THE LONDON MITHRAEUM - THE UNDERGROUND TEMPLE TO A MYSTERIOUS ROMAN CULT
The Mithraeum in central London is one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever found in the city. Deep underneath the Bloomberg Building, at what was once street level, this temple to the Roman God Mithras was found purely by chance after the devastation caused by World War II. Now open to the public and free to visit, this is an amazing chance to see the ruins of this 1,800 year old temple to the cult of Mithras.
The Roman presence in London is well known - after all they founded the city of Londinium on the River Thames as the capital of Roman Britain, which swiftly became its largest city. By the 2nd century AD it had a population of about 60,000 with its own amphitheatre and forum-basilica. Little evidence exists of the Roman occupation - London remains our largest city and has been built upon many times over the centuries, with layer upon layer of buildings, debris and settlements covering up the original Roman buildings.
It wasn't until the Luftwaffe heavily bombed London during World War II that the remains of the Mithraeum temple were found, with most of the surrounding area being utterly destroyed. An archaeological excavation took place, but it wasn't until the final day of the dig that they found a sculpted head of the God Mithras, and realised that it was a temple dedicated to him.
The cult of Mithras is a fascinating one. Founded 2,000 years ago, it was popular between the 1st - 4th centuries AD, particularly amongst the Roman army, but was suppressed and finally quashed by Christianity by the end of the 4th century. The religion was based around the worship of the god Mithras, an Iranian god who had also been worshipped in other religions from around 1400BC. The Romans had adapted the religion to form their own new one, creating a complex mystery religion of secret rites carried out in underground temples.
The central story behind Mithraism is Mithras killing a bull. The bull slaying scene, know as the Tauroctony, is the main image in every mithraeum that has been uncovered across the western parts of the Roman Empire.
The slaying takes place in a cave after Mithras has hunted and then ridden the bull. He carries it into a cave and slaughters it, then shares the banquet with the sun god Sol. Sometimes the cavern is surrounded by a circle, on which the twelve signs of the zodiac appear.
Few written texts survive, so the information that archaeologists have is based primarily on the temples they have excavated and the artefacts found in them. The architecture of the Mithraeum provides some valuable clues. Astrological symbols and signs of the zodiac have been found in the temples, with the temple itself representing the whole cosmos. The roof and walls correspond to the sky, so being in a Mithraeum was intended to highlight your insignificance in the place of the great universe, as well as the fact that as a worshipper of Mithras, who had the ultimate control over the cosmos, you are given a beneficial role. Mithras had arranged and organised the whole cosmos, and it was he who kept it in existence.
There were a variety of rituals connected to this secret, male only cult. Light and sound effects as well as the use of incense would have created an intense atmosphere in the smoke-filled windowless temples, as they watched actors act out the story of Mithras killing the bull in the holy cave. There were seven grades of member and to pass from one to the other you had to undergo a series of ordeals, with many Mithraeums having an 'ordeal pit' in which to make the blindfolded initiates suffer extremes of temperature or life threatening peril. Secret handshakes were used to identify fellow worshippers, and much of the secrets of the cult were passed on verbally, which is why there is so little information available to us.
As the central tenet of the religion is the killing of the bull, feasts were held in the temples to commemorate this, and most mithraeum were actually arranged as dining rooms.
A visit to the London Mithraeum starts with entry to the Bloomberg Space, a private company who own the building above the temple. The room has a changing exhibition of art works, usually connected to the history of the area.
When I visited pre-lockdowns you could just wander in, but now you have to pre-book your visit, even though it is still free.
Before you descend into the temple, there is an impressive display of 610 finds to view on one of the walls. Coins, bowls, writing tablets, broches, amulets, even a shoe are on display, many of them in excellent condition. As well as the Mithraeum, the remains of 49 Roman buildings were found during the excavations of 1953, which tell a story of life in Roman Britain - not just for the followers of Mithras but also for the rest of the population.
There is a rare find of a piece of Roman door from about 43 - 100AD, preserved by the water logged soil from the nearby River Walbrook. 407 writing tablets were found - the one on display here is the oldest evidence of commercial transaction in the Roman city of London and can be dated to 8th January 57BC acknowledging the debt of one freedman to another. There is an amber amulet imported from the Baltics for its magical powers and carved into the shape of a gladiators helmet. Hundreds of Roman shoes were found in the area, mostly made from leather, but on display is a wooden one, which would have been worn by someone who worked in muddy or wet ground.
After viewing the finds, you then descend into a dark room which is lit with symbols of the cult of Mithras.
You will be called when it is time to enter the actual temple. Try to get to the front of the queue so that you can stand front and centre of the light show on the platform. In a darkened room, the temple ruins can be seen before clever lighting and smoke infill the gaps for you, bringing the temple to life and giving you some indication of how the sound and light would have impacted the worshippers in the temple all those years ago. Afterwards, you can then wander around the outside of the ruins and inspect them at your leisure.
N.B - during times of social distancing, the sound and light show does not run, so you can just go down the visit the temple when you wish.
Allow about 30-40 minutes for your visit, less if there is no sound and light show.
VISITING THE LONDON MITHRAEUM
How to get to the Mithraeum
Postcode: EC4N 8AA
Public Transport: The nearest tube/train station is Canon Street which is about a one minute walk from the Mithraeum.
When is the London Mithraeum open?
Tuesday – Saturday 10am - 6pm
Sundays 12 - 5pm
First Thursday of the month 10am - 8pm
Closed Mondays, Christmas & New Year bank holidays
How much does it cost to visit the Mithraeum?
The site is free to visit, although you may have to pre-book your visit depending on social distancing rules in place at the time.
Are there any facilities at the Mithraeum?
There are public loos but no dining facilities. You will find plenty of shops, cafes and restaurants within a minutes walk.
See our London City Guide for further information on locally owned accommodation, restaurants and shops, further places to visit and things to do.