The Ancient Subterranean Shelters of Cappadocia

Did These Long Forgotten Passages Host Survivors of a Concluding Ice Age?

Imagine this: Aerial bombardments raining down havoc on humans and beasts alike, setting wildfires and incinerating everything that is flammable. The intense heat is great enough in some cases to literally melt surface rocks, which, once they cool, form a crude vesicular glass in a process known as vitrification. Elevated radiation levels are so high that a few days’ exposure is lethal. The only realistic safe haven, the only place to flee, is deep underground in an intricate maze of subterranean passageways and rooms.

Perhaps this sounds like a scene out of a Cold War scenario where something went terribly wrong, resulting in a nuclear attack. However, this is not fantasy, but a realistic account of what may have occurred thousands of years ago. To piece together precisely the history of the remote past, we need to examine multiple lines of evidence around the world. One key piece of the puzzle is found in central Turkey, in the region known as Cappadocia.

Having just returned from leading an archaeological tour to Turkey (June 2012), which included several days in Cappadocia, I can report that this is a strange and hauntingly beautiful land. Formed of volcanic rocks (tuffs or tufa) spewed out millions of years ago by local volcanoes, the terrain has eroded into an incredible topography consisting of steep valleys, ridges, and odd formations including columns often topped with harder rock, known colloquially as “fairy chimneys.” What is more, the volcanic tuffs are relatively easily dug into, carved, and excavated; this has served the people of the region well—and I believe has saved many a life when catastrophe hit. It can be argued that this was one of the outposts or refuges that allowed humanity to survive and reemerge, literally, from below the ground. For in Cappadocia are found not just dwellings and churches carved into the sides of hills and rock cliffs, but entire ancient underground cities.

Over 200 underground cities are reported in Cappadocia; most have not been adequately explored, and it seems certain that many more wait to be discovered. Two of the best known are Kaymakli and Derinkuyu, portions of which are open to the public. To this day nobody really knows the true extent of these or other underground cities of the area, but they were substantial. Kaymakli consists of at least eight floors or underground stories (only four of which are currently accessible), each extending in a labyrinthine manner over a vast area. The city may have supported a population of 3000 to 4000 people plus farm animals and supplies, all housed underground. Derinkuyu, with an estimated 20 floors and extending an estimated 85 meters (280 feet) below the surface, may have supported anywhere from a few thousand to 10,000 people plus their livestock and goods. And the underground cities may not have been entirely isolated from one another. Kaymakli and Derinkuyu are less than a dozen kilometers (seven-and-a-half miles) from each other, and there are reports of a tunnel that may connect them.

Each underground city includes all of the necessities to support its inhabitants. In some cases each level appears to have been able to function as an independent unit. There are living quarters for both humans and beasts, the barns and animal stalls being generally located near the entrances. There are storage areas, wineries, kitchens, dining rooms, bedrooms, schools, and churches complete with naves, altars, and seating platforms for the congregation. There are also specialty areas, such as a room at Kaymakli containing a huge, round platform of igneous rock, with dozens of depressions carved into the top, which may have been used for melting, refining, and working copper. Air is provided to the cities by ingenious ventilation shafts that open to the surface but are often “camouflaged.” Water was supplied by deep wells tapping into underground aquifers and rivers. The underground cities are entered via narrow passageways; and similar narrow passageways, so tight that it can be difficult to squeeze through, connect different areas and levels. The passages could be blocked, thus protecting the inhabitants inside, with huge round stone “doors” (in the range of one or two meters [3.3 to 6.6 feet] in diameter, a half meter [1.6 feet] thick, and weighing around 500 kilograms [1100 pounds]) that could be easily wheeled into place (or opened again) from the inside but not from the outside. Clearly these underground cities with their narrow passages and protective barriers served as some kind of fortifications or protective refuges, but from what? And why? And when?

The standard archaeological answers to these questions are fairly straightforward and make some sense, at least superficially. There is plenty of evidence that various underground cities were occupied during Greek and Roman times and into the early Christian and Byzantine period. In particular Byzantine churches carved into the rocks abound, many dating to the tenth through thirteenth centuries, but this is late in the history of Cappadocia. Most historians concede that underground cities were used earlier, possibly during the period of the Hittite Empire, which controlled the region from about the eighteenth century BC to the twelfth century BC (with so-called Neo-Hittite peoples surviving until about 700 BC). Furthermore, the standard view is that people did not necessarily live underground continuously, but rather retreated underground when enemies invaded their lands. A question that remains unresolved, if this scenario is true, is how exactly the people underground could survive while their enemies were free to roam the surface, not only on foot but by horseback. The underground cities are dependent on ventilation shafts that open to the surface. Would not an enemy easily figure out how to locate the ventilation shafts, even if initially camouflaged, and block them, resulting in the suffocation of everyone underground? Following this line of logic, speculation abounds that the underground cities were not meant to serve as protection from human invaders, but from some other sort of threat or onslaught. But what?

The “classic” explanation of the alternative camp tends to be along the lines that the underground cities formed bunkers or fallout shelters used during an ancient war involving flying machines, aerial bombardment, and possibly nuclear weapons. An enemy flying overhead, or firing missiles from afar, would not be able to locate and effectively target small and camouflaged ventilation openings. By such thinking, the enemy is generally equated with some group of extraterrestrial beings, or perhaps more than one distinct group of extraterrestrials, which battled for control of the region. With this in mind, it may not be a surprise to learn of claims that UFO sightings in Cappadocia span at least the last 5,000 years, including twenty-first century reports. (Some of these modern claims I consider to be clear hoaxes; one should also keep in mind that hot air balloons are a popular pastime in Cappadocia—I had the pleasure of flying in one while there).

Local legends and gods have been interpreted in the light of UFOs. For instance, warring groups of extraterrestrials have been equated with the struggle between the ancient Iranian/Persian/Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda (known also as Aramazd or Ohrmazd, or other names) and the evil spirit Angra Mainyu. Descriptions of their cosmic war included Ahura Mazda flying through the skies in a bird-like chariot with wings—which sounds suspiciously like extraterrestrials to some. Perhaps they even had advanced nuclear weapons?

A more naturalistic explanation of warring “gods” is to interpret them as myths based on incoming space debris. Were the ancient Cappadocians seeking refuge from the surface devastation caused by the impact or midair explosion of a comet, asteroid, or meteor? Did a comet enter our atmosphere and break up into a swarm of rock chunks that pummeled Earth? Such scenarios gained currency with the announcement in 2007 of evidence that a comet exploded over North America 12,900 years ago, near the end of the last ice age, contributing to the extinction of the mammoths and other animals as well as devastating the Paleo-Indian peoples (Richard Firestone and coauthors, article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America [PNAS]). But could such a scenario apply to the Cappadocian region?

Based on examining the underground cities of Cappadocia, and the volcanic rocks into which they are carved, I am not convinced that they would withstand a direct assault of ancient bombing (either conventional or nuclear weapons) or the hits of meteoritic debris associated with a comet exploding. However, in my assessment, they would provide an ideal shelter from another form of onslaught from the skies—that of a major solar outburst. The accompanying solar flares, coronal mass ejections (discharges from the Sun of ionized particles and associated electrical and magnetic phenomena), and solar proton events (protons accelerated to incredibly high energy levels penetrating our atmosphere) would cause strong electrical discharges to hit Earth, burning and incinerating materials on the planet’s surface, and also raise radiation levels on the surface of Earth. The best way to protect oneself? Go deep underground.

Paul LaViolette (2011, in the journal Radiocarbon) has marshaled evidence that a major solar flare accompanied by a super solar proton event (SPE), or events, at the end of the last ice age “fried the Earth” (to use the description of LaViolette’s hypothesis in Space Daily), the same time range that has been suggested for the comet impact mentioned above. LaViolette bases his conclusions on meticulous analyses of radiocarbon concentrations in sediment cores from the Cariaco Basin (off the coast of Venezuela) correlated with acidity spikes, high nitrate ion concentrations, and changes in beryllium-10 deposition rates in the Greenland ice record, all of which he argues are indicators of a sudden cosmic ray influx, in turn correlating with solar activity as expressed specifically through solar flares and SPEs. Additionally, there would have been accompanying coronal mass ejections (CMEs) on an enormous scale.

In his Radiocarbon paper, LaViolette discusses some of the effects on Earth of a massive SPE and the attendant solar activity. The ozone layer, our protection from deadly ultraviolet (UV) rays, would have been greatly depleted, with major ozone holes forming in some areas; that is, if the ozone layer had not been destroyed completely! Increased doses of damaging, and potentially lethal, UV radiation could have posed a major hazard for organisms on Earth, especially in high and middle latitudes. Besides the increased UV radiation, high-energy cosmic rays that are part of a major SPE would penetrate the atmosphere and raise radiation levels on the ground. According to LaViolette’s calculations, unprotected organisms at sea level during the event could have accumulated radiation doses of 3 to 6 Sieverts (a unit of radiation exposure) over a period of two or three days. Lethal radiation doses for humans are in the range of about 3.5 Sieverts, and for many large mammals in the 3- to 8-Sievert range. The best mode of protection at the time, both from the UV radiation and the cosmic ray radiation, may have been to seek safety in caves and other underground shelters.

Interestingly, Austrian archaeologist and speleologist Heinrich Kusch and his wife Ingrid Kusch have documented hundreds upon hundreds of tunnel systems under Neolithic settlements found throughout Europe and Turkey, some dating back to around twelve thousand years ago, the end of the last ice age. According to Heinrich Kusch, based on the number of tunnels that have survived to the present day, the original extent of such tunnels must have been absolutely enormous! He states that many of the tunnels “are not much larger than big wormholes—just 70 cm [28 inches] wide—just wide enough for a person to wriggle along but nothing else. They are interspersed with nooks; at some places it’s larger and there is seating, or storage chambers and rooms. Taken together it is a massive underground network.” (Heinrich Kusch, quoted in the Austrian Times, 2011)

An immediate question is why were these tunnels built? What was their use? An incredible amount of time and effort went into their construction, so their purpose could not have been trivial. To quote Heinrich Kusch, “The precision with which they were built in prehistoric times is unbelievable. Miners and tunnel construction engineers I spoke with were stunned…. It would be hard to dig tunnels as these even with today’s means. They are hewn very exactly in the hardest granite and people most probably didn’t even have metal when the tunnels were built.” (Heinrich Kusch, quoted in the Austrian Times, 2011)

It has been suggested that perhaps early humans used these tunnels to escape predators or enemies, or perhaps the tunnels served as underground passages from one place to another. I believe the tunnels were built primarily as safe havens and refuges from catastrophes occurring on the surface of Earth. These might have included comet and meteor bombardments, but in particular I believe the tunnels provided shelter from major solar outbursts. In my opinion, the fact that such events were occurring around twelve to thirteen thousand years ago, the very time when many of the tunnels were carved, is not simple coincidence. Also, I speculate that many artificial caves and tunnels that have been dated to later periods (such as the Bronze Age, circa 3300 BC to 1200 BC) by archaeologists may have their origins much earlier, at the end of the last ice age some twelve thousand years ago.

Returning to the underground cities of Cappadocia, they were clearly used, reused, enlarged, and reworked for thousands of years (indeed, portions are still utilized by the local villagers). I strongly suspect that the earliest incarnations of the Cappadocian underground network date back to the end of the last ice age. This was a time of calamity and turmoil, with assaults from the skies, conflagrations on the ground, and elevated radiation levels on the surface of Earth. The best way, perhaps the only way, to survive was by going underground. Dramatic new evidence, which I believe helps confirm the reality of a major solar outburst at the end of the last ice age, has recently been released (Ted Bunch and coauthors, PNAS, June 2012). Naturally melted and vitrified rock dating to the end of the last ice age has been discovered at archaeological sites in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Syria (south of Turkey), which the original researchers suggest could be the result of a cosmic impact or explosion, such as that of a comet or meteor. Alternatively, I suggest a solar outburst/plasma discharge is another possibility for the vitrified rock. Back in the early 1960s, the late astrophysicist Thomas Gold, professor at Cornell University, predicted that fusing and vitrification of rock and sand is exactly the type of evidence that would suggest a major solar outburst hit Earth in ancient times. Now we may have the physical confirmation.


Robert M. Schoch, a full-time faculty member at Boston University, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University. His most recent book is Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future (Inner Traditions, 2012). Visit

By Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D.

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