April 18, 2012 | by Will Hunt
We are pupils of the animals in the most important things: the spider for spinning and mending, the swallow for building, and the songsters, swan and nightingale, for singing, by way of imitation. —Democritus, Fragment 154
I decided to go to Cappadocia after seeing an old illustration of one of the underground cities. The drawing, just a rough sketch, showed tiny people moving through a honeycomb of underground caverns, passageways, and winding staircases. The honeycombed cities, I read, had been hollowed from the region’s soft volcanic soil during the early Bronze Age. Cappadocia had been cobwebbed by trade routes in those days and was constantly under attack; the underground cities served as fortification from invaders. There were hundreds of them, one beneath nearly every modern settlement in the region, and some were as deep as ten levels, with space for thousands of people. What made me curious was that the ancient inhabitants were believed to have lived underground for months at a time.
I arrived in Cappadocia by overnight bus, waking up to a landscape of cream-colored rocks sculpted in waves and swells, forms I didn’t think were in the repertoire of rocks. I stayed for two weeks in a guesthouse in Göreme, a town set in the heart of the region among clusters of upright rock formations shaped like mushrooms. Each day, I visited a different underground city. A few were linked by bus routes, but most were in remote villages. I would set out mornings over flatlands patched with potato fields, wine vineyards, and apricot orchards. Farmers and truck drivers going my way would stop and pick me up. In Özlüce, a small village in the middle of a featureless sweep, an old woman with a headkerchief and billowing pants chattered to me in Turkish, led me down a dirt road, and pointed to a crumbling stone building with yeralti sehri (“underground city”) painted on an arch over the door. On the other side of the door was a stone-cut stairwell leading into a warren of dark chambers lined with cobwebs, smelling faintly of an animal den.
I spent about an hour in the city. The walls were caramel colored and damp with condensation, and it was cold enough that my breath was visible. I crawled on hands and knees through low passageways, squeezed through narrow corridors, ducked beneath arches, running my hands along the walls of dark, empty chambers. In some chambers, there were holes in the ceiling for ventilation. Just inside the entrance was a millstone, a hulking disk-shaped rock, six feet tall and several feet thick. It was tucked into a slot to the side of the front door. In the event of an invasion, the villagers would retreat underground, and roll the millstone in front of the door, sealing the city from the inside. There was a hole at the center of the stone through which the villagers would shoot arrows or spear their enemies. Such millstones protected the entrance of every city in the region. In many cities there were traps: holes in the ceiling, through which the villagers had poured hot oil on their enemies. At the archaeological museum in Ankara, I had seen Bronze Age weapons, diabolical barbed things, and I could imagine the dark entrance strewn with bodies. I was relieved to come back aboveground. The city had felt cold and alien, and it was difficult to imagine people spending any amount of time there.
After exploring the underground city beneath Gaziemir, a small gray village which sees few foreigners, a skinny old man in a rumpled blazer invited me into his home. It was a burrow, hollowed out from the earth. The main room was dome-shaped and visible in the walls were scalloped marks from digging tools. A woven basket hung on the wall. He offered me tea in a bulb-shaped glass and we sat on heavy woven rugs laid out over benches that had been carved from the rock. Walking from village to village, I had seen hundreds such rock-cut dwellings. It was easier and more economical to build homes into the earth. Some people moved into roughhewn burrows that had been hollowed out thousands of years before; others dug new burrows. Even the bedroom at the guesthouse where I slept each night was carved from the earth.
One gray afternoon, I met an old farmer named Latif who had himself discovered an underground city. Latif had a grizzled beard, a woolen knit cap, and only one arm, having lost the other after he fell from a tree as a child. With his son acting as translator, Latif told me that in 1972 he had been watering his fields near the village of Özkönak, when he noticed water disappearing underground. He started prodding at the ground, a hole opened up, and he felt cool air against his face. He continued digging, and one chamber led to another, which led to another. The city he discovered is believed to reach ten levels underground, though only part of it has been fully excavated. When I asked Latif how it felt to make such a discovery, he shrugged. “It was nothing so great,” he said. “I was born here. The underground cities were always a part of life.”
In the underground city of Özkönak, I visited a kitchen. There was a small pit in the middle of the floor that would have held a fire for cooking and small alcoves on the walls to hold candles. There was a larder, with depressions in the floor to hold massive earthenware jugs and small niches like shelves in a pantry. There were holes in the ceiling for ventilation where air came rushing down. There was a stable, with troughs for livestock to eat. In another chamber was a basin the size of a large bathtub that had been hollowed from the floor. It had been part of a winery. Alcoves along the wall would have contained large jugs of wine. An archaeologist in the city of Nevşehir told me that the winery signified a prosperous community. Rather than a cold fortress, this felt like another part of the city, or a city all its own. I pictured the ancient residents of Özkönak forming industrious queues leading out of the underground city, passing jars of wine and food up and down, bringing livestock in and out, moving naturally between underground and aboveground.
Leaving the winery, ducking through a coarsely hewn passageway, I thought of a documentary I had once seen about the Atta, a genus of leaf-cutter ant. In their nests, which run thirty feet deep and cover the area of a small house, each chamber is dedicated to a particular function: some for storing food, some for waste, others for raising the colony’s brood. The documentary showed rivers of ants, different castes with different responsibilities moving from chamber to chamber, between aboveground and belowground, bringing in food material from above, bringing out soil from below.
Outside, I walked down a dried-up river gorge where erosion had caused a part of the underground city to collapse. It revealed a cross-section view of the city, stretching for almost a mile: five levels were visible with hundreds of dark passageways and chambers. Just over the ridge of the hill was the silhouette of the modern village, homes with pitched rooftops. Standing in the river gorge, I studied these dual cities, aboveground and belowground, mirroring each other. It occurred to me that the composition looked like nothing so much as a toy ant farm I had had in my bedroom as a child. An Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm it was called, the kind a lot of kids had. A clear plastic display framed in cheap green molding and inside a bed of white sand, providing a cross-section view of busy ants digging tunnels. Above the bed of sand was a green plastic silhouette of a farm, a windmill, a barn, and tiny houses.
This image of the dual cities at Özkönak stayed with me, and when I returned home, I took a trip to Tallahassee, Florida, to visit an entomologist who studied ant-nest architecture. I met Walter Tschinkel one steamy morning near the Florida State University campus. He was under six feet with neat cropped hair and a taciturn, but pleasant, disposition. He was in his late sixties and had been studying ants for nearly fifty years. Tschinkel didn’t seem quite sure why I had come, and did not ask questions, but he seemed content enough to let me tag along. We got into his old hatchback and drove out to his research station in the middle of Apalachicola National Forest.
Tschinkel made metal casts of ant nests. In a small sandy clearing among scrubby pine trees, he unloaded a homemade galvanized trash can from his car and filled it with charcoal briquettes. When the kiln was hot, he lowered in a metal container filled with scraps of zinc. When he removed the crucible from the kiln, the zinc was molten. Gripping the container with heavy oven mitts, he carefully poured the liquid metal over the entrance to a tiny anthill that he had flagged belonging to the species Aphaenogaster floridana. Next to the anthill, we began digging a large hole, scattering dirt behind us. When the pit was maybe three feet deep, we put aside the shovels and started carefully picking at the wall with our fingers.
The soil was hot to the touch. The molten zinc had sluiced through the ant nest, filling each chamber, then had cooled and hardened. From the dirt, we gingerly excavated a metal cast of the nest. It looked like a piece of sculpture, about a foot and a half high, with small bulb-shaped chambers connected by thin, elliptical passages. There were tiny ant corpses entombed in the zinc. Some of Tschinkel’s casts were more than ten feet tall, with hundreds of chambers and long tunnels spiraling downwards like some great, tentacled creature.
At the end of the afternoon, Tschinkel was laying on his car hood the casts we had made that day. Some had come out in pieces and would be glued together later, while others were intact. I picked up each cast and ran my fingers over the metal chambers and passageways. I felt as though I was holding tiny models of the cities I had visited in Cappadocia. I described to Tschinkel the sprawling tunnels and chambers and the millstones that were rolled into place when enemies invaded. I described the winery and the kitchen and larder and the living spaces. I told him about the Özkönak underground city and the silhouetted aboveground city and how it reminded me of my toy ant farm.
To be honest, what I wanted to tell him about just then was the Thames Tunnel in London. About how Marc Isambard Brunel, the engineer commissioned to build the tunnel, was working at a boatyard in England, when he noticed a piece of worm-eaten wood lying on the dock. And how when he picked up the wood and peered into one of the tiny perforations, he saw a shipworm, Teredo navalis, still burrowing away. Brunel admired the form of the mollusk’s head, which was hard-shelled with serrated edges, and the way the shipworm left a hardened calcareous coating on the inside of its burrow, enabling it to easily bore through the wood. Later, the engineer designed an enormous cylindrical machine with a cast-iron hull, just like the mollusk’s head, which he used to burrow beneath the river. But before I could get the story out, Tschinkel interrupted me: “You said millstones?”
“Big circular stones, shaped like a donut,” I said. I pulled out my notebook, ready to draw a picture for him. “They would roll them into place when—”
Tschinkel was nodding and an expression on his face made me stop. “Stenamma alas,” he said, after a moment. “It’s a species of ant in Costa Rica.”
It had just recently been identified by a colleague of his named John Longino. Tschinkel explained that Stenamma alas was perpetually under siege by a species of pugnacious army ant. To defend against these attacks, Stenamma alas had developed a peculiar adaptation.
“They keep a pebble, just the right size, next to the entrance,” he said. “When army ants come in, the colony retreats into the nest. The last ant in pulls the pebble over the entrance.”
Soon after leaving Tallahassee, I e-mailed John Longino, the man who had discovered Stenamma alas. Enclosed in his reply was an academic article he had written about the species. It included zoomed-in photographs of the ant, with its gleaming black and amber body, and brief descriptions of the ant’s behavior. The paper also included several pictures of the antholes, each surrounded by a fine aureola of sand. Lying next to each hole was a tiny, brown pebble, waiting to be popped into place. Longino wrote that in fact he had just spoken to Tschinkel about my visit the night before, and that he and his colleagues had already begun referring to Stenamma alas as the name “Cappadocian Ant.”
[Photo of Walter Tschinkel, by Charles F. Badland, courtesy of Walter R. Tschinkel.]
Will Hunt is writing a book about subterranean space.