The Nevşehir Underground City has been completely restored and was opened to the public in August 2020. The city features two main attractions: a hilltop Ottoman-era castle and a hillside living complex (Kayaşehir).
The hill-top site stands prominently over the city center of Nevşehir, about 200 meters from the populated area below. New roads provide easy access directly to the site, which is free to visit. With hilltop views and beautiful landscaping, the area is a delightful destination.
The Fortress (“Castle”)
The main feature at the hilltop is a large stone fortress. Though called a “castle,” this structure is for defensive and military purposes, not for living. Roughly 50m x 30m in shape, the oval-shaped fortress has large gates on the east and west ends. The interior has rooms in the corners and a raised walkway just inside the fortification walls.
The fortress was first built during the Seljuk era (early 1200s), then upgraded in the 1720s, when Damat Ibrahim Paşa (the grande vizier of the Ottoman sultan) completely rebuilt his hometown of Nevşehir. After 2018-9 restorations, the fortress is completely accessible and well landscaped inside. The path along the walls offers magnificent (and harrowing!) vistas of Nevşehir below.
The Hillside Settlement
From the parking lot, you can walk 150 meters along a path to a network of hillside rooms cut from the living rock. This area is called Kayaşehir (“rock city”). The entire area takes about 10 minutes to tour, as you walk over and through several of the ancient rooms. A small café offers a wonderful view over Nevşehir.
One room has a curious chamber with a rock-cut cross on the back wall. The small chamber looks like a winepress—measuring one square meter by about 1.5 meters. A large window with a large frame breaks into the upper half. The rock-cut Roman cross is now broken away, but the remaining marks show that it was the center feature of the space. There is no known architectural parallel, so the purpose of this “rock chamber with cross relief” is unclear. A picture placed in the chamber suggests that the area was used to house the dressed corpse of a deceased saint, propped up while survivors in the community paid their respects. Another possibility is that this was a cell where monks resided to perform spiritual exercises.
A cave church was found within the complex. The room was filled entirely with dirt, so it has few preserved frescoes. The church, not yet fully excavated, is not open to the public because of the room’s high humidity, which causes the painted plaster to easily crumble. The church is a tall, single-nave church of average size. A painted barrel-vaulted narthex, entered from the south courtyard, with several burial chambers, precedes the nave. The ceiling has a large corbel with several panel icons painted on the underside. One image is St. Antipas, the martyr/witness of Pergamum in Rev 2:13. He also appears at Tatlarin Church (near Acıgöl), which dates to 1216 AD. Therefore, this church probably dates early 13C, though perhaps 11C.
The Big News vs. Reality
The area was uncovered in 2013 as the local government was building public housing on the hillside. Headlines quickly announced that Nevşehir had “discovered the world’s largest underground city,” even by the likes of National Geographic. However, this misleading claim needs some context. One, the carved rooms below the hilltop castle were not “discovered” in 2013. The locals who lived on the hillside (in housing that has been destroyed) always knew about the subterranean caverns, and even used them for storage. Two, the site is hardly the largest, as it has only one (perhaps two) levels below the surface. And three, the area is not an “underground city,” as the rooms are not interconnected through tunnels, as at the underground cities of Kaymakli and Derinkuyu. Rather, the rock-cut rooms in Nevşehir are better classified as a “cliff dwelling” or “hillside settlement.”
The city of Nevşehir, despite being the provincial capital in the middle of Cappadocia, has no popular destinations, and so it receives few tourists as compared to Ürgüp and Göreme. Eager to draw tourists towards the city center, the municipality perhaps overpromoted the site in the early days. They did not “discover the world’s largest underground city,” but, rather, “publicized a medium-sized hillside settlement.”