In the 1630s when the word “underground” was used, it was used in a figurative sense to mean something that was hidden or secret. The world today is full of underground cities, many of which were a secret for a really long period of time. The architecture of these cities is not only awe-inspiring but also a reminder of how far human achievements can go when it comes to vision and construction. Do you know that Montreal has an underground network that connects most of its important buildings which is used by a half a million people in the winter? Here is a list of ten, astounding, underground cities around the world that were built during different eras and are capable of inciting a “wow” reaction.
1. Almost 85% of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan that was built as early as the second century lies underground, posing as a mystery to many. It has hundreds of houses, altars, and a theatre that could hold up to 3,000 people in the 15% that has been discovered.
“It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!”
The above work is John William Burgon’s Newdigate Prize-winning sonnet about Petra.
Known as the “Rose City” or the “Lost City” for being carved out of a pink sandstone rock and for being a mystery to the world, Petra in Jordan is only 15% above ground. The Nabataeans of the second century carved the beautiful, prehistoric city amidst a rugged desert. The city where many movies have been shot has been named as one of the new seven wonders of the world and has been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bedouin tribes believed that the city had hidden treasures within. There is a Roman-style theatre that could seat up to 3,000 people and other structures like houses (a majority of them destroyed by earthquakes), obelisks, temples, and a monastery with a flight of 800 rock-cut steps in the discovered part of the city. What lies underground is a mystery. (1,2,3)
2. Built during the second century underneath Naours is a subterranean city in France with 300 chambers, 28 galleries, wells, bakeries, chapels, and stables. In the 9th century CE, it was home to the Vikings, and in the 17th century CE, the city reached its peak with a population of 3,000.
First inhabited in the third century, the parallel, underground city of Naours was occupied constantly during the Thirty Years of War from 1618 to 1648 CE. The villagers sheltered themselves and their farm animals from the armies crossing northern France in this underground complex that had 300 rooms which had the capacity of accommodating at least 20,000 people. This underground complex had everything that one would need to survive like wells, chapels, shelters, etc.
During the First World War, the city was used for recreation as the place was near to Vignacourt which was a staging area for Somme battlefields, according to the diary of one Australian soldier. Approximately 3,000 etchings had been made on the walls which are being studied to get a better idea about how they survived underground in the life-threatening circumstances. (1,2)
3. The three-level deep, 1500-year-old underground city of Nushabad was built in Iran to protect people from raids and enemies. It had openings from several important gathering places and could hold people for days.
Ancient Persians took refuge in Nushabad, a subterranean city in Iran, centuries ago. Considered to be a marvel of architecture, the three-level city had tunnels, chambers, air ducts, water pipes, toilets, and even booby traps to ward off invaders. Each family that took shelter there could have a room of their own which was connected to other rooms by a tunnel that served as a corridor.
Although the first pits were dug as hiding spots during the time of Sasanian Empire around 600 CE, it became a sustainable city only after a span of hundreds of years. Located near Kashan, Nushabad can be visited by people all year round. (source)
4. The ancient city of Derinkuyu was found in Turkey after a man tore down a wall in his house. The 18-level underground city could hold up to 20,000 people with schools, markets, churches, and thousands of ventilation shafts. There are over 200 ancient underground cities in Turkey.
Turkey is home to over 200 ancient underground cities that have baffled archaeologists from around the world. One of those cities is Derinkuyu in the Nevsehir Province of Turkey. This multilevel city which has a depth of approximately 200 feet and is so huge that it could easily house 20,000 people along with their livestock and food storage. Apart from the usual rooms and facilities that were found in the other underground complexes in Turkey like chapels, wine, and oil presses, refectories, storage rooms, etc., Derinkuyu had a large room that is believed to have served as a religious school.
According to the Turkish Department of Culture, the city might have been built from soft volcanic rock by the Phrygians, the early Indo-European people who lived around the 7th Century CE. During the Arab-Byzantine wars from 780-1180 CE, the city was used as protection from Muslim Arabs and was also connected to other underground cities through tunnels. Until the late 20th century, the Cappadocian Greeks were using the city during the periodic wars that occurred in the region. Since 1969, the city has been opened to people, but only half of it is accessible. (source)
5. In Pendleton, Oregon in the US, an underground city was built in the 1800s which was found when the city crew tried to fix some potholes. It was a “Chinatown” created by the Chinese residents of the area to protect themselves from drunk cowboys.
In the 1980s when potholes began appearing mysteriously in Pendleton, a city crew arrived to fix them. That is when they realized that at the bottom of those potholes lies another Pendleton—an underground city that was built in the 1800s. This was the time when the construction of railroads was almost completed and so the country no longer needed the thousands of construction workers who had come from China. They were now competing for jobs with the natives and that was a problem that was turning the climate completely hostile for the Chinese.
Several laws, like prohibiting the Chinese from owning land to not letting them become full citizens, made it really hard for them to survive, and angry mobs of people would often chase these non-residents out of towns. The Chinese had to do something to protect themselves, so they formed ghettos or what was known as “Chinatowns.” But unlike the other places, the Chinese in Pendleton were often victims of violent attacks by drunk cowboys who had no fear of punishment. So, they decided to become invisible and not appear anywhere in public after sunset for their safety. But they could not simply be cooped up inside their homes. To solve that problem of movement after dark, underground tunnels were dug which expanded into a full-fledged city over a period of time. This “underground city” was a secret until the pothole incident of the 1980s. (source)
6. Downtown Seattle is a rebuilt city. The original city from the 1800s sits 20 feet underground below high-walled tunnels which were abandoned after a huge fire and to prevent floods from high tide and sewage. The remnants of the old city can be visited today.
On a doomed afternoon on June 6, 1889, a cabinetmaker accidentally overturned a pot of ignited glue that was grease-based. It spread far and wide after attempts to extinguish it with water did not help, and also because the houses in Seattle were made with wood then. The fire chief was out of town when this happened, and the other firemen used a lot of hoses to extinguish the fire which drastically reduced the water pressure ultimately leading to the destruction of 31 blocks of houses. This was the “Great Seattle Fire” after which the authorities decided to build a new city two stories above the semi-destroyed city which is now underground and known as “Seattle Underground.”
The streets were lined with concrete walls. and naturally steep hillsides were used to build the above-ground city. People initially used ladders to go up and down until the homes and business were gradually moved above ground, the new ground floor. In 1907, due to the fear of bubonic plague, the underground city was abandoned. A small portion of this underground city is open for people to visit as only that part was restored. (source)
7. In the 1950s, an entire underground city was built by England to house thousands of important government employees in case of a nuclear strike. It has an underground lake, a railway line, studios, a tube system, etc. and was kept a secret until 2004.
Under Corsham, Wiltshire in England lies an underground city also known as the “Burlington Bunker.” Not simply a bunker, this 35-acre city has kitchens, cafeterias, a hospital, a phone exchange, laundries, storerooms. and an entire lake underground. And if that wasn’t enough, it featured 60 miles of roads, its very own tube system to relay messages quickly, and a secret railway line for the use of the English royalty.
It was designed for the occupation of 4,000 central government employees of the country in case of a nuclear attack, who could last there for three months with all the facilities for survival. It is rumored to have a pub named “Rose and Crown” modeled upon the famous Whitehall tavern, “Red Lion.” The city has many murals painted by artist Olga Lehmann and is climate-controlled. It was decommissioned in 2004, and the secret about its existence was revealed to the world. It was also put up for sale then. (source)
8. In the early 1970s, an underground city to house Beijing’s six million inhabitants was built with facilities such as restaurants, schools, farms, warehouses, and an ice skating rink. People who were allowed to visit parts of the city describe it to be, “dark, damp, and genuinely eerie.”
Referred to as “The Underground City,” the city in Beijing is a Cold War-era bomb shelter that was constructed by 300,000 local residents from 1969 to 1979 to provide a shelter for the Chinese in case of a nuclear or any other attack by the Soviet Union. The city covers an area of 85 square kilometers and had about 90 entrances to it from shops, homes, and other areas. A roller skating rink, clinics, theatres, factories, schools, restaurants, warehouses, and even a mushroom cultivation farm was built there. Potential sites where wells could be dug were also identified. It had the capacity to house six million inhabitants who could be protected from poisonous gases in case of a biochemical attack through the 2,300 ventilation shafts which could be sealed off.
Some of these structures in the underground city have been turned into cheap hotels, theaters, and shopping centers. Many residents use it to beat the extreme temperatures as it remains warm in winters and cool in summers. The city has never been used for its official purpose, but it has not yet been abandoned. (source)
9. “Ramenki-43” is an underground city in Moscow that was built in the mid-1980s to give refuge to 15,000 people for 30 years. It is built to the depth of 590 feet.
An article in Time first mentioned the existence of this city in Ramenki, southwest of Moscow near the main building of the Moscow State University. A journalist named “KGB officer” wrote the article and stated that he took part in the construction of this facility that was meant to serve as a shelter for 15,000 people in case Moscow was threatened with a nuclear war. It had facilities and supplies that were enough to sustain 15,000 people for three whole decades.
It is the largest underground bunker in Moscow which connects with many other underground facilities. It is named “Ramenki-43” because that is the address of one of its supposed entrances which is co-incidentally the address of the Militarized Rescue Squad 21 and the 1st Paramilitary Rescue Squad. (source)
10. Coober Pedy is a largely underground town in Australia where half of its population lives below the ground to escape the unbearable temperatures. The entire population of another town named White Cliffs lives underground in abandoned mineshafts.
When one visits Coober Pedy in the Australian Outback, what can be seen above ground are a few hotels and a lone golf course because out of the 3,500 people who live there, 60% live underground. The people who live underground have their homes burrowed out of caves because the temperatures overground exceeds 40°C in the summer. Most of the people have migrated to Coober Pedy because of its richness in opal. About 95% of the world’s opal is mined there.
In another town named White Cliffs in the Outback, the whole of the population lives underground to beat the extreme temperatures which can go as high as 48.6°C. The people there have dug out their own homes out of old mineshafts that are no longer in use. White Cliffs is also famous for opal mining. As of 2011, the town had a really small population of 103. (1,2)