Where are the gates of Hell?

Vice President Biden said Wednesday that the United States would follow the jihadists of the Islamic State "to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice." Biden was speaking following reports of the beheading of a second American journalist who had been in captivity with the Islamic State.

"They somehow think that it’s going to lessen U.S. resolve, frighten us, intimidate us. But, if they think the American people will be intimidated, they don’t know us very well," Biden said. When making his "gates of hell" comment, Biden added, perhaps for clarity, that the Islamic State will be followed there "because hell is where they will reside. Hell is where they will reside."

While this bravado doesn't quite match the Obama administration's cautious approach to the crisis, Biden is hardly the only U.S. politician to invoke such Biblical fury. In 2007, Sen. John McCain, speaking of Osama bin Laden, said: "We will track him down. We will catch him. We will bring him to justice and I’ll follow him to the gates of hell." Four years later, that ended up being a leafy town outside Pakistan's capital Islamabad.

For the millions of Iraqis and Syrians subject to the ravages of the Islamic State, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other militant actors, hell is very much their daily reality. But there are myriad spots on the planet where, at various points in time, people believed actual portals to the underworld existed. Here are just a few of the many mooted "gates of Hell" Biden could jot down on his Islamic State-chasing itinerary.

The underwater caves of the Yucatan

Mexican archaeologist Guillermo de Anda prepares to dive in an underground lake in a cenote cave in Tzibichen on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, Oct. 2, 2008. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
Mexican archaeologist Guillermo de Anda prepares to dive in an underground lake in a cenote cave in Tzibichen on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, Oct. 2, 2008. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

The Mayans long believed that the myriad cenotes -- or sinkholes -- that pockmarked the Yucatan peninsula were watery portals to the underworld, known as Xibalba. Archaeologists and researchers are still turning up hidden temples and statues within such caves, what the Mayans may have believed were literal passageways to the afterlife.

Hell, Norway

As Vice magazine puts it, "Hell is a quaint little village in Norway... There are red-roofed houses, a post office, a grocery store, even a church. It literally freezes over during the winter."

Hierapolis

The main thoroughfare at Hierapolis. (Wikimedia Commons)
The main thoroughfare at Hierapolis. (Wikimedia Commons)

This ancient Greco-Roman city in what's now the southwest 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 chronicler Strabo, animals taken for sacrifice to its altar would "meet with sudden death." There's archaeological evidence that the site was destroyed by Christians in the sixth century AD.

Beneath the pyramids

Pyramids in Giza, near Cairo, Egypt, March 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Pyramids in Giza, near Cairo, March 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

In 2009, a British explorer claimed he had discovered a vast cave system beneath the famous Pyramids at Giza, which could be linked to ancient Egyptian funerary beliefs in the underworld.

Masaya volcano

A tourist takes pictures along the Santiago crater of the Masaya volcano, located approximately 20 km (12 miles) south of Managua, in Nicaragua April 19, 2011.(REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas)
A tourist takes pictures along the Santiago crater of the Masaya volcano, located approximately 20 km (12 miles) south of Managua, in Nicaragua, April 19, 2011.(Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters)

In the 1520s, Spanish conquistadors encountered this volcanic crater in Nicaragua, which still spews smoke from time to time, and believed it to be the "mouth of hell." According to local lore, the volcano was a deity unto itself.

Iceland


The lava flows on the the ground after Iceland's Bardabunga volcano erupted again on Aug. 31, 2014. (Armann Hoskuldsson/Reuters)

Iceland is, geologically, one of the youngest places on the planet, its landmass still being shaped by the rumblings beneath, as seen in the past week with the eruption of the Bardabunga volcano. Its strange landscape is suffused with all sorts of lore, including tales of hidden elves and long-standing practices of witchcraft and sorcery. Mount Hekla, a particularly active volcano, was labeled a passage to Hell and the "prison of Judas" by a traveling monk in the 12th century. After an eruption in 1341, there were reports of black crows circling its fires.

Derweze, Turkmenistan

 

Humans have no problem unleashing hell on earth. The Derweze -- derived from the Persian word for doorway -- is the legacy of Soviet energy exploration gone wrong. A drilling team searching for natural gas went too deep and discovered a vast cavern filled with potentially poisonous vapors. Realizing its dangers, they set it aflame so none of the gas could leak or escape. It has been burning continuously for more than three and a half decades.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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