the north, had once been connected by a tunnel, a hypothesis without any tangible evidence. A tunnel of such lenght ought to have featured scores of vertical ventilation shafts. I spent several weeks in the area scrutinizing the surface, but found no trace of any such air inlets.
The complex at Derinkuyu could have accommodated 20.000 people and a limited number of household animals. The average size of the communication tunnels is 160 by 60 centimeters (5’5″ by 30″). A grown person could move only in a bent attitude. There is no room for much movement, but this is precisely what the builders wanted. Discomfort was amply compensated for by the fact that no hostile intruders could use their weapons.
The excavation of tunnels and shafts must have been excruciating as only one man could work on the front. Using rudimentary tools he dug, chiselled and hacked away at the soft tufa in a kneeling position, tossing back fragments to helpers squatting behind him. Nevertheless, the ancient tunnelers accomplished works which would be considered major engineering feats even today.
There is also an ancient subsurface monastery at Derinkuyu worth visiting. Its church can be reached by a flight of steps. Old records suggest that this sanctuary used to be a place of healing. The church is a fine example of the earlier types; its roof has no supporting pillars, save for a solitary one with pulpit.