In prehistoric times they were the original shelters against attack and the elements. Later they became the first ‘art galleries'. Today they are a mystery known only to the initiated, the ‘cavers’ or ‘spelunkers'.

We can define them as underground cavities formed as a result of natural processes and large enough for a human to enter. Permeated by a sense of mystery, these enormous voids have offered humans and other creatures a refuge against the elements ever since the Paleolithic. Due to their size, their inter-connecting tunnels, their roofs, and their lakes and rivers, caves instill fear while at the same time evoking excitement and piquing our curiosity. Such is their allure that man dedicated his first works of art to them, carving and painting their walls to leave behind a cultural legacy that would still exist millennia later.

Caves created as a result of physical and chemical phenomena occurring either during or following the formation of the bedrock are called ‘natural caves'. Based on the rock in which they form, this group of caves is divided into two sub-groups, ‘primary caves’ and ‘secondary caves’ depending on when they developed. Caves such as lava tubes,  glacier caves, and ‘travertine’ voids which formed together with the bedrock are called primary caves, and those that developed following the formation of the bedrock secondary caves.

Caves that are either artifical or not very deep, in other words, ‘burrows', are used as animal shelters and are insignificant from the standpoint of speleology. Limestone caves ('düden’ in Turkish), which are created when the water that collects in large basins erodes and widens cracks in the rocks, are the most important for the sport of caving since their exploration may be difficult as well as dangerous, requiring experienced teams working for long periods in coordinated fashion. The deepest cave in the world is a limestone cave 2158 meters deep. The deepest known cave in Turkey is  the Evren Günay-Mehmet Ali Özel Cave, a limestone cave 1429 meters deep, exploration of which is as yet incomplete.

The generally horizontal caves that are formed by erosion of the earth from below by underground waters are called swallow-holes ( ‘obruk’ in Turkish). The deepest known swallow-hole in Turkey is the 243-meter deep Ürküten 1 Obruğu at Akseki-Çimiyayla.

Unusual formations are produced when the process that gives rise to the formation of caves is reversed, in other words, when calcium carbonate separates from water and begins to precipitate. Some of the calcium carbonate in the water that drips from the cave ceiling separates from the water to form a sediment. When this sediment accumulates, it forms either stalactites that hang from the ceiling, or stalagmites that rise from the cave floor. Occasionally the two fuse together to form columns.

Some 35% of Turkey’s terrain consists of rock conducive to the formation of caves. Between 35 and 40 thousand caves are estimated to exist among these rocks, which extend along known belts. The greater part of them are located in the Western and Central Taurus, which includes cities such as Muğla, Antalya, Isparta, Burdur, Konya, Karaman, İçel and Adana. An inventory of Turkey’s caves has been compiled, including data, sketches, maps and photographs of 2446 caves, as part of the ‘TAY’ (Archaeological Settlements of Turkey) Project, an initiative of the Foundation for the Preservation of History, Archaeology, Art and the Cultural Heritage (TASK).

Caving is a nature sport aimed at exploring underground cavities using technical aids and equipment and artificial illumination. Also known as ‘spelunking’ or ‘potholing’ in some countries, it began in Europe towards the end of the 19th century and developed after the Second World War following technical advances in the equipment used. Speleology today is a branch of science practiced all over the world, generally by amateurs but taught in the universities as well. A number of cave studies and projects are being carried out in Turkey through research undertaken by ‘MAD’ (the Cave Exploration and Tourism Society of Turkey), which was set up by Temuçin Aygen in 1964. Turkey’s first university caving  club, BÜMAK, was formed at Boğaziçı University in 1973. The Society for Underwater Research and the Underwater Group of Middle East Technical University in Ankara undertook the first exploration of underwater caves in Turkey in 1994.  And in 1995 the Finiki-Suluin cave, the deepest underwater cave on the Asian continent, was discovered as part of the KARST DIVE project.  Around twenty clubs and societies are engaged in caving activities in Turkey today.

Under no circumstances should a cave be entered alone. Caving is a team activity, not an individual sport. The history of caving is unfortunately fraught with stories of amateurs who entered caves on their own and then had to be rescued by professional teams when they got into trouble. To engage in this sport you will need a helmet, a carbide lamp, an SRT kit, a set of ropes, thermal underwear, a hardy and waterproof oversuit, a sleeping bag and mat, and a pair of rubber boots or ‘wellies'. Although neither vertical nor horizontal caving may not require any special strength, a minimal degree of physical conditioning is essential. A further word to the wise: the creatures that inhabit caves are absolutely not dangerous. Bats, for example, are actually a type of mammal that feeds on harmful insects. Caves are home to a number of small creatures whose sense of sight is underdeveloped due to the lack of light, so we make every effort to explore this unknown world without disturbing them in their peaceful home environment.

Anyone interested in caving can embark on an exciting adventure after first undergoing the requisite training in societies such as MAD or BÜMAD, which specialize in this sport. In Turkey, which is estimated to have forty thousand caves waiting to be discovered, it is hoped that this popular pastime will soon become more widespread and that many new caves will be opened up to tourism