Hierapolis and The Gate to Hell

A recently discovered ancient city with a fascinating story

Mach, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Story

Lara felt rushed that morning. There was so much to do before she made her yearly secret journey. Her husband had left for his work early and knew that she had some shopping to do. She had arranged for his sister to watch her precious three-year-old son for the day.

With a small bag and her entire savings, Lara set out for Hierapolis. She stopped at a barn outside of town and stealthily opened her bag. Inside, she had a change of clothes. Thankfully, the slaves in the city wore clothes that included a veil so she would not be recognized. As a Jew, she couldn’t be caught in the place she was going.

Exactly three years ago, her precious baby was extremely sick. They had brought him to the baths in hopes that he would heal. He had made progress, but the fever still racked his tiny body. They had been praying to God for days to save the precious baby, but it seemed that He wasn’t listening. Maybe he didn’t care.

Earlier that day as the baby was receiving his treatment in the pools, Lara had heard some local women talking. They had recently visited the Plutonium. They told how the eunuchs would lead an animal into the cave and it would fall down dead. When they came out, the oracles would give words from the great Pluto, the god of the underworld.

Lara was desperate. The fever was causing convulsions and it seemed like the baby would succumb at any minute. Lara snuck away to a closet and prayed. “Pluto, please don’t take my baby! I will bring you a sacrifice every year until he marries if you will spare my child.” Lara’s cries were cut short by one of the servants searching for her. “Madam, the fever has broken! Your baby is saved”.

For three years, Lara had snuck off to the Plutonium in Hierapolis. She would dress as a slave because no one questions slaves. They would assume she was simply doing the bidding of her master. She would arrive at the forum early and purchase the best animal she could afford. Lara squirreled money away all year to be able to afford this purchase. No one could know she was sacrificing to a pagan god.

She would find the most inconspicuous seat she could and quietly await her sacrifice. She did not get caught up in the revelry of the crowd. This was serious. This year, she was able to afford a nice, strong goat. It was such a healthy animal and it would have fed her little family for many days. Nevertheless, as soon as it reached just a couple steps into the gate to hell, it struggled just a moment and fell down dead. The eunuch triumphantly came back out of the gate and shouted his prediction, “your sacrifice is acceptable, go in peace”. Lara waited a bit until the next sacrifice was lined up, a fine young bull. As the eunuch started toward the gate, Lara quietly left the area and headed out of town. Her work was done. She could go home and begin saving for the next year. She couldn’t wait to get home and hold her baby again!

Pvasiliadis, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Location

Hierapolis is an ancient Greek city located in western Turkey. It is famous for the thermal travertine pools that were believed to hold healing water. It has been a spa and tourist attraction since two centuries Before Christ. Like many cities in this area, it has changed hands over time. Due to its popularity of the healing pools, it was almost always populated. Earthquakes destroyed the city at least twice, but it was rebuilt both times.

In our story, Lara is a Jewish woman. During one of the rebuilds during the time of the Jewish exile from Israel, the Babylonian ruler sent many of his Jewish slaves to work on the reconstruction. The Romans took over the city and made even more constructions including the temple to Apollo. After many years, the New Testament evangelists Paul and Phillip visited the area and found pockets of Jews still inhabiting the area. (On a side note, Hierapolis is mentioned in Paul’s book of Colossians in the Bible).

The Plutonium

The Greek geographer, Strabo described another landmark in the city, the Plutonium. The Plutonium was essentially a gate that leads to hell, the home of the god of the underworld, Pluto. Eunuchs would lead sacrifices into the gates, and the animals would fall down dead. In fact, even birds that flew too close to the gate would perish. When the Christians overtook the city, they sealed off the Plutonium and the forum around it was destroyed.

This site was just rediscovered by Italian archaeologists in 2013!

The archaeologists uncovered the gate and parts of the forum including a statue of a coiled snake and Cerebus, the three-headed dog that served as a guardian to the gate of hell.

Apparently, this was quite the event to watch the eunuchs offer the sacrifices. However, there was a rather large courtyard that was off-limits for everyone except the eunuchs. Birds flying by would often die if they got too close. Was this truly the gate to hell? Why did it affect the animals and not the eunuchs?

Why Was the Plutonium Deadly?

The answer was finally found. The underground fissure actually is the birthplace of the thermal springs that create the beautiful travertine spas. However, at this prime outlet, carbon dioxide is being released in such high quantities that it is deadly. This affected the animals since they have a smaller lung capacity and are closer to the ground, thus taking in more of the toxic gas. The eunuchs could survive, not due to their magical protection, but because they were higher off the ground than the animals, and they knew that they had to be careful with their breath inside the cave. Even today, archaeologists have to be aware of their oxygen levels and wear protective gear when working near the fissure. It’s almost ironic that this deadly underground spring is the source for the beautiful thermal healing baths just a short distance away.

Today

Hierapolis and the nearby Pamukkale (Cotton Palace) thermal spas are considered a UNESCO Heritage Site. There is an Archaeological Museum that showcases some of the findings. This is also the place where Phillip the Apostle was martyred for his beliefs. You can even swim in one of the healing spas with ancient Roman columns in the pools.

shankar s. from Dubai, united arab emirates, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

I have not visited Turkey yet, but I hope that someday I will be able to see these historic sites and take a dip in these healing waters. I love visiting places that have such a deep history. Given my criteria, Hierapolis is high on my list of places that I hope to visit someday!

Bilingual (Spanish and English) Teacher with a Master's Degree - Teaching and Working from Home - http://www.mybilinguallife.com

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