King Eumenes II of Pergamum is thought to have founded the city of Hierapolis (modern Pamukkale) around 190 BCE in the region of ancient Phrygia, located in western Anatolia. Built around beautiful hot springs, the city would serve both as a luxurious spa and a religious center. Along with public baths, a gymnasium and the all important community agora, the city of Hieropolis also had a unique temple, constructed atop a cave or crevice in the earth, which was dedicated to the god of the underworld.
The temple of Hades in Hierapolis, like several other ancient Greek temples (especially the ones that housed oracles), was built atop multiple fault lines that allowed natural gasses to permeate into the structure. Yet, while other temples had fumes that caused delirium or hallucinations, the noxious smog in the temple at Hierapolis caused extreme illness and death. The temple was so dangerous that it was considered a portal to the domain of Hades. When the Romans expanded their empire over the region, they were also impressed with the temple and confirmed that it was a Ploutonion, a temple of their god of the dead, Pluto.
The Ploutonion of Hierapolis was an awesome sight. It was said to have included a tiered theater, and it hosted many sacrifices, where live offerings were carried into the temple to die of the poisonous fumes. One of the more striking accounts of the Ploutonion was written by the geographer and historian, Strabo (c. 64 BCE – 21 CE), who wrote that the temple featured a dark pathway that led under the ground, which was heavily fogged over with lethal vapor. He witnessed that any animals, from small birds to beasts as large as bulls, all quickly died when they were brought down into the temple’s noxious depths.
The Ploutonion remained open until the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, when its entrance was eventually sealed and forgotten. The city remained populated well into the Byzantine Era, until it was abandoned around the 14th century.
The ancient city was rediscovered in the 19th century, when archaeologists began to excavate the region. The immense historical and cultural value of the site was internationally recognized in 1988, when Hierapolis was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Modern archeologists have found that potent carbon dioxide gasses, to this day, infest the temple and make the ruins deadly—several curious birds died while archeologists excavated the Ploutonion. It is believed that the priests who carried out the sacrifices in the temple of the dead simply held their breath to safely enter and exit the Ploutonion, as they carried out their religious duties.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Theater of Hierapolis, [Public Domain] via pixabay.com).