There were two recurring themes that surprised us while researching cave dwelling cultures from around the world:
2. George Lucas.
Read on to see where we’re going with this.
1. Cappadocia, Turkey
Image: Curious Expeditions/Flickr
Image: sputnik 57/Flickr
The Cappadocia region of central Turkey has some of the strangest, most incredible geology anywhere on earth. And for 3,500 years, humans have managed to build 200 incredible cities in this rocky, mountainous terrain. Lucky for modern day visitors, the cave cities in Cappadocia provide thousands of years of history and miles of caves to explore. And on top of that, all the artifacts found within the caves have been incredibly well maintained over the centuries. The dry, arid weather inside the caves has made for almost perfect conditions for preserving the artifacts, and there is still undoubtedly much more to be discovered.
Along with constructing incredible cave complexes, the multiple groups that have called Cappadocia home also utilized the unique Fairy Chimney rock formations native to the area – turning them into homes. Found only in a few places on earth, the formation looks like a tall pyramid with a large rock balanced on top. Native cultures hollowed them out and used them as freestanding dwellings. Pretty cool huh?
2. Vardzia – Southern Georgia
We certainly don’t envy any 12th century monarch. With the Mongols terrorizing Europe, it must have felt like your chances for survival where slim. So when Queen Tamar of the Caucasus heard that the Mongol army was at her doorstep, she demanded the impossible: Build an impenetrable fortress on the side of the Erusheli mountain. Although it seems barely feasable by modern day standards, in 1185 construction began.
When the complex was completed it had 6,000 apartments on 13 levels, a throne room, a church, and an exterior of terraces for growing crops. Incredibly Vardzia also had an irrigation system and a secret entrance only accessible via a hidden tunnel.
Luckily, it worked in protecting the queen from the Mongols. Unluckily, a hundred years later a massive earthquake in 1283 destroyed much of the complex, exposing the interior apartments that were originally hidden inside the mountain. Even after the damage, monks continued to live in what was left until being attacked by Persians in 1551.
It is now open to visitors, and a small group of monks maintain the incredible ruins.
3. Petra – Jordan
The Nabataeans established Petra around the 6th Century BCE as their capital city. An important stop on the Middle Eastern trade route, Petra’s iconic structures weren’t built until around zero AD. The most famous ruin, Al Kjazneh or “The Treasury”, has an incredibly detailed facade carved out of a sandstone rock face.
Image: To Uncertainty And Beyond/Flickr
Many of the details of the Greek-influenced architecture has been lost over the years, but it still makes for an incredible site. Although it isn’t known what The Treasury was constructed for, it was deemed a World Heritage Site is 1985. But perhaps even more exciting than that, it was also in Indiana Jones an the Last Crusade.
4. Coober Pedy – Northern Australia
The small town of Coober Pedy has 3 great things going for it. 1: It is the Opal Capital of the World; 2: It is the set location for 3rd Mad Max movie; and 3: It was used while filming Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Other than that, living there is pretty rough. Located in a desolate strip of land in northern Australia, temperatures hover at around 105 degrees Fahrenheit for most of the summer. Along with the sweltering heat comes 20% humidity. Not such a comfy place to live – especially since power to run air conditioning is pretty expensive all the way out in the middle of nowhere.
To combat the insufferable temps the original opal prospectors in 1915 built underground homes, and to this day that’s how most of the town lives. One of the only modern additions? Chimneys that can be seen from above ground.
Since it’s become somewhat of a tourist attraction in the past 20 years, Coober Pedy offers a few underground hostels in case you’re dying to live like the locals.
5. Uplistsikhe – Eastern Georgia
Located 5 miles from Gori, the city of Stalin’s birth, Uplistsikhe is an ancient town built into the soft rocks of eastern Georgia. Some structures have been dated all the way to the Early Iron Age, but Uplistsikhe really began to hit its stride in the Middle Ages when it was a major stop in the Silk Road. At its peak the city housed a population of around 20,000 residents who lived in 700 caves. Unfortunately in the 13th century, Mongol invasions left the city ravaged. Already weak, subsequent earthquakes struck soon after, which severely damaged the rock city and left it largely uninhabitable.
Today only around 150 caves remain, many of which have barely survived. One of the most incredible structures still left standing is the 9th century church of Uplistulis Eklesia. Although the church was Christian, it was built directly over a previously constructed pagan sun temple. No matter what your religious bent the views from the church are pretty darn incredible.
Image: Mart Laanpere/Flickr
6. Yaodong in the Loess Plateau – China
Image: Next Stop Beijing
For centuries, inhabitants in the Loesses Plateau in northern China have been building their houses into the side of steep cliffs. Cave dwelling may seem like an ancient tradition, but recently Yaodongs have been praised for their eco-friendly construction and sustainability. Modern Yaodongs are constructed carefully with proper precautions, but this wasn’t always the case. When the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake hit northern China, an astonishing 85K people died when their cave homes caved in on them.
Today there is an estimated 40 million people who call Yaodong home including one famous former resident, Mao Zedong.
7. Matmata – Southern Tunisia
Image: Panegyrics of Granovetter/Flickr
If the interior of these buildings look familiar it’s probably because you’ve seen one before. Remember in the beginning of the first Star Wars movie? Yep, Luke Skywalker’s Aunt and Uncles home was actually filmed in a troglodyte house in Matmata, Tunisia. Troglodyte complexes have been built by the Berbers that live in this region for centuries, possibly even since Egyptian times. They are created by digging a large central pit, and then creating artificial underground caves around it.
Image: 10b travelling/Flickr
Even though these homes are ancient, it wasn’t until 1967 that they were “discovered” by the outside world. After 22 days of consistent rain, the small and private community of Matmata were forced to contact authorities when many of their homes began collapsing. It was previously thought that only nomadic tribes lived in the area, and officials were shocked when they came to investigate and found the troglodyte homes.
Image: matee, but who cares?/Flickr
In response to the flooding, above ground homes were built, but as soon as the underground dwellings could be repaired the new homes were abandoned.
8. Bamyan – Central Afghanistan
The modern story of Bamyan is a tearjerker, so prepare yourself.
Bamyan was once an important religious center for Buddhists, and at one point 2,000 monks built their homes in caves in the sandstone cliffs above the city of Bamyan. In addition to creating magnificent paintings inside the caves, the monks also built two massive statues of Buddha between 544-644. Standing 180 and 121 feed high, these were the largest standing statues of Buddha anywhere in the entire world – modern day included. Tragically in 2001 the Taliban intentionally destroyed the statues, calling them an “affront to Islam” and blowing them up with dynamite.
Image: United Nations Photo/Flickr
Previously the Taliban also used the monks’ caves to store ammunition, but once they were driven out of the region the caves became reoccupied with locals looking for homes. Amazingly, the new cave dwellers have found more treasures in the caves, including the world’s oldest oil paintings and a 62-foot reclining Buddha statue.
Image: Tracy Hunter
Image: Tracy Hunter
9. Kandovan – East Azerbaijan Province, Iran
When the Mongols invaded Iran in the 13th century, Iranians fled all over the country. A community ended up in northwestern Iran, and found a bizarre rock formation they decided to call home. These cone structures were created by eroded volcanic ash, and have made incredibly temperate and sturdy houses for the past 700 years.
Most homes built in Kandovan are between 2 and 4 stories tall, and have actually made this very remote village a popular tourist destination within Iran.
10. Bandiagara Escarpment – Dogon, Mali
Inhabited since the 3rd century B.C., the original cave dwellers in this region were driven out by the current residents, the Dogon. When the Dogon arrived in the 14th century, they were drawn to the cliff village because they offered cooler air, protection, and a place to bury their dead. Since the valleys below are prone to flash flooding, above ground cemetaries were the only way to keep their deceased safe from unearthing.
Image: Martha de Jong-Lantink/Flickr
Image: Mark Abel/Flickr
Although the Dogon people have lived in relative peace for centuries, recent interest in the cliff village from tourists have begun to unravel their traditional culture. Getting there isn’t easy though. To visit, tourists must be driven off the main road for miles, an then traverse a trail cut into the cliffs to get from village to village.
11. Mesa Verde – Montezuma County, Colorado
There aren’t many examples of cliff dwellers in North America, but the ones we do have are pretty spectacular. Native Americans made the cliffs overlooking what is now a lush valley in southwest Colorado their homes for over 700 years. The first structures were built in 600 A.D. and were abandoned in 1300 A.D. Surprisingly, the cities were so well hidden they weren’t “discovered” by the outside world until 1873, almost a hundred years after Spanish explorers traveled through the area.
The cliff complex has multiple sections, but the most spectacular and best known is the largest complex, the Cliff Palace. Even though it suffered irreparable damage and looting during the end of the 1800s, it still stands as one of the treasures of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples and is both a National Park and a World Heritage Site.
12. Sassi di Matera – Italy
Image: Maurizio Montanaro/Flickr
Sassi means “stones” and the aptly named Sassi di Matera refers to the old town of Matera. And by old, we mean old. The area has prehistoric history and is considered one of the first human settlements in Italy. The original homes in Sassi di Matera were dug into the mountainside, created layer by layer, with roads running over the homes’ roofs. Given the incredible age of most of the homes, the Italian government forcibly relocated much of population of Matera in the ’50s, and the remaining population lived in poverty.
Image: remuz [Jack The Ripper]/Flickr
But in the 1980s, with the help of the EU and Italian government, Sassi di Matera because a popular tourist destination and the region flourished.
Have you visited an amazing cave city we left off the list?
Article by Rachel Greenberg, originally written for NileGuide