The 7 Gateways to the Underworld

The 7 Gateways to the Underworld

Since the beginning of time, civilisations have been searching for a gateway to the mythical realm of the dead. In fact, entire religions have been founded on the notion. It’s only today that archaeologists are starting to get to the bottom of these mysteries

Did Colombian rulers build a door to the afterlife?

Sergio Gomez waits with bated breath. For six years, the archaeologist has been excavating the 138-metre tunnel below the main temple of the pre-Colombian city of Teotihuacán. He and his team have shifted 1,000 tons of rocks and debris, bringing countless treasures to light. And now, at the end of the tunnel, Gomez can scarcely believe his eyes. Three sealed chambers lie before him. Could they be the tombs of the legendary kings of Teotihuacán?

 With an area of 36 square kilometres and a population of up to 200,000, the temple city of Teotihuacán was one of the first great global metropolises. The Mesoamerican civilisation that built it flourished some time between 100 and 700 AD. A sophisticated power hierarchy was established, long before the Mayans and the Aztecs conquered the Americas. But 600 years later the civilisation vanished – leaving many mysteries in their wake, in particular the tunnel beneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Archaeologists found almost 50,000 offerings there. Gomez believes these sacrifices were the rulers’ way of asking the gods to sanctify their status as leaders on Earth.

The archaeologists have already landed their next coup: in one of the tunnels they found large quantities of liquid mercury – the metal may have symbolised a river leading to the underworld, which could suggest the existence of a royal tomb. If Gomez does succeed in finding a tomb before the excavation ends, DNA analysis of the bones could clear up one of the site’s major controversies: whether a single dynasty or several ruling families governed the mysterious civilisation.

For the people of Teotihuacán, the tunnel symbolised a gateway to the underworld. SERGIO GOMEZ, excavation leader and archaeologist

Which emperor led an entire army into the realm of the dead?

Sweat pours down Yang Zhifa’s face as he tills the rock-hard soil with his pickaxe. It is 1974 and for weeks China’s central province of Shaanxi has been plagued by drought. While searching for water, the farmer strikes something hard. He keeps digging away, eventually unearthing the shoulder of a life-sized clay figure. What Yang does not yet realise is that he has just made the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century – the legendary Terracotta Army of the first Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang.

Historians estimate the emperor began building his mausoleum after taking the throne in 221 BC – at just 13 years old. Some 700,000 forced labourers spent 30 years digging pits and building mounds. In the end, the grave complex measured 90 square kilometres – as large as Manhattan.

Why go to all this trouble? Qin Shi Huang wanted to take his entire empire with him to the underworld; he envisioned being buried alongside model palaces, horses, chariots and clay soldiers. “It was a replica of the actual organisation in the Qin dynasty,” explains Duan Qingbo, one of the archaeologists leading the project.

Plagued by his fear of the dangers looming in the afterlife, the emperor constructed an armed military escort made of over 8,000 life-sized terracotta soldiers. “He wanted to have an army in the afterlife as well – one that would protect his spirit and his tomb from all of the soldiers he had killed,” explains historian Robin Yates. Huge areas of the complex have yet to be excavated. In fact, Qin’s tomb itself remains unopened – without suitable measures, exposure to fresh air would turn its valuable treasures to dust in an instant.

The emperor wanted to have an army in the afterlife as well – to protect his spirit and his tomb. ROBIN YATES, historian

What secrets are hidden in the underwater caves of Yucatán?

Torchlight glides over cliff walls, stalactites and human skulls, searching for clues. Uli Kunz and his team of scuba divers are closing in on the realm of the dead. The marine biologist is studying what is believed to be the world’s largest subterranean cave system – the cenotes on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

Once inhabited, these caves were flooded about 10,000 years ago. Divers have found many artefacts from the Stone Age here such as human skeletons, fire pits, tools and ceramics. When the Mayans discovered the caves thousands of years later, they saw them as gateways to the underworld kingdom of their rain god.

It appears that the priests went to the cenotes during times of drought to offer up human sacrifices and seek the blessings of their gods. And these caves have more stories to tell. Experts hope they will shed light on the first settlers in the Americas. They recently unearthed the 13,000- year-old skeleton of a young girl, which seems to indicate that the continent’s earliest settlers descended from a single North Asian civilisation. If confirmed, the established history of the Americas’ first settlers may need to be rewritten.

The problem? Only highly trained divers can safely navigate these underwater mazes. Most cenotes are pitch black and extend to depths of hundreds of metres. “Miscalculate the amount of oxygen you need and you’re as good as dead,” warns Kunz. That’s why even today the cenotes can be the gateway to the afterlife for many divers.

If you miscalculate the amount of oxygen you need, lose your way or start to panic, you’re as good as dead. ULI KUNZ, marine biologist

Did the ancient Egyptians make a map of the underworld?

There is no way Zahi Hawass can hide his disappointment. After three gruelling years of excavations, he and his team have finally managed to reach the end of this 174-metre unstable shaft – often putting their lives at risk.

Why the massive effort? To find out what lies at the end of the 3,000-year-old rock tunnel under the lavish tomb of Pharaoh Seti I. But the tunnel refuses to reveal its secrets – it simply ends abruptly. Was it never finished or could it have been a symbolic stairway to the underworld?

The best directions to the tunnel can be found in Seti’s tomb itself, in the heart of the Valley of the Kings. Each of the tomb’s walls is plastered with mysterious epigraphs, a series of incantations designed to lead the dead along the path to eternal life – a map of the underworld, if you will.

And the dead most certainly need the map. The realm of the dead is described here as a labyrinth full of locked doors, obstacles and challenges. According to Egyptian mythology, a soul-eating demon could be lurking around any corner. After navigating the maze for six hours, the pharaoh must stand trial for the god of the underworld Osiris, who will weigh his heart against goddess Maat’s feather of truth. If the scales are balanced, he receives eternal life. If not, his heart is eaten and he dies a second – and final – death.

Seti had no doubt what his verdict would be. It is displayed on the walls of the funerary temple, which Seti commissioned while he was still alive. The elaborate reliefs [sculptural techniques] show the pharaoh receiving eternal life, before he is transformed into the mummified embodiment of Osiris and becomes the divine father of all kings.

The final stair remains unfinished, the tunnel ends abruptly. ZAHI HAWASS, Egyptologist

Why was a theatre built for the dead?

Agorge marks the entrance to one of the greatest mysteries of the ancient world. The narrow passage meanders on for more than one-anda-half kilometres, flanked by 100-metre-high rock walls, until it opens onto a massive façade carved into the red stone wall: Petra, a megametropolis forgotten for centuries and the capital city of the enigmatic Nabatean civilisation.

Around 2,000 years ago, a tribe of Arabian nomads established a highly sophisticated trading hub covering an area of 18 square kilometres at the edge of the Jordanian desert. To this day, only a fraction of the city has been excavated, leaving many mysteries unsolved.

Perhaps the greatest of these mysteries is the massive theatre complex, which was carved into the rock at a time when Jesus of Nazareth was preaching the gospel just a few kilometres to the north. The theatre has 45 rows of seats that could accommodate as many as 10,000 people and is situated right next to the Nabatean’s rock-hewn graves.

A pure coincidence? Maybe not. Take a closer look at the small picture on the left: the  audience is nearer the realm of the dead than they might think. Those black holes in the rear wall above the last rows turn out to be tombs – a peephole from the underworld; box seats for the dead.

Scientists are divided. Did they actually stage performances in the amphitheatre? Or was it used for elaborate funerals with human sacrifices? Israeli archaeologist Avraham Negev believes the theatre served a ritual function in the funeral cult of the Nabateans, because when the tombs were finally opened, they were empty. It seems the ghosts have long since left the theatre.

Petra’s theatre served a ritual function in the funeral cult of the Nabateans. AVRAHAM NEGEV, expert on the Nabateans

Why did the rulers of Qatna try to communicate with the dead?

Peter Pfälzner’s heart is racing as he enters the tomb. The thought that he could be the first human to set foot in the royal tomb of Qatna in more than 3,300 years sends shivers down his spine. The floor is littered with stones and skulls. A woman’s skeleton lies on a bench; bowls are stacked on top of a sarcophagus nearby. Pfälzner has found not only one of archaeology’s greatest treasures, but also a completely unique death cult.

The Syrian city-state was all but forgotten for millennia, even though it had been a major superpower that ruled over the entire Mediterranean region. It wasn’t until 2002 that Pfälzner, an archaeologist, ventured 13 metres below the ruins of the royal palace and found an untouched tomb containing over 2,000 artefacts. Seven years later he landed a further coup: another chamber filled with gold jewellery, weapons and at least 100 graves.

Particles of food residue found there confirm that Qatna’s rulers maintained close contact with their ancestors. At every full moon, they descended to the underworld to share great ritual feasts with the dead and to ask for their counsel. But not even the ancestors could prevent Qatna’s downfall: in 1340 BC, the Hittites from Asia Minor stormed the city and razed it to the ground.

Archaeologists have now ceased work on the site. Qatna is just 18 kilometres from Homs – one of the epicentres of the country’s bloody civil war. Thankfully, the heritage site has been spared major damage – for now.

The palace foundations are built on the graves of its ancestors. PETER PFÄLZNER, archaeologist

Who dwelt in the subterranean labyrinth in the Andes?

Ominous cries drift up from the deep. Crowds stand rapt before the majestic temple, listening to unnerving sounds that are strangely reminiscent of a jaguar’s roar. Smoke billows out from underground – the oracle has spoken.

Chavín de Huántar, a ceremonial centre built around 850 BC, still confounds archaeologists. The temple complex in the Peruvian Andes was “one of the most sacred sites of the indigenous people, similar to Rome or Jerusalem now,” wrote one Spanish monk in 1616. Inside a three-storey pyramid with a square base, archaeologists found a labyrinth of chambers and stairways connected by a series of underground passageways, stretching for one-and-a-half kilometres.

Was this complex tunnel system used for ritualistic ceremonies? Many of the corridors and stairways end abruptly; others lead deep down into the underworld. Excavators believe the priests of the Chavín cult performed rituals there, using acoustic effects to manipulate their people. Accompanied by Andean trumpets, the believers, laden with offerings, were forced to feel their way through the dark passageways until they reached the Oracle of El Lanzó: an almost five-metre granite monolith depicting a god with terrifying feline features and snakes radiating from its head.

“Chavín de Huántar was an important – if not the most important – ceremonial centre of its day. People travelled from far and wide to consult the Oracle,” archaeologist Iván Falconí believes. Using state-of-the-art georadar and geoelectric tomography, Falconí now hopes to solve the site’s greatest mysteries.

People travelled from far and wide to consult the oracle. IVÁN FALCONÍ, archaeologist

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