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Text & Photographs: Danielle North
August 2009

Rising above the village of Tatlarin is a steep sided plateau studded with man made cavities. Within lays a vast complex of tunnels and chambers, the complete extent of which is still unknown. Among the important discoveries made here are two churches that contain large sections of their original paintings.

A short drive to the west of Nevşehir along a deserted winding road and past fertile farmland is the village of Tatlarin. Here one of the lesser known underground cities of Cappadocia is hidden within a steep sided plateau that stands above the old and abandoned part of the village.
The vast complex of tunnels and rooms was discovered in 1975, more than a decade later than the major underground settlements at Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı. Although it is thought that the underground city at Tatlarin extends over an area of several kilometres, only a small section has been excavated and opened to the public since 1991. Work still continues to clear other parts of the complex so as to be able to open them to visitors in the future, but due to the estimated size it will take many more years to fully excavate all levels and to record and preserve what is found during the process.

Uncertain history
As with other underground cities in Cappadocia, it is impossible to say with certainty when the one at Tatlarin first came into existence. Due to the softness of the volcanic rock in Cappadocia it was logical that the inhabitants of the area began to dig out cavities for purposes such as shelter and the storage of food. Some researchers believe that the origins of the underground cities go back as far as the Hittite period, when storage area’s were dug out of the ground. Others maintain that the underground cities began with the Phrygians who dug out tunnels as a defence measure against the attacking Assyrians. In time these basic cavities would have gradually been enlarged and connected with each other to form the basis of the underground cities as we know them today.
A common opinion is that the underground cities of Cappadocia came into existence either in the Roman or Byzantine period. When the Romans ruled this part of the world these subterranean cities were thought to have been used as a place of refuge by persecuted Christians. In the Byzantine period Cappadocia lay near the border of the empire and was often besieged by the neighbouring Arabs. From inside these underground cities the local population would have been able to defend itself and would have possibly sought refuge here for months at a time. Peace and stability were established in the region in the 14th century after the area became part of the Ottoman Empire. Now no longer under attack the underground settlements lost their function and came into disuse.
In the case of Tatlarin this troglodytic complex was possibly not a stronghold for the local community as is the case with other underground cities in Cappadocia. The vast amount of storage space for food, as well as the large rooms that have so far been excavated, may indicate that it had a military purpose such as a garrison. Another theory focuses on the large numbers of churches in and around the underground maze and suggests that it was built as a monastic settlement. Most of these religious structures have however collapsed in time, although two elaborately decorated churches have luckily been spared that fate.

Chambers underground
To get to the modern-day entrance of the Tatlarin underground city visitors must first ascend the steep road that leads halfway up the side of the plateau. The site may seem deserted but the custodian will quickly appear from the shadows of the rocks. He’ll lead the way to a metal door in the rear end of one of the semi collapsed rooms. From here a 15 meter long tunnel slowly descends into the dark world of the underground city ending in a big hall that due to its size most likely functioned as a communal area. The entrance to this room could be blocked by a big round stone slab, which would be rolled in front of the doorway in case of attack. This type of door could be opened from the inside only and as an important defensive measure it is commonly found in the underground cities of Cappadocia. On the right side of the hall there is a kitchen which is believed to have been a burial place in the Roman period and later turned into a kitchen under the Byzantines. At the far end of the hall a wooden ladder leads up into a ventilation shaft. Steps that quickly disappear into the darkness above have been carved out of the bottom of the shaft but seem to steep and worn to ascend. From the other side of the hall a tunnel with low ceiling descends deeper into the earth, leading to another large room. From here an even smaller tunnel slowly heads deeper into the ground, gradually diminishing in height along the way. For anyone with even the slightest bit of claustrophobia a quick peek into this tunnel should be sufficient to satisfy any curiosity.
 One of the most unique elements of Tatlarin underground city is the presence of toilets, a feature that has so far only been found at the Güzelyurt underground city. At Tatlarin two rock-cut toilets can be admired, each located at the end of a tunnel in the vicinity of the large communal area’s.

Decorated churches
Besides the underground city of Tatlarin there are two 13th century churches that enrich the site. Both churches have a double nave and were extensively decorated with wall paintings, some parts of which are still in remarkably good condition. Restoration work has brought the decoration with its vivid colours back to life and in the smaller of the two churches large portions of the decoration has survived. Here representations can be seen of Christ enthroned, the Byzantine emperor Constantine with his mother Helena holding the cross on which Jesus died between them, the archangels Michael and Gabriel, and biblical scenes as the Crucifixion and Transfiguration. The second church is larger and has a remarkably high ceiling, a feature not often encountered in the churches of Cappadocia. Although most of the paintings in this church are completely lost or badly damaged there is still an inscription visible narrating that these paintings were created in 1215 A.D. Research has shown comparisons in iconography and style with the Karşı Kilise in Gülşehir (19 km north of Nevşehir) which seems to indicate that a local workshop existed here and was responsible for the decoration of these churches.
At Tatlarin you will not find busloads full of tourists, or crammed souvenir shops obscuring the entrance to the site. The excavated part of this city underground may still be small but nevertheless contains a number of interesting details. In combination with the churches and the peaceful surroundings this makes a detour to this village more than worth the while.

Note: This article has been published in Peribacası Cappadocia Culture and Publicity Magazine, August 2009 issue. It is under protection of the copyrights of the magazine. No part of this article may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by electronic, mechanical or other means without prior permission from the owner.


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