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Ermete Pierotti—the René Belloq of Jerusalem—and the Last European to Explore the Gates of Hell

Updated: Apr 23, 2022

If Charles Warren was the Indiana Jones of Jerusalem, then Ermete Pierotti was his René Belloq. In the film, whenever Jones arrived at some critical archaeological site, he would find that his French nemesis of dubious character, archaeologist René Emile Belloq, had just been there ahead of him to steal the glory. When Charles Warren arrived in Jerusalem in 1867 to represent British interests, he had just a few years before been beat to the first punch by the French, who had sponsored the publication of a book by Captain Ermete Pierotti, an Italian engineer hired by the Ottoman Empire in Jerusalem to help repair important buildings. The book, Jerusalem Recovered, was originally published in French, and was dedicated to the then French Emperor, Napoleon III. It was translated into English in London and began to circulate showing many splendid lithographic photos of the sites and detailed maps of places like the Temple Mount. Some of Pierotti’s theories contrasted with several prominent British experts however, and Pierotti began to come under considerable attack in the media. Pieretti fought back to defend his ideas but was charged with copyright violations on some of his maps. And then his critics hit gold when they discovered that Pierotti had years earlier absconded with funds from the Italian Army and fled the country. He lost all credibility in the eyes of the public and was never able to restore his name, trying to make a living giving lectures and tours of the Holy Land. He died nearly destitute.

Pierotti’s downturn of fortune has meant that his original works have gone virtually unnoticed by today’s scholars, although some of his theories have proven to be more accepted today than his opponents at the time. But there is one place that he still holds claim to that no other European since has been able to accomplish—he explored the mysterious cave beneath the Dome of the Rock’s Well of Souls. The decorated cavern inside of the Rock beneath the Golden Dome is called by many today the Well of Souls. Many point out the floor of this cavern sounds hollow, and that there must be another cavern beneath, which has been referred to as the Gates of Hell, with the faithful believing lost souls used to be cast there into hell. I have seen no one online acknowledge that Pierotti describes exploring this lower cavern in his book! He shows it in his detailed cross-section diagram of the Golden Dome, with tunnels leading from this lower chamber off in opposite directions. When Thomas Lewin (next week’s blog subject) later published a description of his 1862 visit to the Dome, he reminds his readers that Pierotti had his companion enter a tunnel at the Gihon Spring ringing a bell. Pierotti could continue to hear the bell from the land surface and followed the sound until he stood right in the Well of Souls! Lewin argues this could not possibly be a tunnel to drain away blood from temple sacrifices, as they would not risk polluting the sacred Gihon Spring. This brings to my mind the writings of Josephus saying that Herod had built an escape tunnel between his Temple and Antonia Fortress. Could this be Herod’s secret tunnel, passing through the Gates of Hell?

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