In 2013 a group of Italian archaeologists claimed that they had discovered the ‘Gates of Hell’, the portal to the underworld in Greek and Roman mythology. The site is in the ancient Phrygian city of Hierapolis, now known as Pamukkale in south western Turkey and is said to closely match the historical descriptions of Pluto’s Gate, known as Ploutonion in Greek and Plutonium in Latin.
The Italian archaeological team, led by Francesco D’Andria, professor of classic archaeology at the University of Salento, announced the discoveryof the site at a conference on Italian archaeology in Istanbul in 2013. Mr D’Andria said that he and his team had managed to pinpoint the location of the site by reconstructing the route of an ancient thermal spring.
In its heyday the site was a small temple with traditional Greco-Roman pillars, and was said to have stood next to a wall with steps leading down to a cave doorway which was filled with foul smells and noxious gases.
The ancient Greek geographer, Strabo (64 BC to circa 24 AD) said:
“This space is full of a vapour so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground… Any animal that passes inside meets instant death. I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell.”
D’Andria and his team discovered what they believe to be the ruins of the site, and in amongst the ruins they found a cave with ionic semi columns, upon which are inscriptions with dedications to the gods of the underworld, Pluto and Kore.
Mr D’Andria was quoted as saying:
“We could see the cave’s lethal properties during the excavation… Several birds died as they tried to get close to the warm opening, instantly killed by the carbon dioxide fumes.”
Mr D’Andria has conducted extensive archaeological research at Hierapolis, and in 2011, two years before the discovery of the Gates of Hell, the he famously claimed to have discovered the tomb of Saint Philip, one of Jesus Christ’s 12 apostles, in Hierapolis. This ancient city was founded around 190BC by Eumenes II, King of Pergamum and it was taken over by the Romans in 133 BC.
Hierapolis flourished under Roman rule; there were temples, a theatre, and people flocked to bathe in the hot springs as they were believed to have great healing properties. Today Hierapolis, or Pamukkale as it is now known, is well renowned for the stunning whiter travertine terraces which are the result of the hot springs.
The renowned Italian archaeologist gave a fascinating description of what life might have been like around the cave in ancient times:
“People could watch the sacred rites from these steps, but they could not get to the area near the opening. Only the priests could stand in front of the portal.”
He went on to describe how pilgrims arriving at the site were given small birds to test the deadly effects of the cave, while priests sacrificed bulls to Pluto, hallucinating madly from the toxic fumes.The site remained fully functional until the 4th century AD, after which it became an important pilgrimage destination for the last pagan intellectuals. Historians believe the site was sacked by Christians in the 6th century AD, with several earthquakes adding to the damage of the ruins.