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The 98 square kilometres of the Cappadocia region in Turkey make for a strange landscape. Powdery white soil gives the place a lunar feel. The hollowed out hillsides and 10-metre tall “fairy chimneys”, a tourist attraction crafted by wind and rain, could be leftovers from a 1970s James Bond set. At night, lights flicker in the cones of rock, which hundreds of people call home.
Beneath the earth, however, things look even stranger: a network of caves, connected into what used to be entire subterranean cities. Derinkuyu, in southern Cappadocia, was once home to as many as 20,000 residents living together underground. There’s a huge bathhouse, complete with a set of private rooms and tall ceilings to allow steam to rise, all of it ventilated by a system of shafts that run for dozens of kilometres in every direction – sometimes a vast distance from the populated areas to trick potential invaders.
Long abandoned, the underground cities of Cappadocia have rather suddenly been rediscovered: by the produce industry. The constant underground temperature of about 13C make the caves an ideal storage climate for thousands of tonnes of fruit and vegetables: apples, cabbage and cauliflower stay fresh for up to four weeks; citrus fruits, pears and potatoes for months. In a cave near the village of Ortahisar, nearly 6m crates of lemons sit in endless stacks. They arrive from Turkey’s Mediterranean coast on trucks and are unloaded by hand. Labourers – mostly women – package and stack the fruit, which then is stored underground until it is needed for export to Europe, Russia and elsewhere.