The Hidden Underground

Posted: February 3, 2012 in Uncategorized

As I mentioned in my 2/1/12 post in regards to The Bean webcomic, I enjoy the idea of vast underground worlds that exist beneath the surface, hidden, secret, sinister perhaps, but full of the possibility of adventure.

The Mines of Moria in the Lord of the Rings, the tunnels under the Fratelli’s hideout in The Goonies, underground London in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Zion from The Matrix trilogy; I can’t get enough of stories that involve a hidden, buried world beneath our own.

But what I find even more fascinating is the existence of “hidden” underground environments in the real world: subway stations, catacombs, mines, utility and sewer lines, cities built upon the ruins of other cities, and the like.

The Catacombs beneath Paris

Per this August 2010 article in The Wall Street Journal, there is “a network of 155 miles of tunnels” beneath Paris. 155 miles. That is the kind of information that blows my mind. That is an entire city beneath the city, and indeed, after a portion of the city collapsed into the catacombs in the late 1700s (due to the city growing and being built over underground quarries), the catacombs were shored up with walls that ran along the same lines as the city streets above. Think about that now. There was an entire city, a mirror city, that existed sub urbis, below the city. Not what you think of when you think of moving to the suburbs, huh? Since that time, the city above has changed, but the city below remains a mirror of a forgotten Paris. The WSJ article also touches on some of the people who head into the catacombs, known as cataphiles. Entering the non-public portions of the catacombs is illegal but usually only punished by a small fine if you are caught.

An excellent February 2011 National Geographic article fleshes out more of the history and details of the catacombs and the suburban spelunkers who visit them. This article paints a picture of the world beneath Paris: the sewers, the remains of the dead (over 6 million anonymous skeletons), the inspectors who work to prevent further collapses of the city into the subterranean world below, the cataphiles who map out the under-city, and the cataflics (cops whose beat is the catacombs) who seek them out.

Most recently, Wired had an article in their February 2012 issue about a collective of these cataphiles who use their knowledge of the Parisian catacombs to gain access to above-ground sites that are either rarely used or entirely abandoned, but which nonetheless are off limits to the public. A common theme of the article is how easy it is to infiltrate the catacombs and gain access to other areas from there. In fact, it was by heading underground thirty years ago and sneaking into the Ministry of Telecommunications to copy a map of the city’s network of tunnels that the group got its start. This collective, known as UX for Urban EXperiment, is actually trying to restore historic pieces of Paris that have been left to rot. What is incredible is that when they restore something or point out a security flaw in an important location, they are often ignored or worse, rebuffed. Case in point, see what happened after they told officials they had restored a 19th-century clock to working order.

Finally, re-reading these articles left me with a nagging suspicion that there was another article out there that I had read on the subject before any of these. A few Google searches later, I found it here. The article is from a zine called Infiltration that ran for 25 issues and was about “going places you’re not supposed to go, … the art of urban exploration…,” and it is a first-person account by Murray Battle of a couple of days spent in the catacombs with some cataphiles. It is more narrow in focus than the other articles mentioned above, being about one man’s journey rather than the catacombs in general, and so it makes for a nice, different perspective on the subject.

Subway/Metro/Underground Stations

To me, subways are the equivalent of monster-filled dungeons in a role-playing game. There are all these levels and passageways, long maze-like hallways, ramps and stairs, doors that go who knows where, forbidden tunnels that lead into darkness, magical transportation devices that whisk you from one spot to another, and of course, grave danger (the third rail, speeding trains, pet alligators that have been flushed down the drain, that sort of thing). I don’t think there has ever been a time that I have been in a subway and I haven’t started imagining heading down one of the tunnels when no one is looking, and finding some amazing adventure.

And then there are people who actually go and do just that, like Steve Duncan. I found this article on with an absolutely amazing video of Mr. Duncan leading cinematographer Andrew Wonder into the abandoned City Hall subway station and then to other off-limits areas of New York. The entire thing looks incredibly dangerous but it is fascinating. My heart was beating faster the whole time I watched the video. The subway portion ends at about 8:20 but if you have the time I think you will find yourself watching the whole thing (he also visits New York’s first sewer, Amtrak tunnels next to the Lincoln Tunnel, and the top of the Williamsburg Bridge).

You can find more pictures of the abandoned New York City Hall subway station at this link. (My thanks to So You Want to Be a Wizard author Diane Duane for sharing that link over on Google+.) A list of more abandoned New York City subway stations can be found here, with pictures of each one. And some more pictures and history can be found here. All in all, it is amazing and a bit creepy how much can exist underneath us, that we are never aware of or to which we are denied access.

Cappadocia, Turkey

I had never heard of the underground cities of Cappadocia before finding this web site, which describes the cities as being eighteen-stories deep with the ability to hold more than 20,000 people. Entire cave cities that held tens of thousands of people, connected by kilometers-long tunnels in some cases? Yes, please. But is this Bullshit or Not? Well, after a few hours of searching I can confirm they do exist, but I am not sure that they are as extensive as some sources would have me believe. There is this article, which states “The ancient underground cities of Cappadocia in central Turkey represent some of the finest examples of underground architecture known to exist. However their dimensions and interconnections are often vastly exaggerated.” Unfortunately, the only part of that article is English is the summary I just quoted; the rest is in German and so whatever answers it might hold are hidden to me.

This UNESCO video states that one underground town (which they frustratingly do not name) goes down eight stories. A Saturday Evening Post article from September 1980 describes the “subterranean city of Kaymakli,” which consists of “a seven-level labyrinth of corridors, connecting rooms, communal kitchens, wine cellars, granaries and even a chapel. … Kaymakli connects with a second underground city, Derinkuyu, via a 7-kilometer tunnel.” The article also refers to “great stone discs [that are] rolled aside from passageways where they once stood as barriers against intermittent raiders,” and you can see an example of one of these discs in the UNESCO video, where they claim that it weighs one ton and, once set in place, can only be opened from the inside. However, I could not find additional trusted references to the supposed kilometers-long connecting tunnel.

According to Wikipedia, Derinkuyu is 11 floors deep with a depth of about 280 feet. Per this Turkish travel site, there are a total of 36 such underground cities, with Derinkuyu being the deepest and Kaymakli being the widest.

Short of visiting Turkey (unlikely in my near future) or finding access to a better online library reference section (I will have to work on that), I may not be able to perfectly divide the fact from fiction for this underground environment. But even the low-end guess for the number of people who lived in these caves is 10,000, and they had food, livestock, work and storage space, and the ability to lock invaders out.It may not be as extensive or deep as Moria (probably a good thing), but this is exactly the sort of real-yet-fantastic environment that fires my imagination.

Our Morlock Future?

So what are the chances we might follow the cataphiles and Cappadocians back under the earth? Well, as this website points out, there are several hurdles to overcome for living underground: lack of natural sun and the day-night cycle will mess with our circadian rhythms and could lead to a vitamin D deficiency and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Also, depending on the depth you are living it and if you are going to return to the surface, decompression is an issue, just as it is for divers coming back up from the deep sea. Water is probably plentiful, but getting enough air is an issue. Technology can probably solve most of the physical issues, but the question remains of whether or not humans would be able to adapt to living underground long-term.

I was surprised to find that some people are already working underground (although in nearly all of the office jobs I have held, I might as well have been underground). According to “SubTropolis, U.S.A” (The Atlantic, May 2010), “With 5 million square feet of leased warehouse, light-industry, and office space, and a network of more than two miles of rail lines and six miles of roads, SubTropolis is the world’s largest underground business complex—and one of eight or so in the [Kansas City, Missouri] area.” The website for Space Center Kansas City boasts that they “have almost 7 million square feet of subsurface industrial real estate carved from natural limestone formations.” Pros of running your business in their underground facilities include reduced utility costs, “year round constant temperatures and covered parking.” (Emphasis mine, because I think it is funny that one of the pros of working underground is covered parking.)

I did run across some snippets of old information about Taisei Corporation and their planned Alice City in Japan, which according to this site would “incorporate a very wide and deep shaft [in the earth], within which would be built levels for habitation, all looking in toward a hollow core topped with a huge skylight,” but there is no current news about that project on Taisei Corporation’s website so I guess that did not happen. (Damn, that would have been cool.)

The best underground environments may still exist primarily in fiction, but even this brief look at some real-life settings has given me a lot of ideas for my own fiction work. I hope you found it interesting as well. If you have a favorite real or fictional underground environment, please share it with me. Until next time!

  1. Danielle says:

    How about the super cool hidden play village in Jake and the Neverland Pirates?

  2. Jeff Hanlon says:

    My first thought was the toxic jungle underworld in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind/Warriors of the Wind

    And right after that i was reminded of the underground sewer layer in Delicatessen where the troglodytes live.

    Also makes me think about how in dreams the deeper down ou go, the deeper you go in sleep/subconscious.

  3. lithicbee says:

    Jeff, I don’t remember that part of Nausicaa; I will have to check it out again sometime. Delicatessen, yeah, that is exactly the sort of thing I am talking about.

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