The ancient underground city of Turkey is not what everyone says

Archaeologists in Turkey have uncovered a nearly 2,000-year-old underground city in the southeastern province of Mardin. The underground complex at modern Midyat was excavated two years ago when restorations in the basements of stone houses revealed a cave that opened onto an underground tunnel. The discovery made headlines as a “refuge for early Christians” during times of Roman persecution. But is that true? Did the Roman authorities literally force the first-century Christians underground? Or is the truth even more interesting?

Even before archaeologists excavated the site, the presence of underground tunnels was well known to locals. Underground cities are comparatively widespread in Turkey, with some estimates of their number in the hundreds. The most surprising part of the recent discovery at Midyat is the sheer size of the complex: It’s about 74 acres (3.2 million square feet). Gani Tarkan, director of the Mardin Museum who was involved in the initial discovery, told media that between 50,000 and 70,000 people may have lived there. According to experts, this would make it the largest underground city in Turkey. So far, only about five percent of the metropolis has been examined.

Like the underground city of Derinkuyu, the underground complex was not just a shelter. It had infrastructure: discoveries included silos for storing grain, food, olive oil and wine. In addition to the expected human and animal remains, the excavation has also unearthed evidence of technologies for making wine, coins and lamps. Scientists believe that an area decorated with a Star of David may have once served as an ancient synagogue. Similarly, areas of the city of Derinkuyu have been identified as stables, religious rooms, and even a school.

However, news of the discovery leads to the assumption that these underground cities were built to offer refuge to Christians in times of persecution. That Wall Street Journal states: “During the first century the Roman Empire persecuted Christians and Jews and drove many underground.” Similarly, livescience leads with the idea that “the underground complex may have been a protected space used by early Christians to escape Roman persecution.”

The impetus for this interpretation comes from Tarkan himself, who said in comments on it livescience and the Wall Street Journalthat “families and groups who embraced Christianity generally took refuge in underground cities to escape persecution.” Smithsonian added: “After the persecution ended, these Christians and Jews went about the earth.”

So far, no archaeological evidence of Christian occupation of the underground city at Midyat in the first or second century CE has been reported, unlike the city of Derinkuyu. Therefore, nothing in the discoveries so far suggests an early Christian occupation, let alone a hiding. In fact, it’s hard to imagine what’s so “mysterious” about being in an underground city that was home to thousands of people.

Excavation teams work as many artifacts dating back to the second and third centuries AD were unearthed on April 16, 2022 at an underground city in Midyat district of Mardin, Turkiye

Halil Ibrahim Sincar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

So the idea that Christians have gone underground comes from somewhere else entirely. It draws on a broader and more common mythology about early Christians: during times of Roman persecution, Christians hid in the labyrinthine catacombs beneath the Eternal City.

According to numerous Christian books, films, and even Pope Francis, Christians used to retreat to the catacombs to hide from the Roman authorities. The problem with this idea is that it’s a 19th-century tourist myth. When the Roman catacombs were excavated during this period, the discovery of utensils and plates led some to conclude that Christians had been forced to hide underground. Recent archaeological analyzes assume that Christians held solemn, possibly sacramental meals in honor of the dead there. However, due to this initial misinterpretation, the catacombs were transformed into places of pilgrimage and merged into the Grand Tour of Europe. The idea seeped into the literature of the time: Dr. Wolfred Cote, a 19th-century missionary living in Rome, wrote in his 1876 Archeology of Baptism“During the dark days of imperial persecution, the primitive Christians of Rome found a ready refuge in the catacombs.” Somewhat alarmingly, Cote’s statement is still quoted in some modern Christian books.

However, the idea is flatly dismissed among scholars. As Professor Leonard Rutgers of Utrecht University writes, “Researchers have long debunked the myth that Christians used the catacombs as hiding places in times of persecution.” Encyclopedia of Catholicism agrees, noting that the catacombs “were not used as hiding places for Christians” contrary to “novel and film lore.” (Full disclosure: I’ve written an entire book on the exaggerated mythology of early Christian persecution).

For early Christians, underground cities were not excellent secret hiding places. They could (as later) serve as places of fortified protection against invasions and attacks by foreigners. But if the problem was evading local authorities, wouldn’t simply leaving the city and going to a less densely populated region have been a better strategy? like dr Jennifer Barry traces in her book Bishops in flightLeaving the city in times of political pressure was the most popular option for high-profile wealthy Old Christians. Neither the catacombs of Rome nor the underground cities of Turkey were secret compartments in an anonymous cellar: people knew about them. How secret is a hideout shared by thousands of others?

Oddly enough, and despite the fact that there are so many of them, some other Turkish underground cities are also advertised as Christian sanctuaries. For example, take the most famous example, Derinkuyu. A respectable history magazine writes that this UNESCO site was “built by early Christians”. (Note: UNESCO makes no such claims on its website). But the so-called “persecuted early church” slips between the cracks in Derinkuyu’s architectural history: the site was built in the 8th centuryth-7th century B.C. by the Phrygians, but was greatly expanded and prospered during the Byzantine period. Apparently, in the seventh century B.C. There were no Christians in BC, and Christians formed a powerful majority during the Byzantine period. It’s not at all clear whether early Christians have always hidden underground from the local Roman authorities, but they certainly did not build the city for that purpose.


Excavation teams discovered that a cave found two years ago while working in the neighborhood’s historic streets and houses was not the only one, and that there were passageways within the cave leading to different locations. The underground city, called “Matiate”, is home to many places of worship, silos, water wells, and passages and passages.

Halil Ibrahim Sincar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

But if the “underground cities” aren’t hiding places for persecuted Christians or just old residents, then what are they?

We can think of a number of reasons, both practical and impractical, why people built underground dwellings. The lack of escape routes and cool temperatures make “basements” excellent prisons and storage areas. It is easier to control people’s movement when their only way out is upwards. Underground hiding spots can also be effective protection during disasters and foreign invasions. But human and cultural elements are also at work here.

In Turkey, this could be a question of cultural practices that exploit the soft limestone beneathfoot. In his book Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet, Journalist Will Hunt recalls talking to an elderly farmer named Latif in the Turkish village of Özkonak. Latif had discovered his own underground city in the early 1970s. “The underground cities aren’t that strange,” Latif told Hunt. “They are everywhere. Digging these spaces is a very old affair. It’s a natural thing to do.”

The idea of ​​hiding underground makes practical sense to us given that military technology has evolved over the last two hundred years. Today we build air raid shelters underground. Ever since war took hold, hiding in underground stations has been a method used by WWII Londoners to besiege and contemporary Ukrainians to evade air raids. Beijing’s Dixia Cheng, an intricate network of tunnels built in the 1970s, was built as a shelter in the event of bombing or nuclear attacks.

Digging makes emotional sense too. Even before air raids, people dug in to escape attacks. And even without a concrete reason to fear an attack from the air, people still do it today. In a move reminiscent of Cold War bunker frenzy, a former Soviet bunker in Germany has been transformed into luxurious doomsday shelters for billionaires. At the start of the pandemic, wealthy Americans targeted new construction bunkers in New Zealand. Long after we stopped hiding from the world under blankets as children, the urge to burrow into the earth lingers with us.

However, as Hunt explains in his book, the appeal of the ditch is not just the protective nature of the cave. While for many of us tunneling requires that we first wrestle any conservationist claustrophobic impulses into the (under)ground, for others it’s a relaxing return to our proverbial and perhaps evolutionary roots. We used to feel quite comfortable in caves. One of the world’s first burial sites, the Dinaledi Chamber in South Africa (236,000-335,000 years old) was an underground chamber inhabited by members of the genus Homo naledi deposited dead. As Prof. Agustin Fuentes writes in his remarkable book Why we believethe members of the genus Homo naldei “risked a lot” to do this: they were small, but to get into the chamber they first had to drag the bodies 100 feet through a narrow underground tunnel.

Modern history is replete with tales of amateur excavators finding tunneling comfort. Take, for example, William Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the fifth Duke of Portland, who in the 19th century excavated a metropolis beneath his family’s Nottinghamshire estate, Welbeck Abbey. With the help of paid workers, he outfitted it with all the necessities: a billiard room, an underground ballroom, and, of course, a roller rink. Or more recently, think of Elton Macdonald, the Canadian-turned-folk-hero who built a mysterious, structurally sound tunnel beneath his local park. In 2015, the Toronto tunnel sparked panic when police identified it as a potential terrorist hideout. When Macdonald came forward to allay public concerns, the only way he could explain his actions was, “digging relaxes me.” The ancient underground city of Turkey is not what everyone says


Hung is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Hung joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

Related Articles

Back to top button