Several metres below London’s street level, in a dark, unassuming room, sits a reconstructed temple of the ancient Roman cult of Mithras. The London Mithraeum, as it is known, does not just show the ruins, it bombards the senses in a complete sensory journey through time, complete with Latin chatter, bells, horns and other Roman instruments, while a dim, ethereal light illuminates the original walls and recreated alter.
The temple was first discovered in 1954. London was undergoing heavy reconstruction from the destruction of the Second World War, and construction workers unearthed the foundations of the temple. It was dug up and moved several hundred metres away, where archaeologists rebuilt the structure in the 1960s.
However, the 1960s reconstruction was imprecise and inaccurate. Archaeologists recently decided to return the structure to its original location, beneath the current Bloomberg London offices and re-examined footage of the original unearthing to accurately return the temple to its original structure.
In 2017, the temple opened to the public, along with hundreds of other Roman artefacts unearthed during another archaeological dig on the site in 2012.
Mithras was originally a Persian god, born in a cave with superhuman strength. He allegedly slaughtered a bull with his bare hands to feed and water mankind for the rest of eternity.
This story of Mithras’ mythical feats resonated with the Roman soldiers in Northern Europe, prompting the construction of a temple dedicated to Mithras in Londinium, modern day London.
The members of the male-only cult would meet in their subterranean alcove, constructed 18 feet below street level to emulate Mithras’s humble cave-dwelling beginnings. The men would sometimes be naked, often under the influence of alcohol, although little else is known about the secret meetings.
The temple’s highly symbolic position on the banks of the River Walbrook, which now flows underground, would ultimately cause its demise. In the 4th century AD, subsidence meant the structure required significant structural improvements. However, the 4th-century congregation could not afford the upkeep and the temple was lost to the elements, trapped an underground tomb of its own making, until the 1950s, approximately 1,600 years later.
London Mithraeum is free to visit but visitors must book tickets in advance. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the official website.
Featured image from Flickr by alh1
Image from Flickr by Ungry Young Man