The Hidden Underground
Updated: May 22
What do we think of when we think of cities? Tall buildings, lots of people, things being close together, and lots to do. When we think of cities, we primarily think of them being above ground, right? They are tall and built on top of each other, but did you know that there are underground cities?
Now, they aren’t necessarily the exact same thing as an above ground city but they are essentially a series of linked subterranean spaces. Underground cities are created for a vast array of purposes—for living quarters to protect residents from invaders and harsh weather, for storage purposes, to act as a transit or waterway system, or a mixture of reasons.
There are underground cities located all throughout the world, each created for a different purpose. Oftentimes the purpose of an underground city changes over time, especially given that some of them date back to prehistoric times. I’d like to share with you all some underground cities—perhaps you’ve been to these places before however were unaware you were walking directly above them.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine, located 9 miles outside of Krakow, wasn’t always as glorious as it looks today. The mine was originally used to excavate rock salt during prehistoric times. Throughout the years, the desire for salt increased and the mine flourished. During the Renaissance period, royalty began to visit the mine, and it slowly became a visiting destination with the gradual addition of artwork, sculptures, and eventually chandeliers.
Although salt mining stopped in the early 21st century, miners still frequent the underground palace to maintain and preserve it. The mine was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978 and is a must-go destination for anyone visiting the country.
Constructed around the 13th century, the Pilsen Historical Underground was a series of tunnels created for storage, water transport, and sewage. The storage spaces, generally built two to three stories below the surface, often housed food and beer as the town had a long history of brewing.
By the end of the tunnel’s construction, the underground system measured nearly 12 miles. The spaces and passageways eventually fell out of their initial use and became of interest to researchers to unearth artifacts from the Middle Ages. Today, visitors can explore the historic underground and experience what the tunnels looked like back in its prime.
In 1788, Edinburgh’s South Bridge was completed, connecting Old Town to the university. Underneath the bridge, arches were made creating vaults and chambers for surrounding tradesmen and businesses to use as shops and storage areas.
However, nearly a decade later, the businesses stopped using the vaults. The underground was prone to flooding, making the chambers damp and musty and shortly enough the vaults were used for slightly different and more sinister purposes. Brothels, pubs, unlicensed distilleries, and other illegal occurrences started to develop under the bridge as it was hidden from the aboveground world. Not to mention the poorest residents of Edinburgh at the time lived within the vaults.
Around the 19th century, the vaults were filled with rubble and sealed off to put an end to its ominous reputation, and remained sealed off until the 1980s when the chambers were unintentionally found again. Rumored to be haunted and filled with lingering spirits, you can tour the Edinburgh vaults today (if you can stomach its dark past).
The Cappadocia region of Turkey is home to several underground cities, but it’s deepest one is Derinkuyu. Once being living quarters for an estimated 20,000 people, this 18-story underground structure contained rooms for stables, churches, storage, housing and a ventilation and water system. Derinkuyu and other subterranean cities in the area were primarily built for protection from foreign invaders in early times. People lived underground, protected by stone wheels blocking entry ways to the outside. The underground city was abandoned long ago and rediscovered within the last century, when a man found a hidden room behind the wall of his home. Derinkuyu opened to the public in 1965, but tourists can only explore roughly 10% of the once densely populated and deep underground city.
You may recognize this façade from films. This is Al Khazneh, or “The Treasury,” which is only one building to the caravan city of Petra, constructed during prehistoric times in the mountains of southern Jordan. It is said to have been home to nearly 20,000 people at its height but was abandoned sometime around the 7th century.
The Europeans stumbled upon the structure in the 1800s and scientists continue to excavate the area today as it is believed that portions of the city are still yet to be found.
Located in the Northern part of France lies the underground city of Naours. Initially built as a quarry, the subterranean system eventually turned into living quarters for residents to store goods and take shelter from the weather, and invading enemies during times of war. In its prime, Naours housed up to 3,000 people in addition to acting as housing for livestock, and containing chapels, bakeries, and town squares.
As Western Europe stabilized and the need to stay underground lessened, the underground city was forgotten until it was rediscovered again in the late 1880s. Naours remains one of the largest underground tunnel systems in France and contains a fair amount of graffiti from Allied soldiers during World War I.
The Tunnels of Moose Jaw served several purposes since their construction. It is acclaimed that Chinese immigrants may have lived in the tunnels during the early 1900s due to Canada’s newly enforced laws and taxes regarding Chinese immigrants. As time progressed, the tunnels became passageways for moving illegal alcohol to the United Stated during the prohibition era. It is said that Al Capone himself was connected to the bootlegging that took place here.
The tunnels also contained speakeasies until all illegal activity was shut down and it was later turned into a tourist attraction with theatrical tours depicting the tunnel’s history.
The Portland Underground, more commonly known as the Shanghai Tunnels, was originally built to serve as underground passageways for easier transport of supplies from the Willamette River waterfront to the basements of the downtown hotels and bars. The tunnels linked Portland’s Old Town to the central Downtown area.
It is rumored that the tunnels took a slightly darker turn and were at one point said to be used for shanghaiing, or kidnapping people for them to serve as sailors. Today, most of the underground spaces have been filled due to public works however some tunnels are still open for the public to tour.
Underground cities amaze me; they can be massive structures, and in some cases as you can see, they can be very elaborate. To top it off, they are built in the Earth! We can’t even fathom how big these places are because we can only see the area in which we are standing. We can’t just look up to see the grandeur of a building, we need a map to view the entirety of the underground city and still it’s just a depiction. A map may have missing parts too, as some cities may have portions of them that may not have been discovered.
Not to mention that there may be even more underground cities than we know to exist. It makes you think—what else could be hidden underneath us? There may be more to something than what is apparent, we just need to dig to find out more.
That’s all for now,
Want to catch up on some older letters?
Are movies more your cup of tea? Check out some locations used in popular films here! Want to learn more about the darker side of the world?