Persecuted by the Romans, early Christians in what is now Turkey went underground—literally. Archaeologists have found evidence of a massive subterranean city they believe was designed for just that purpose. The city is thought to have housed roughly 70,000 people in the second and third centuries C.E., Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe reports.
Researchers believe the city, estimated to cover an area of over 4 million square feet, was used as a refuge by persecuted Jews and early Christians.
Situated beneath the city of Midyat, the complex was found in 2020 during routine restoration work on the city’s historic houses, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Joseph De Avila. After discovering a hidden entrance to a cave, workers took a passage that led them to the massive complex.
The complex has been named Matiate, which means “city of caves” in ancient Assyrian.
Researchers believe the complex was inhabited through the sixth century C.E. and was later used as a catacomb and wine-manufacturing facility when residents moved back above ground, according to the Wall Street Journal. They have found 49 chambers so far—less than 5 percent of the estimated underground city. In the areas that have been studied, researchers have found silos, coins, and lamps, as well as human and animal bones.
The underground complex also includes a number of places researchers think were used as places of worship, including one with a Star of David carved near the ceiling.
“Christianity was not an official religion in the second century [and] families and groups who accepted Christianity generally took shelter in underground cities to escape the persecution of Rome,” Tarkan told LiveScience.
Since many early Christians were also Jews, both religions were subject to persecution. Rome’s pagan rituals were part of the “normal fabric” of life in Roman cities, writes Biblical historian Wayne A. Meeks—and those who refused to participate in them “had no legal standing.”
After the Romans, the early Christians were persecuted by the Persians. And medieval soldiers who came through the area in wartimes recorded entire cities devoid of people.
Though experts believe this underground city to be the largest in Turkey, it’s far from a unique discovery for the country. More than 40 other such cities have been discovered in Turkey, the most famous of which is Derinkuyu—a massive subterranean complex believed to have been built between the eighth and ninth centuries B.C.E. Able to hold around 20,000 people, Derinkuyu was used as a hiding place by Byzantine Christians and Jews between the 8th and 12th centuries C.E.
More recently, an underground complex discovered under a Turkish house by looters in 2017 was found to be an Iron Age creation, reports Smithsonian’s Elizabeth Djinis.
Other sites important to early Christianity have become tourist destinations across the region once dominated by the Roman Empire. Burials in the Roman catacombs helped spur the development of Christian funerary art; in Matera, Italy, tourists can visit caves that served as some of the earliest Christian churches and even book a stay in those that have been turned into hotel rooms.
While it seems unlikely the newly discovered city will be converted to hotel status, there are hopes the complex will become a tourist destination once excavations and research are complete, much like the city above it. AA writes that Midyat is “almost an open-air museum” because of its preservation of its rich history.
The area has received worldwide recognition for its cultural heritage and its many churches and monasteries, which date from the sixth to eighth centuries B.C.E., are candidates for Unesco’s World Heritage List. Throughout the centuries, early members of what is now the Syriac Orthodox Church practiced Christianity despite the rise and fall of numerous empires.
First settled around 4000 years ago by the Hurrians during the Bronze Age, the city has been ruled by, in order, the Assyrians, the Arameans, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Ottomans. Its 17th, 18th, and 19th-century architecture draws around 3 million tourists per year.