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Burning mountains of Pliny

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Burning mountain
Burning mountain

I really enjoy reading “Natural History” by Gaius Pliny, an extraordinary Roman with versatile interests and many talents, who lived under the reign of the most famous emperors: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian and Titus.

“Natural History” is a fascinating read, giving us insight into the beliefs of the educated people of ancient times about the universe and the laws of nature. From today’s perspective, many of Pliny’s “theories” evoke a slight smile of disbelief on the face. Why Ethiopians are born with black skin, asks Pliny, and immediately replies that it is because they are “burned by the heat of the nearby Sun”. What explains the slight anatomical differences between northern and southern breeds? Temperature and humidity! According to him, “In the Ethiopians, heat draws fluid to the upper parts of the body, and in the northern peoples, moisture draws it to the lower parts of the body”.
Pliny explains that, according to the Babylonians, earthquakes are caused by the movements of three stars, but stipulates that he considers this theory to be incorrect because he himself has no doubt that the movements of the earth are caused by … the wind! And he draws his conclusion from the fact that during earthquakes the wind dies down and the birds stop flying.

He “explains” the nature of lightning discharges by saying that lightning bolts are hurled to the earth by the planets – above all by the planet Jupiter – just as a burning log throw sparks around it.

In his work, Pliny is able to describe phenomena so unusual that sometimes the line between ancient science and fantasy seems to blur a bit: for example, how two mountains collided with each other with a bang and then returned to their place. Or how one day a spark detached from one of the stars, which then approached the Earth, so that it reached the size of the disk of the Moon, and then returned to its place.
Unexpectedly, however, sometimes the most unbelievable information contained in “Natural History” turns out to be true! Imagine my surprise when one day, while travelling in Turkey, I realized that the phenomenon described by Pliny, which seemed to me a pure fantasy of the ancient mind, was confirmed in its entirety. Well, in Book II there is a passage telling about the ever-burning mountains, and in it the following passage: “Near Phaselis, the flame coming from Mount Chimera does not go out day or night. Ctesias of Cnidus says that water ignites its flame, and only earth or mud quenches it.

Phaselis is an ancient city located on the southern coast of Turkey, in the land formerly known as Lykia. As it turns out, the slope of a nearby mountain has been a natural outlet for natural gas since ancient times, which ignites spontaneously. Thus, what in “Natural History” at first glance may seem like a mere tale of an old man who wrote down even the most incredible stories of his time, in fact, has scientific confirmation. Interestingly, not only the existence of the “burning mountain” agrees with reality, but also its location, and even additional “scientific” explanations given by Pliny after Ctesias of Cnidus. The amount of gas coming out of the ground is partly dependent on the pressure caused by groundwater, and this depends on precipitation. On the other hand, covering the fire with earth or mud causes a temporary lack of oxygen access and extinguishes the flame.

I visited the Turkish Phaselis area for the first time in 2001, and the last time I had the opportunity to be there was in December 2019, just before the pandemic. It was then that I took pictures of this extraordinary phenomenon described by Pliny.

The place where the burning gas outcrops are located is located in a picturesque park. I visited it just before dusk, so that the flames were clearly visible, but also to capture the details of the landscape (in the middle of a sunny day, unfortunately, you can’t see much).

In addition to the slope with burning gases, you can see the ruins of ancient buildings in the pictures – as you can see from “Natural History”, this place has fascinated people for thousands of years. Unfortunately, I do not know the details of the history of the photographed ruins. If anyone has knowledge about them, feel free to share it in the comments.

By the way, Mount Chimera is also associated with the mythical Bellerophon, who was supposed to kill the monster Chimera here with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a snake.

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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