Archaeologists have known from historical records and references to the site by ancient writers such as Cicero and Strabo that the "Gate to Hell" was located in the ruins of the ancient Phrygian city of Hierapolis, in Pammukkale, southwestern Turkey. However, since excavations began in the site of Hierapolis in 1957, they were unable to locate it.
But last week, according to Discovery News
, the Italian newswire service Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata (ANSA)
reported that Italian archaeologists excavating in the ruins of Hierapolis discovered the "Gate to the Underworld" known in Greco-Roman antiquity as “Pluto’s Gate” (Plutonion
Discovery of the "Gate to Hell" or "Portal to the Underworld" was announced at a conference on Italian archaeology in Istanbul Turkey by a team led by Francesco D'Andria, professor of Classic archaeology at the University of Salento, who has been involved in extensive archaeological work at the World Heritage Site of Hierapolis
In 2011, he announced the disocvery of the tomb of Saint Phillip
, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ.
site, a major pilgrimage destination in the Greco-Roman "pagan" world, is an opening in the earth’s crust, from which lethal "mephitic” gasses issued.
The Greek geographer Strabo
(64/63 BC-24 AD), referring to the site, wrote: "This space is full of a vapor 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."
reports that D'Andria told ANSA
that he found the spot by studying relevant literature from the period and tracing the route of a thermal spring to a cave where corpses of animals, including birds and bulls, killed by the "mephitic" fumes were collected. Discovery News
reports D'Andria said: "We found the Plutonium by reconstructing the route of a thermal spring. Indeed, Pamukkale' springs, which produce the famous white travertine terraces, originate from this cave."
The city of Hierapolis
was founded in the second century BC as a thermal spa and given by the Romans to Eumenes II of Pergamum (197 B.C.-159 B.C.) in 190 BC. The city passed back to the Romans in 133 B.C.
At the height of its prosperity as a Roman city, Hierapolis had splendid temples, a theater and sacred hot springs that attracted tourists because of their alleged healing properties.
Archaeologists working at the site found the temple, pools and steps leading to the cave with inscription dedicated to Pluto and Kore, gods of the underworld, amid extensive ruins believed to have been caused by earthquakes. History records
a major earthquake in 17 A.D. during the reign of Tiberius, and another in 60 A.D. during the reign of Nero that left the city in ruins.
The site was a popular destination for certain important pagan rites. Only the eunuchs of Cybele, goddess of fertility, could enter the "Gate of Hell." Strabo said the priests held their breath when they passed the fumes. He thought that their immunity to the fumes could also have been enhanced by "certain physical powers that are antidotes against the vapor" and "divine providence."
reports D'Andria said: "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."
Pilgrims who slept at a short distance from the cave saw prophetic visions which in modern times we would consider hallucinatory effects of the fumes.
Visitors could test the lethal effects of the fumes from "Hell" by throwing small birds to the mouth of the cave. Priests regularly sacrificed bulls to Pluto at the site by leading them to the cave where they suffocated due to the fumes
D'Andria said: "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."
A researcher in Roman history, Alister Filippini, at the University of Palermo, said: “This is an exceptional discovery as it confirms and clarifies the information we have from the ancient literary and historic sources."
The site remained an important pilgrimage destination for pagan intellectuals until the 4th century AD. It was destroyed by Christian iconoclasts during the 6th Century A.D. and possibly also by earthquakes.
D'Andria and his colleagues say they are working on a digital reconstruction of the site.