Italian archaeologists have uncovered Pluto's Gate, the so-called "gate to hell," in southwestern Turkey.
In Greco-Roman mythology the cave was considered the portal to the underworld. It was found in the ancient ruins of Hierapolis, now called Pamukkale, and was described by Cicero and the Greek geographer Strabo in their writings. According to Strabo, the opening was filled with deadly vapors.
"This space is full of vapor so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death," Strabo wrote. "I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell," he continued.
The discovery was made by a team led by University of Salento classical archaeology professor Francesco D'Andria and announced last month at a conference on Italian archaeology in Istanbul. D'Andria has studied the World Heritage Site of Hierapolis extensively, and two years ago he claimed to have found there the tomb of Saint Philip, one of Jesus Christ's 12 apostles.
D'Andria says that he and his team found the cave by reconstructing the path of a thermal spring to its location. He also found the ruins of a temple, pool and steps. Descriptions of the cave indicated that pagan pilgrims would view sacred rites performed at the portal's entrance.
"We could see the cave's lethal properties during the excavation," he said. "Several birds died as they tried to get close to the warm opening, instantly killed by the carbon dioxide fumes."
Hierapolis was founded around 190 B.C. by Eumenes II, King of Pergamum (197 B.C. - 159 B.C.) and given to Rome in 133 B.C. It became a vibrant Roman city, complete with a theater, temples and popular hot springs that were believed to have healing powers.
According to D'Andria, Pluto's Gate was a sort of tourist attraction, where pilgrims tested the cave's deadly emissions with small birds, while priests sacrificed bulls to Pluto. Animals were led into the cave, then brought out dead. Pilgrims slept near the cave after taking water from the pool and received visions and prophecies.
"This is an exceptional discovery as it confirms and clarifies the information we have from the ancient literary and historic sources," Alister Filippini, a researcher in Roman history at the Universities of Palermo, Italy and Cologne, Germany told Discovery News.
The research team is currently working on a digital reconstruction of the site to aid them in their understanding of the location.