The Underworld; a place of torment and punishment laid out under the surface of the earth; a fiery grave for the dead, swimming with demons and ruled by evil Gods. It is supposedly the final destination for damned souls who live their afterlife riddled with guilt and pain in a world of inferno and lakes of blood and fire. If you are relinquished to the deep pits of hell, you can be sure of a dismal eternity where you will live endless days spent paying your debt for the sins you committed on earth, suffering physically, mentally and spiritually until the end of time.
Whatever your religion, culture or beliefs, if such a place exists, it would definitely be the most horrendous tourist destination in the world. But, while many believe that Hades is a place purely for the damned souls of the dead, what if the fiery abyss actually existed, would you attempt to explore it? Across time, civilisations all over the world have believed that the Underworld is accessible from earth. Many places have laid claim to being the home of the entrance to Hell. Perhaps the world of fire and brimstone is a reality and perhaps man could choose to meet his destiny through one of the many gates of Hell. If that is the case, there is no better a place than Hierapolis in Turkey, where circumstances are just too weird and surreal to ignore!
The History of Hierapolis
Hierapolis, was an ancient city located in southwestern Anatolia. Today, located in Turkey’s popular Aegean region, it is an important site of ruins and archeology which is still continuing today, located next to the popular tourist attraction of Pamukkale and the city of Denizli.
As with many places that celebrate a weird and wacky past, there are just a few historical facts known about the origins of Hierapolis. It is believed that the Phrygians initially built a temple on the site in the first half of the 3rd century BC which was used by the citizens of the nearby town of Laodicea. This temple would later form the centre of Hierapolis when it was discovered by the King of Pergamum, Eumenes II, at some point between 197 and 159 BC.
The name originally given was Hieropolis, possibly after ‘Hiera', the name of the wife of Telephus, the mythical founder of Pergamum. Surrounded by thermal springs, Hieropolis became a healing centre and a place known for minting bronze coins. Eventually, as the city expanded, the name became Hierapolis, meaning ‘holy city’ during the Byzantine era, on account of its large number of temples.
The city was eventually ceded to Rome along with the rest of the Pergamene Kingdom and became part of the Roman Province of Asia. Hierapolis was destroyed by an earthquake in 60AD, but was rebuilt in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. However, the city fell into decline in the 6th century and the site became partially submerged in water and the deposits of mineral rocks. Finally, it was abandoned in 1334 after another crippling earthquake. It wasn’t until excavations began in the 19th century that Hierapolis was discovered once again.
Heirapolis, an ancient city of wonder and beauty, a land scattered with amazing crystalline basins of healing water. The city was founded by the ancient God of light and healing, Apollo and his anti-hero, the dark God of the Underworld, Pluto, who opened the earth up to Hell. Not far from the travertines and terraces of the healing pools of thermal waters of Pamukkale, known today as the ‘Cotton Castle’ among the Turks, Pluto answered Apollo’s goodness defiantly with a deadly cave; the portal to Hades. Anyone or anything passing too close to the evil of the cave would meet his untimely death.
Pilgrims would travel from afar to experience the miracles of Apollo’s healing waters, but also to witness and bow down to the incredible affects of Hell. Priests and visitors would utilise the nearby thermal pool and courtyard as a gathering place for those seeking visions or the opportunity to speak to dead loved ones, believing the place to be of great importance for the afterlife. The visitors would sleep as close to the cave as they could and would receive visions and prophecies from the many oracles that would visit them.
Small birds were handed to the pilgrims to test the deadly effects of the cave. Priests would sacrifice animals such as bulls to Pluto by leading them to the gates of hell. Archaeologist D’Andria, who unearthed the cave and ‘Pluto’s Gate’ which was built by worshippers at the entrance to the portal said that “people could watch the sacred rites from the steps (nearby), but they could not to the area near the opening. Only the priests could stand in front of the portal”.
The cave and the entrance to Hell was said to billow out deadly gases that only men of the cloth were immune to. Ceremonies would be conducted at ‘Pluto’s Gate’ where priests would lead animals into the cave, only to drag them out dead. These priests would descend into the cave known as the ‘Plutonium’ and emerge once again, proving their immunity, which was taken as proof that they had superior powers and divine protection. So many would visit Hierapolis looking for a cure for their diseases, a grasp at life, but ultimately find death and as word spread of the miracles of Hierapolis, both good and bad, it became an important pilgrimage destination for the last pagan intellectuals, right up until the end of the 4th century.
The Greek philosopher Strabo once visited the site, describing the ‘Plutonium’ as having “an opening of moderate size, large enough to admit a man, but reaching considerable depth” and he was as amazed as the next person at its powers. “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”.
Strabo also witnessed the ceremonies performed by those claiming to possess divine powers and deliberated their immunity himself, “whether it is because of divine providence, as would be likely in the case of divine obsessions, or whether it is, the result of certain physical powers that are antidotes against the vapour,” he didn’t know.
It seemed amazing to many that some were spared and many were not at the hands of Hell. Birds would fall out of the sky, animals would meet their makers and man dared not go near the “Gate to Hell” for hundreds of years. Is it possible that beyond ‘Pluto’s Gate” lies the pathway to the fiery pits of Hell?
Could Hierapolis and it’s famed “Pluto’s Gate” really be the actual gateway to Hell? Unless there is a person on earth who has been protected by divinity and can survive the noxious gases of Hell, we will never know. Weirdly, as the gates were unearthed once again just a few years ago by D’Andria and his team, birds began to fall out of the sky once again. “The Plutonium is really a natural phenomenon, an opening in the earth’s crust, like a cave, from which foul and poisonous gasses escape(d)—also known as ‘mephitic’ gasses,” he explained, as described in historic sources.
D’Andria and his archaeologists found the ancient ‘Gate to Hell’ by reconstructing the route of a thermal spring. The waters which feed the famous Pamukkale terraces originated from the Plutonium, the cave of Hell. Initially, archaeologists uncovered a circular temple surrounded by Ionic columns. One of the columns held a dedication to the gods of the underworld - Pluto and Kore. The team also found the guardians of the gate, two unique marble statues which once warned of a deadly cave in the ancient Phrygian city of Hierapolis.
"The statues represent two mythological creatures," D'Andria told Discovery News. "One depicts a snake, a clear symbol of the underworld, the other shows Kerberos, or Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of hell in the Greek mythology.” Both marble statues emerged from the thermal water, leaving little doubt that the site was indeed Pluto's Gate.
It is difficult to prove one way or another, without the ability to make it through the gates and out of the cave alive. It has been suggested that the fumes of deadly gases that escape from the depths of Hierapolis produced hallucinations in anybody who came anywhere near the site, including the priests supposedly blessed with immortality and divinity. Some, even Strabo, have questioned whether those who managed to emerge from the cave had actually just held their breath or crawled along the floor, knowing where the pockets of clean air were.
In 2011, D’Andria also found the ‘Tomb of St Phillip’, one of Jesus’s twelve apostles, who preached and died at Hierapolis. According to the apocryphal Acts of Phillip, he had managed to concert many Hierapolis residents and was martyred there. The octagonal church was built in Hierapolis, not far from the ‘Gate to Hell’ to memorialise the saint and a 6th century bread stamp depicts Phillip standing at the very site. If you were to believe in the bible, Jesus, his apostles and therefore St Phillip, you might wonder if he knew for certain that hell lay beneath Hierapolis.
‘Pluto’s Gate’ is said to match historical descriptions of the Gates of Hell. It should also be mentioned that many religious artefacts have been found in and around the region. Relics have appeared all over Turkey, including a piece of Jesus’s cross which was found at Balatlar Church in the Sinop Province. Noah’s Ark supposedly sits on the side of Mount Ararat in the east of Turkey. Some believe, some do not. But it just goes to show, if something can’t be proven, it will always remain a possibility, as will the ‘Gates of Hell’.
The ancient city of Hierapolis and its neighbouring Pamukkale are UNESCO world heritage sites and the ruins of Hierapolis continue to be excavated. However, the entrance to the deadly cave between ‘Pluto’s Gate’ has been blocked up to keep the poisonous gasses at bay. The site, along with the “Castle of Cotton”, Pumakkale, sees more than 1.5 million visitors a year.
Pamukkale sits 200m high, overlooking the plain of Cürüksu, The area sits on an active seismic fault like that has created earthquakes and hot springs over the millennia. The precipitation of minerals from the geothermal hot springs harden into the sedimentary rock travertine and form the so called “cotton flowers”, creating an unreal landscape of mineral forests, petrified waterfalls and white as snow terraced basins.
You can visit both Pamukkale and the site of Hierapolis, but you can no longer walk on the travertine terraces, there are some replicas there that can be experienced. Exploring Hierapolis will bring you a true look at ancient Greco-Roman life. You can see the ‘Temple of Apollo’, a colonnaded street known as ‘Plateia’, the ‘Theatre of Hierapolis, the ‘Martyrium of St Phillip’ and of course ‘Pluto’s Gate’ among other ancient treats.
Also worth a visit is ‘Cleopatra’s Pool’, a thermal spring which contains the fallen ruins of the ‘Temple of Apollo’. It may be the only place on earth where you can swim around history.
Get me to Hierapolis
Hierapolis and Pamukkale are situated near the Turkish city of Denizli and is accessible from any of the major resorts in the west of Turkey. Mediterranean resorts such as Marmaris, Dalyan and Antalya will offer over night excursions to the site and you can reach Hierapolis fairly directly from Izmir too. Trains run directly to Denizli from all major locations, including Izmir and Istanbul, but being a central location in southwest Turkey, the easiest way to get there from anywhere is by car. Hierapolis and Pamukkale are a 3 hour drive from Izmir, 2 hours 45 minutes from Marmaris, 3 hours from Dalyan and 3 hours from Antalya.
The Dalyan exposé will run for 3 weeks in May and will include a lot of exciting articles every day and videos on our YouTube channel with interesting interviews with business owners and those who work in tourism in Turkey. We'll also be tackling safety issues and what terrorism means for Turkey and the beautiful riverside town of Dalyan.