Allen Varney, writer and game designer



(Originally published in Dragon #201, January 1993)

Immense underground labyrinths, home to tens of thousands of people. Multiple levels reaching deep into the earth. Low, twisting passages leading to rooms stocked with treasure. The stuff of fantasy adventures? No! I have visited these underground cities, and you can too.

The cities under the ground lie in the central Anatolian (Asian) region of Turkey, 400 miles (660 kilometers) southeast of Istanbul and 100 miles (160 km) north of the sunny Mediterranean coast. This area, called Cappadocia (koppa-DOE-kee-a), has hosted over a dozen civilizations from ancient times to the present, and all played their part in the history of the subterranean cities. The Turkish government has opened some of these ancient labyrinths to the public, and almost 150 more lie unexcavated and unexplored, their hidden secrets awaiting discovery.

Studying the largest of these cities, Derinkuyu, reveals plenty for dungeon designers to think about. Use this real-world model to give your fantasy labyrinths a new air of authenticity.


Millions of years ago extensive volcanic activity deposited three layers of rock across Central Anatolia: first, a thick layer of ash; above it, dust that gradually compressed into the stone that geologists call ``tuff''; and finally, a thin layer of lava that hardened into sturdy basalt.

Eons of weathering removed much of the basalt and carved deeply into the soft tuff, producing eerie, surreal rock formations now called ``fairy chimneys.'' From prehistoric times until just a few years ago, the region's inhabitants carved homes in the chimneys, sometimes elaborate dwellings with many rooms on several storeys. You can see the most beautiful of these fairy chimneys in Cappadocia's Göreme (GUHR-emma) National Park. The rocky homes' built-in insulation held cool air in the hot summer days, warm air at night, and the reverse during the area's frigid winters. The underground cities began in the same way, carved from the brittle, tawny-colored tuff.

But at first these primordial cities served a different purpose, not living space but storage. The Hittites -- who, as every Civilization boardgame player knows, occupied Asia Minor in the second millennium BC -- carved the oldest rooms of the cities as granaries. The constant cool temperature, 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit, preserved grain well.

After the Hittites came the Phrygians, their origin (around 1100 BC) as mysterious as the Hittites' disappearance. After four centuries Phrygia gave way to the Greek culture of the Lydians, the first society to coin money. Lydia's last king had plenty of it, too; we still remember the wealth of Croesus. Cappadocia's fertile plains brought wealth to all its rulers, but those plains proved hard to defend from rivals. So history saw a long parade of over a dozen civilizations, each in turn adding its influence to a rich mix of cultures: the Persians of the Achaemenian Empire (546-334 BC), Alexander the Great, the Seleucids . . .

Reading through this long sequence of debuts, conquests, and disappearances, we develop a strange, creepy sense of history. These conquering kingdoms commanded the greatest wealth and power in their region, sometimes for much longer spans than the age of America. Their citizens, people like you and me, worked and hoped as we do; no doubt they followed every shift of their political fortunes as closely as we, their descendants of a hundred generations, follow ours. But across the gulf of three thousand years, nothing remains of these empires but a few shards of pottery in museum cases and some stone inscriptions full of odd names: Tawannannas, Zidantas, Wassukani. One name, at least, seems familiar -- Midas, a Phrygian monarch whose wealth became, literally, legendary.

But these early civilizations used their underground chambers only to store grain and, perhaps, as short-term shelter from invaders. The subterranean cities grew to their immense size abruptly -- historically speaking -- during the first centuries after the time of Jesus, when persecuted Christians sought places of worship hidden from the Roman Empire. In those three centuries they carved deep into the rock, adding to their cities everything they needed: bedchambers, water tanks, flour mills, and stables, as well as other rooms equally important to them: churches, confessionals, seminaries, baptismal fonts, and even wineries.

Secreted in these labyrinths, Christians in the tens of thousands practiced their forbidden religion. After the Edict of Milan in 313 AD Roman persecution ceased. However, Cappadocians still hid in their expanded cities. Armies from the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire marched out of Constantinople across this convenient crossroads, plundering lands and pressing citizens into service on their way to frontiers in Persia, Ethiopia, and Africa. The underground shelters improved on times past, for now whole towns could evacuate below and vanish.

Every home aboveground had either its own entrance to the city, or a thin air duct they could use to talk with those below (we know of 15,000 air ducts). Perhaps residents then treated it as some householders do now, storing their possessions in a really, really big basement. In times of danger the city maintained sentinels on the hilltops at the horizon. A scout who sighted unwelcome visitors would blow a horn or otherwise signal a warning to the city. Citizens had time to retreat below with their livestock and possessions, where they could then hide or withstand weeks of siege.

No one today knows how well this worked. Over two millennia from the Hittites to the Byzantines, it must have helped sometimes, for each successive wave of invaders took over and enlarged the cities. By the same token, the cities did not provide foolproof protection, inasmuch as successive waves of invaders took them over.

During the seventh century AD the armies of Islam spread from Arabia to conquer Africa, Persia, and Asia Minor. After withstanding three severe campaigns the Byzantines finally evacuated Cappadocia, leaving the underground cities deserted. Their presence unsuspected by the Arabs, the forgotten cities fell into disrepair.

In 1963 townsfolk in central Cappadocia rediscovered the largest labyrinth, quite by accident. Other discoveries followed, and now we know of 150 underground sites, most still unexcavated. The Turkish government's Office for Ancient Monuments and Museums opened its first underground city to visitors in 1965, but only the recent explosion of Turkish tourism has brought the cities to wide attention. Turkey has now opened five of them, and travellers can at last recognize these amazing places as authentic wonders of the world.

Looking Around

Not much would have drawn you, a tourist, to this particular spot in Turkey before it found its ancient basement. A small town of 5000, 18 miles (29 km) south of the central Turkish city of Nevsehir, it has many 16th- and 17th-century Greek Orthodox churches and, it claims, the world's first lunatic asylum (a monastery).

Glories like these notwithstanding, this town offers little for you except the pleasant company of friendly Turks. Yet in Roman times this area must have hosted a huge population, for a few feet underfoot lies the largest, best- known, and most astonishing underground city of them all. In a past age residents called it Malagobia (Latin, ``difficult existence''). It takes its modern name from the town overhead, a Turkish name meaning ``deep well'': Derinkuyu.

Mottled gray-brown walls, curving and uneven ceilings low overhead, pillars of rock torturously hand-carved -- Derinkuyu looks unassuming, to say the least. You crouch through hatch-like doorways and walk down steep steps seemingly cut as casual afterthoughts. Any given room makes a bland showing for this alleged wonder of the world.

Yet it goes on, and on, and on. One ugly rock room does not excite you, but many dozens, going deeper and ever deeper, carved from almost a square mile of living rock by the sweat of ten thousand brows, do. The cool (50(DM) Fahrenheit) air remains fresh, and sometimes, fantastically, you feel a hint of cold breeze. Your excited imagination conjures giant worker ants for this stupendous anthill. From the collective unconscious you synthesize memories of the people who sheltered here: farmers, thin and prematurely aged with hard work. Huge ragtag families, toothless and louse-ridden, but with bright eyes and easy laughter. Arabian horses and diseased oxen munching hay in stone stables. You think of tense times when their owners must have hushed them, while families peered upward in nervous silence, listening to a legion's footsteps.

Before long, passing through weird chambers and down sloping tunnels, you become utterly lost. Red arrow signs point the way farther down, blue arrows upward, and you trust to these like Crusoe trusted Friday. A compass might help, but the rises and plunging spirals still perplex you. Where do you stand in relation to that room you saw five minutes ago? How far below the surface have you come?

Every so often you find an airshaft, and this answers the second question. These 52 gaping square or circular holes, each wider than a man's height, plunge 175 feet (55 meters) straight down to Derinkuyu's depths. Doorways and windows open onto the shafts at each level. Just under ground level you see the sun above and, below, a vanishing black perspective. Far beneath the surface, on Derinkuyu's seventh and eighth levels, daylight has dwindled to a bright circle the size of a thumbnail. You would see the same view inside a factory smokestack.

Shafts like these seldom appear in fantasy dungeons, but they provided five vital services gamemasters should recognize: air, light, transport, communication, and water. The shafts brought (and still bring) fresh air everywhere in Derinkuyu, so efficiently that visitors can smoke cigarettes on the eighth level and watch the smoke swirl away twoard the nearest shaft. They provide some light, and in ancient times the people may have used shiny metal reflectors to bring the light to their rooms. Many of the shafts have footholds that allow easy climbs between levels, although it must have taken courage! We can almost hear the echoes of Latin shouts ringing up and down the shafts, as in the courtyards of inner city tenements. (``Have you got dinner ready up there?'') Finally, unlike those of other cities, Derinkuyu's shafts also reached fresh water, giving the city above its ``deep wells,'' its modern name, and (even today) its water supply.

The underground cities supposedly began with these shafts. As the first step in enlarging the ancient grain cellars, a city's builders (excavators?) dug straight down, ensuring ventilation before all else. Then the workers dug each level of the city outward from the shafts. The way these workers connected their separate excavations to form each level remains a mystery.

We do know why the workers dug. Their owners ordered it. Every Mediterranean culture of the time treated slavery as a fact of life. Convicts, captured pirates and brigands, children sold to pay parents' taxes, prisoners of war from the northern Black Forest frontier or from Arabia or Ethiopia to the south -- all of them worked away their lives burrowing for their Byzantine masters. Perhaps they, not their owners, christened Malagobia.

In wandering the twisting tunnels, you see many thick stone wheels. Big as Yap Island stone money, big as the wheels on a monster truck driven by Fred Flintstone, they rest on the ground or stand in notches beside doorways. These wheels, security doors, testify that invaders sometimes discovered Derinkuyu, and that when they did, the residents could defend themselves. They carved each wheel out of the floor of its room, then drove a hole through its center. During a battle, a team of men used a wooden pole to roll the wheel down and block the doorway. After those inside withdrew the pole, attackers faced a fearsome task in trying to push back the immense wheel. Meanwhile, besieged residents made spear thrusts through the hole.

The Work of the Devout

Stone wheels guarded the most precious treasures of Derinkuyu's inhabitants. Gold? Jewels? No, although a duck-walk down a long, very low spiralling tunnel leads to a treasure room where one or two guards could hold off an army. Instead, the ancient Christians rolled down those stone wheels to protect their sacred ground.

Here, beyond the barriers, you find a large room with two long stone benches carved straight out of the floor: a seminary. On these benches young missionaries heard the doctrine they would risk their lives to spread. A couple of bedrooms open off the seminary. Nearby, a rounded hole indicates the font where priests baptized the infants of 17 centuries ago, quite possibly ancestors of some readers of this article.

Elsewhere, at the end of a long, scary crawl down a sloping passage, in a part of Derinkuyu that the government has not yet wired for light, you shine your flashlight around a church as big as a basketball court. It seems like a natural cavern, but this area has no caves. To make this underground church, human slaves carried away every rock chip and every speck of gravel by hand.

Several rooms in Derinkuyu remind us of the early importance to Christians of sacramental wine. Some of the wineries near ground level have, or used to have, ceiling holes to the surface. Fresh grapes from the vineyard, poured down the holes, fell into hollows in the rock floor. There people, presumably slaves, walked the grapes into pulp. Holes in the bottom of some hollows let the juice flow down into convenient basins in a lower room, ready for the fermenting barrels.

These signs of devotion interest you in passing, but deep on Derinkuyu's seventh level you find the last and most breathtaking sign of the ancient builders' devotion. Here you enter an enormous 100-foot-long hall, a onetime conference room and, some believe, a torture chamber. Two of the hall's three thick columns have candle sconses -- or did the residents tie prisoners there? In a nearby room excavators found a grave; apparently someone took the skeleton there to Ankara, the Turkish capital, for study.

Other rooms open off this hall, including a huge cruciform church 80 feet long and 30 feet wide, with a 12-foot ceiling. Some scholars, who believe the entire city predates Christianity, call this room clover-shaped, for the Hittites used the clover as an emblem of state. I have no idea how this unlikely theory explains the still larger room that opens on the hall's other side. This huge L-shape ends in a short, strange tunnel, tall as a man but barely wide enough to enter, that curves in a tight C from one corner of the room to the adjacent corner.

You could hardly explain this odd tunnel outside a Christian context, but after some thought about churches -- or perhaps with a clue from your tour guide -- you realize its function. A worshipper entered one end of the tunnel, a priest the other, and they met in the middle in total darkness. Right: a confessional.

Other wonders still lurk undiscovered in Derinkuyu. Archaeologists, scholars, and (I presume) local businessmen in search of greater tourist attractions continue the excavation of this and the other underground cities. So far we know of eight levels in Derinkuyu, but some writers suspect as many as 27. ``Levels'' here does not mean quite what it does in a fantasy dungeon, but something more notional, for these small and uneven levels merge imperceptibly. If they went much deeper, the hypothetical lower levels would hit the water table. Still, the figures fire the imagination. With so much left to discover, we can easily believe the lower estimates of Derinkuyu's population -- around 20,000.

Ultimately excavation may make even the higher population estimates (60,000 people) probable. The likelihood of these high guesses depends, I think, on connections with entire new complexes, currently unconfirmed (so far as I know) but suspected. Turkish researcher Omer Demr writes in Cappadocia: Cradle of History, ``The tunnels form connecting links with some underground cities near Derinkuyu so that the population could save their lives by using these escape routes. We have reason to believe that one of the tunnels on the third storey is connected with an underground city at Kaymakli 9 km (5.4 miles) away. The tunnel in question is wide enough for three or four people to walk upright side by side. The ventilation ducts of the tunnel, many of which have been filled with rubble or destroyed through the years, are expected to be opened in the coming years.''

Such speculation may in the end fall short of reality, but in Derinkuyu reality already takes your breath away. Think about it, as you make the long climb back to the surface -- about cohorts and maniples marching in bewilderment through deserted villages, while beneath their feet (in the 3rd century AD, when swamps covered Manhattan Island) the population density approached that of a Manhattan skyscraper.

Lessons for Dungeon Designers

Every gamemaster who plans an underground labyrinth can learn some lessons from Derinkuyu and the other subterranean cities.

Each room in most published dungeons has neat corners, and high hallways connect them with the straight regularity of graph paper. The real-world labyrinths go every which way, their rooms take on the oddest contortions, and ceilings and hallways vary alarmingly. Low tunnels served a purpose, making vital rooms easy to defend. I can testify, having slid down a claustrophobic spiral to Derinkuyu's treasure room, that no one in plate armor, carrying a torch and a sword (let alone a spear!) could hope to get into that room alive. I also have grave doubts that a fast-moving party could ever map these places well enough to avoid getting lost.

Your fantasy dungeon diggers have magic that shatters the hardest rock. The ancients could never have carved their underground cities in anything but volcanic tuff, which conveniently remains soft during cutting but hardens when exposed to air.

On the same subject, the fantasy magic that spirits away rubble seems less impressive than the logistical miracle the Cappadocians accomplished in disposing of a large hill's worth of excavated rock. They may have created a hill west of town called Sogdele, but more likely they dumped the rubble into a couple of streams nearby, where it eventually washed away into the lakes of Anatolia.

Underground adventures seem unaware that if you dig deep enough, you hit water. You also need air. Magic easily evades these problems, but the non-magical approach offers plot hooks and logistical advantages. For instance, if the dungeon's air shafts lead to the lowest level, the player characters may climb straight down. They think they've bypassed intervening dangers, but in fact they play right into the villain's hands.

Similarly, water levels change. So what if the old dungeon corridors stopped high and dry above the water table in the ancient past? A single earthquake far away can re-route an aquifer, and now the adventurers must cope with a few submersed lower levels.

Only rarely do adventure backgrounds make use of historical context. A generic evildoer carves most generic dungeons so he can commit his generic evils. This approach misses the flavor and campaign dimensions presented by a historical dungeon similar to Turkey's underground cities. Their ancient origins and subsequent Christian expansion adapt well to any fantasy world that has seen empires rise and fall. This lets the dungeon bring the campaign world alive for the players in a whole new way.

One last lesson from Derinkuyu: The showiest and most powerful spell cannot impress us as much as sheer dogged human labor. The cities conjure that same disbelief we feel of the pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Airlift, the Alaskan oil pipeline, and other undertakings that mix pragmatism and craziness on a grand scale. In their sheer scope they expunge all reservations about their merits. They transcend ordinary concerns by defining what the human race can achieve.

Now that's what I call magic.

Sidebar: Getting There

However much you gaze at the pictures and read the facts, nothing else tells you as much about the underground cities as a visit.

I visited Derinkuyu and a smaller underground city, Kaymakli (KIGH-mock-lih), in October 1992. At that time the Turkish government had just opened its fifth city, and by the time you get there they may have more ready. However, I suspect that if you see one (make it Derinkuyu), you've seen them all. The cities impress not by their individuality but conceptually, by the mere fact of their existence. But don't worry -- Turkey offers much more to see, and you'll find it an inexpensive and rewarding place to stay for two weeks or two months.

Before you leave, read everything you can. (I recommend the Lonely Planet guidebook, available in the travel section of better bookstores.) Get proper immunizations, including cholera, tetanus, and hepatitis A. For the hardy traveller, a membership in Youth Hostels of America or Youth Hostels International pays for itself quickly, because it lets you stay in inexpensive but comfortable hostels in many countries. (Write American Youth Hostels, P. O. Box 37613, Washington, DC 20013-7613.) Buy a small flashlight, a first aid kit, and, no kidding, a compass. You might also consider iodine tablets or a portable water filter to purify water. (Never drink the water in Turkey.)

Airfare to Istanbul from America runs under $1000 round trip. You can find better deals by flying to London first and shopping its many fiercely competitive discount travel agencies. Check the Travel section of the Sunday New York Times for many bargains. Plan to go in late summer or early fall, unless you want to hit the winter skiing season. It gets really cold in central Turkey starting in mid-October.

Rest up in Istanbul, a terrific city, before heading into central Turkey. A clean and vibrant city, Istanbul offers great food, cheap hotels and youth hostels, a hard-working tourist office with lots of informative brochures, a couple of neat museums, and splendid sights -- mosques, palaces, and riverboat tours up the Bosporus. Don't miss the Dolmabahce and Topkapi Palaces, extravagant Ottoman structures that define opulence. The world's oldest surviving covered bazaar, the Kapalicarsi, offers terrific shopping if you know how to haggle with the world's highest-pressure salesmen.

Bus fare to Cappadocia costs about US$13 one-way. You might haggle a dollar off the price if you look poor and pathetic; I speak from experience. Fair warning for nonsmokers: Every man in Turkey smokes like a chimney (Marlboros) and the bus companies have never heard of non-smoking sections.

After a lung-deadening trip I arrived in Göreme, stayed at a pleasant pansion called Turkish House among the weird Daliesque fairy chimneys, and took a one-day tour that included an hour or so in Derinkuyu. I thought the tour well worth the $10, but I wanted more time in the underground cities and went on my own to Kaymakli the next day. This proved tricky, for the local buses in central Turkey do not run as often as you'd like. And although the Turks I met proved resolutely honest with money and services, I never once got a straight answer on when the next bus would arrive. As it happened, I got to Kaymakli, had a nice long visit, then ended up stranded in the middle of nowhere. After a pleasant if uncommunicative visit with a Turkish farm family -- nobody speaks English in rural Turkey, although lots of people speak German -- I hitched a truck ride to someplace where I could get a cab (a bus station, I think). The ride cost 50,000 Turkish lire, about $7.50 -- a fortune!

Remember that Turkey follows Islam, at least nominally. Prepare for early rude awakenings by muezzins calling the faithful to pre-dawn prayer. Women should travel with a partner. Don't expect pork chops on the menu. That said, Turks show courtesy and hospitality to visitors, so don't worry.

As a traveller you represent your country and culture, so treat the people and the sights with respect. Tourism has proved a mixed blessing in Turkey, because tourists have irreparably damaged some of its historical treasures. For example, after leaving the underground cities and taking up open worship, early Christians carved many open-air churches in the Goreme and Soganli regions. You could still see their remarkably preserved Byzantine frescoes until a few years ago, when tourists searching for souvenirs peeled them away a paint-fleck at a time. Go, and do better.