Hierapolis and the Gateway to Hell

Bible and archaeology news

Italian archaeologists excavating the Phrygian city of Hierapolis in southwestern Turkey uncovered the remains of Pluto’s Gate, a site considered an entrance into the underworld in the Greco-Roman period. The apostle Philip preached and died at Hierapolis, a thriving Roman city that became an important Christian center.

Pluto’s Gate in ancient Hierapolis was considered a gateway to hell and sacred to the underworld deity Pluto. Photo: Francesco D’Andria, Discovery.

Shrouded in misty poisonous vapors, Pluto’s Gate, or the Plutonium, was a cave entrance sacred to Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld. According to the first-century geographer Strabo, the site was home to rituals in which any animals entering the enclosure “meet with sudden death.”

Hierapolis archaeologist Francesco D’Andria reconstructed the route of the area’s thermal spring to discover Pluto’s Gate, which was destroyed by Christians in the sixth century. The Plutonium’s infamous mystique is not just the stuff of legend; during the excavation, several birds were killed by carbon dioxide emissions as they approached the Plutonium cave’s entrance.

During the excavation, poisonous fumes from Pluto’s Gate killed several birds, echoing the seemingly mythological tales recorded by Strabo. Photo: Francesco D’Andria, Discovery.

This is not the first astounding discovery at D’Andria’s excavation at Hierapolis, located next to the often-visited hot springs and travertines at the World Heritage Site of Pamukkale. According to the apocryphal Acts of Philip, the apostle Philip preached and converted many Hierapolis residents, yet he was martyred there nonetheless. An octagonal church was built in Hierapolis to memorialize the saint, and a sixth-century bread stamp depicts Philip standing at the very site. The publication of D’Andria’s article “Conversion, Crucifixion and Celebration” in the July/August 2011 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review was followed by the discovery of a small church that D’Andria believes to be the tomb of St. Philip.

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“CASTLE OF COTTON.” The translation of Pamukkale, the modern Turkish name for the area near Hierapolis, aptly describes the breathtaking natural travertine formations at the site. Hierapolis sits on an active seismic fault line that has created earthquakes and hot springs over the millennia, the latter an early attraction of the site. The precipitation of minerals from the geothermal hot springs harden into the sedimentary rock travertine and form the so-called “cotton flowers” that continue to attract visitors. Photo: Archive of the Italian Archaeological Mission to Hierapolis.

Hierapolis’s gateway to hell was an important sacred space in the city. The first-century traveler Strabo described its deadly properties:

The Plutonium, below a small brow of the mountainous country that lies above it, is an opening of only moderate size, large enough to admit a man, but it reaches a considerable depth, and it is enclosed by a quadrilateral handrail, about half a plethrum in circumference, and this space is full of a vapour so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Now to those who approach the handrail anywhere round the enclosure the air is harmless, since the outside is free from that vapor in calm weather, for the vapor then stays inside the enclosure, but any animal that passes inside meets instant death. At any rate, bulls that are led into it fall and are dragged out dead; and I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell. But the Galli, who are eunuchs, pass inside with such impunity that they even approach the opening, bend over it, and descend into it to a certain depth, though they hold their breath as much as they can (for I could see in their countenances an indication of a kind of suffocating attack, as it were)—whether this immunity belongs to all who are maimed in this way or only to those round the temple, or 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 vapor (Strabo, Geography 13.4.14, trans. by Horace Leonard Jones).


Read more about Pluto’s Gate at Hierapolis.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

King Midas and His Golden Touch at the Penn Museum

The Oracle of Delphi—Was She Really Stoned?

Tomb of Apostle Philip Found

Where Is Biblical Colossae?

The Church of Laodicea in the Bible and Archaeology

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on April 1, 2013.

7 Responses

  1. Where are the gates of Hell? - The Washington Post says:

    […] of modern day Turkey was home to a "Plutonium," a temple site to the god Pluto, lord of the dead. Pluto's Gate is set before a cave which has long emitted foul, noxious odors. According to the 1st century […]

  2. Rory Riddler says:

    I heard the road leading to the site was paved with good intentions.

  3. Unsual-ology: Ancient Greek and Roman “Entrance to Hell” discovered. | All Things AAFS! says:

    […] Archaeology Society. 2013. Hierapolis and the Gateway to Hell. Bible History Daily News. Click here for the article, and to read more of Strabo’s writing on the […]

  4. Mick’s Promised Link | Prime Agers – Primed for a life of purpose! says:

    […] This entry was posted in Prime Agers. Bookmark the permalink. ← Today’s Manna […]

  5. Paul Ballotta says:

    The fact that Hierapolis is also home to the gate of Hell adds an extra dimension to the drama described in the Acts of Phillip. The lowers waters mentioned in Genesis 1:8 allude to this, as it is written in Bereshith Rabbah 4:6: “Why is that ‘it was good’ not written concerning the second day? Rabbi Yohanan said…, ‘Because on that day Hell was created…'”
    To quote D’andria’s article fromm the July/August 2011 issue of BAR, p.34:
    “Phillip was dispatched with his sister Mariamne and Bartholemew, another apostle with whom he is often paired, to preach in Greece, Syria and Asia Minor. In Phrygia in western Asia Minor, the threesome came to Ophiorhyme; that is, “Serpent’s Town,” so-called because the inhabitants worshipped serpents and a viper called Echidna. Images of the viper and serpents filled the town, including the serpent temple with its statue of Echidna. The preaching of Phillip and his colleages, however, brought many of the townspeople to Jesus.”
    After converting Nicanora, the wife of the pagan proconsul, her husband became enraged and threatened her, being himself a snake worshipper. She urges him to convert saying, “Flee from the wicked dragon and his lusts; throw from you the works and the dart of the man-slaying serpent.” These being serpents that could not be charmed (Psalms 58:5,6), the snake-worshippers were in the grip of their desires and did not need (no) education. The Christians were persecuted and Phillip was martyred.
    The words of Nicanora recall the Isrealites during their wilderness wanderings who were set upon by serpentine seraphim (Numbers 21:6) whose venom had a burning effect. So it is interesting that the sixth-century bronze bread stamp portraying the apostle Phillip, with an inscription quoting Isaiah 6:3:”Holy, holy, holy, Lord of hosts; heaven and earth are full of Thy glory”, is sung by a higher order of Seraphim who stand before God’s throne (Isaiah 6:2).

  6. Allan Richardson says:

    Also, it is ironic that Plutonium, once a lethal PLACE, is now a lethal (in more than one way) ELEMENT. I doubt that the scientific community naming the element was aware of this.

  7. Allan Richardson says:

    Several volcanic lakes around the world have occasional carbon dioxide eruptions, but this is the first CONTINUOUSLY emitting location I have heard about. As to why the natives seemed to be able to enter the lethal gas area without harm, it was probably because, being aware of the gas, they took deep breaths and held them for up to a minute. If they were breathing normally and taking in carbon dioxide, their breathing would automatically speed up, in a vicious cycle resulting in taking in more of the asphyxiating gas, then unconsciousness and death (unless they were dragged out by a rope). Also, the gas is heavier than air and has no odor.

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