Today, we live in a world in which everybody is racing to build structures that would seemingly touch the farthest lining of the sky. The skyline of many cities across the globe is bedecked by dozens of towering skyscrapers which have continued to multiply or are set to be replaced by much taller and larger buildings as the years go by. However, societies of men all the way back to our ancient past also displayed their ability to build great structures downward, establishing cities hidden beneath the Earth’s crust. These underground cities were constructed and used throughout history as shelters during periods of war, as protection from the dangers posed by nature or as sacred locations for a certain civilization’s faith and religion. They have also been the subject of many ancient myths and legends, most of which suggest that these subterranean realms hold secrets that would alter our current understanding of the world and its history.
Many of these mysterious underground cities have yet to be re-discovered in modern times but there are a few whose existence and location are known to us today through their true history and purpose are still largely unsolved.
1. WIELICZKA SALT MINE – POLAND
The Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland. This table salt mine situated in southern Poland’s town of Wieliczka is popularly referred to as the “Underground Salt Cathedral” because of its subterranean location and its massive size, occupying over 287 kilometers of the town’s land. It was first opened in the 13th century and has continued to produce table salt until commercial mining ceased in 1996 and until operations completely halted in 2007, making it one of the oldest salt mines that remained operational up to the 21st century. However, some experts say that exploration and use of the salt deposit in this area dates much earlier than that – possibly around 6,000 years ago or more – as ancient cemeteries dating all the way back to the Neolithic Period have been found in the region by researchers.
Today, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is regarded as a national historic monument in Poland not only because of its 700-year legacy of producing salt but also for the complex tunnels and intricate rock salt carvings inside the facility, including various statues of mythical figures as well as several chapels which were either created by the salt miners or supplemented by contemporary artists. Its galleries and tunnels extend more than 300 meters underground and the mine is now a popular tourist site that admits around 1.2 million visitors every year.
2. LALIBELA – ETHIOPIA
The Village of Lalibela in Ethiopia. The holy town of Lalibela, which is located in the heart of Ethiopia, is home to the world’s biggest monolithic churches. Eleven of these marvelous, rock-hewn Christian churches stand in this Ethiopian village, which is why it is no surprise that this subterranean village is regarded as a sacred location by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, welcoming around 100,000 pilgrims annually. The churches are connected with each other via passageways and the largest one of them is the house of Medhane, which is more than 30 feet tall, more than 100 feet long and around 70 feet wide. But the most iconic of the structures in this village is arguably the Church of Saint George. Shaped like a cross, the construction of this sacred site was believed by some to have been supervised by the saint himself.
The Lalibela village is regarded as a mysterious underground village for several compelling reasons and much of the people’s fascination is on how the churches were built and why they were constructed in the first place. According to legends, the monolithic churches in Lalibela were excavated around the 13th century, during the reign of Gebre Mesquel Lalibela in Ethiopia. The ruler was allegedly tasked by an angel to build the churches and in order to immediately finish its construction, men had to work tirelessly day and night with angels to carve the structures out of solid rock. With the two creatures of God working together, legends claim that all the churches in the village were completed in just 24 years. Of course, some archaeologists and other experts find this unlikely, with some arguing that some of the fortifications at the site are several centuries older than the others, having been built way before Lalibela’s reign.
3. NAOURS – FRANCE
The underground city of Naours in France. The humble beginnings of this subterranean settlement in northern France date all the way back to the 2nd century, during the domination of the Roman Empire. Back then, the site was nothing more than a limestone quarry but for the next centuries that came, the locals in the area transformed it into an underground storage facility and hiding place in times of wars and invasions during the Middle Ages. This hidden city of Naours features a network of tunnels that extend around two miles and contains more than 300 rooms that could house about 3,000 inhabitants. The underground site eventually transformed into a small city in which wells, stables, chapels, and bakeries were also constructed in order to accommodate the human community secretly living beneath the Earth’s surface.
According to some experts, the Vikings may have also lived in the underground city when they invaded this part of France in the 9th century. It also proved to be a useful hiding spot when armies of soldiers and mercenaries pillaged and massacred innocents during the deadly Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century. When Europe became more peaceful and stable, the underground city ultimately no longer served its purpose and was later abandoned and forgotten by locals. It was rediscovered by a man renovating his home in the 19th century and was utilized in some capacity during the First and Second World War. Today, its elaborate tunnel network has made it a very popular tourist attraction in France.
4. DERINKUYU – TURKEY
The Derinkuyu in Turkey. This ancient city concealed underneath the Derinkuyu district in Turkey’s Nevşehir Province is deemed as the largest underground complex in the country, extending around 200 feet beneath the Earth’s surface and occupying an area of around 7,000 square feet. It is one of many subterranean structures found in the historical Cappadocia region and is believed to have been first developed by an ancient Indo-European people known as the Phrygians around the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. However, experts are not in total agreement on who exactly constructed the Derinkuyu and when they had built it, with some suggesting that the multi-level ancient underground city may have already existed before 1200 BCE.
Derinkuyu has eighteen levels, though only a few of them are currently accessible today since it was rediscovered in the 1960s. It was a fully-functional metropolis that was capable of accommodating and sustaining as many as 20,000 residents. Not only were there dozens of ventilation shafts that distributed air all over this underground city, it also contained rooms of varying sizes that served different purposes. Researchers that excavated the site found sleeping quarters, bathrooms, kitchens, food and weapons storage and public areas like schools and churches. The city also had tombs, which seemed to suggest that people intended to sustain life below the ground through several generations. It is also believed that there is an undiscovered tunnel that connects Derinkuyu to another underground city nearby in Kaymakli, alluding to the possibility that these concealed civilizations had contact and cooperated with each other.
5. PETRA – JORDAN
The ancient caravan city of Petra in Jordan. For several centuries, this historical city was deemed as “lost” to Western civilization until its rediscovery by a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt back in the early part of the 19th century. The site is referred to as “Petra” – the Greek word for “rock” – because this ancient city is carved directly into sandstone rock. Some archaeological experts believe that it was occupied by an ancient civilization more than 9000 years ago. Various tribes over the years that passed came and went to inhabit the area, including the Nabateans who made it a trading post and a capital of their empire between 400 B.C. and 106 A.D. Rome took possession of the city sometime after and earthquakes and decline of international trade in the area led to its eventual abandonment in the 7th century A.D.
At the ancient city’s height, Petra may have accommodated as many as 20,000 people and it contained houses, temples, theaters, tombs and elaborate transport and irrigation systems that allowed the locals of this area to thrive as a community. Excavations of the underground city is still in progress and according to archaeologist Zeidoun Al-Muheisen of Yarmouk University in Jordan, only 15 percent of the city has been uncovered, with the “vast majority” of it still concealed “underground and untouched.”
One of the iconic structures in Petra is the Treasury or the Al Khazneh – an ancient temple carved out of 130-feet sandstone rock face. You may have seen this particular edifice in the adventure film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” in which the protagonist was searching for the mythical Holy Grail. Though its connection to this Christian relic is fictional, some believe that Petra may have been the actual site where Moses hit a rock using his staff, bringing forth water to the Israelites when they left Egypt. Some also think that hidden treasures can be uncovered in the Treasury and many tombs were looted by thieves in an effort to find them.