Hierapolis is a World Heritage Site in Western Turkey and a major tourist attraction with a two-thousand-year-old mystery, only solved by modern technology. The town stands on five hundred feet high white cliffs and definitely has the wow factor. In 150 BC the Romans took over control of the area from Greek settlers and proceeded to build an amphitheatre and gymnasium, these amenities being a traditional part of Roman life. They didn’t stop there though. They built a Sanctuary for Apollo and a statute of Pluto, the God of the Underworld together with his hound Severus. Why Pluto, when there were so many gods to choose from? The reason for this was because the Romans felt that at Hierapolis, they had an entrance to the underworld.
The evidence for this was a portal in the rock, which became known as the Plutonium, into which birds fell from the sky and by dying ,entered the underworld. Hierapolis was deemed to be a mysterious and holy place. With modern technology, Scientists have refuted this by finding that the presence of the spring water here, gave off carbon dioxide. This gas, toxic to living creatures rose in the air, killing the birds and any other animal that succumbed to it. There was indeed something in the water!
The Romans did not have the technology to discover this, and so Pluto the God of Death was served in the Plutonium by priests, who accepted annual sacrifices to the God. Cattle presented at the entrance to the portal duly died, but the priests were unaffected.
As the priests were standing, they initially inhaled less of the poisonous vapours from the water,
than the cattle. An eye witness to the proceedings noted that the priests held their breath, so they knew that there was something to be avoided., although they didn’t know what. These events were watched by an audience, who sat at a distance from the proceedings where the air was less contaminated.
The priests known as Galli priests would perform their own ritual before the crowd, dressing up in women’s clothing, scourging themselves and sometimes self-castrating!
While these religious observances were part of society, the town developed its economy as a centre of textile manufacture.
The many Stone Monuments, which have survived for two millennia are the tombs of rich merchants, who would part with a year’s salary to build them. Hierapolis contains one of the largest surviving cemeteries of the Roman world, with many artifacts being found and on display in the museum.
The trade grew up due to the calcium carbonate deposits in the spring water which were good for fixing dye in woollen fabric, which the merchants would then take to Rome. Hierapolis, a town with a population of twelve thousand people, also developed a spa industry, with the water used for drinking and bathing, as it is today.
Unlike any other town Hierapolis is built on a subterranean fault and in 60 AD a massive earthquake destroyed the town, but the Romans rebuilt it! Maybe it was the call of religion that was the reason. The name Hierapolis means Holy City having as the Romans believed, direct access to the underworld.
There was also the beauty of the place, vast white mineral deposits of calcium carbonate creating an otherworldly atmosphere and the very fertile farmland in the valley. However, the writing was on the wall for the ancient gods. Initially Christians were persecuted throughout the Roman empire. Phillip the Apostle came to Hierapolis and among his healing and preaching activities, annoyed a Roman official by converting his wife to Christianity. Phillip was duly executed in 80 AD.
The tide was turned in favour of Christianity when Constantine conceived it to be in his best interests to adopt the faith as the religion of the Roman empire. Later in the time of Justinian, in the fifth century AD, the entrance to the Plutonium was blocked up and the statute of Apollo knocked down. (I do feel a bit sorry for Apollo) After further earthquakes, in the seventh and fourteenth centuries the Romans finally abandoned the town.
Hierapolis has become a place of Christian pilgrimage to Phillip, whose tomb is thought to have been discovered and is revered.
The beauty of Hierapolis remains and if you are thinking of a visit, I hope that this brief description of its history will encourage you to do so.