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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Troglodyte Dwellings

I first heard the term ‘troglodyte’ used when we toured Tunisia in 2006 and read about troglodyte houses that had been discovered in the Sahara Desert. When I looked it up I found one of the definitions for ‘troglodyte’ was a member of a race that lived in caves or holes. [It’s also not a flattering name for an out-of-date person, sometimes including someone who is computer illiterate!]
Most troglodyte homes in Tunisia were discovered in a place called Matmata. It was not generally known until fairly recently that there were regular settlements in that area of the Sahara Desert that was thought to be just the territory of wandering nomadic desert tribes of Berbers. It turns out most Berbers built their dwellings by digging large pits about 15 or 20 feet deep and then carving out rooms in the walls. To enter, you have to walk down a narrow passageway that can be blocked off for safety sake in case of an attack by pillagers or any unwanted enemy. The open courtyard of a pit house is comfortably cool since hot air rises and the ground temperature is much cooler at that level than at the surface, which made living in the very hot desert amazingly comfortable. Some families are so large they occupy two or three smaller pits joined by trenches or passageways.  
The terrain and houses are so unique around Matmata that it was chosen as the base for making two episodes of the movie ‘Star Wars’ and also ‘The Raiders of the Lost Ark’ movie.  Click on the video and it takes you on a tour of one of the larger pit houses that was used in Star Wars movies. 
Open pit houses obviously can only work because there is very little rainfall in the desert but there were many other homes we saw that were dug into the side of a hill. Often there was an opening with no door and if the inhabitants were home, they appeared to be quite used to curious tourists like us visiting.

The most amazing 'troglodyte' complexes we have ever visited were in the Cappadocia area of Turkey where solidified volcanic ash makes for relatively easy digging. Over the centuries, perhaps since the Bronze Age, dozens of underground cities that can be as many as 8 stories down have been dug in the region. The reason for the extrordinaty effort it must have taken create these huge complexes was likely so inhabitants could block off entrances to survive the many invasions of their country especially after the fall of the Roman Empire. As seen in the picture above, they have large vent holes that are open from above ground wells and end conveniently in the underground water table.  Interconnecting passageways formed a huge network to many other subterranean cities and at one time the whole complex could hold tens of thousands of people with animals and provisions.
With global warming already making summers unbearably hot for some, especially in poorer undeveloped parts of the world, it is entirely possible future generations will have to resort to some form of troglodyte dwellings where they can escape from the heat. I have had a comfortable room built in the basement of our house to escape to. I find even during our Canadian summers we can get a few unbearably-hot-for-me days.  Rie