Londons newest attraction – the Roman Temple of Mithras

Last week I was very excited to see the Temple of Mithras or the London Mithraeum as it is also known.  I have a vague recollection of almost tripping up over it in 1998 when it was previously shoddily presented on the roof of a car park replete with crazy paving but the very fact that I barely remember it and that it was attached to a car park give some indication of just how forgettable it was.

The Temple of Mithras was a Roman temple for a cult who worshipped a god who was most famous for slaying a bull in a cave.  The faith originated from Iran or Persia as it was known for a centuries but the Romans had a pick and mix approach to religion and if they found a local faith to have some merit then they would adopt it as their own.

 

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Artists impression of what the Temple of Mithras may have looked liked.  The bases of the columns are still visible today.

 

The reason that the opening of the Temple of Mithras is such a big deal is that for around 1500 years it was entirely forgotten about.  It was only discovered in 1954 when the particular bit of ground it was sat upon was being redeveloped courtesy of the enforced urban renewal that the Luftwaffe had inflicted a decade or so earlier.

As soon as it was discovered, it caused a sensation and up to 30,000 Londoners a day queued to see the wonder of the 2,000 year old ruins amongst their own very modern ruins.

The site was identified as a Mithraeum when in the last hours of the excavation the carved head of a handsome young god was found. A newspaper photographer happened to be nearby and as the word spread thousands joined queues that stretched for half a mile around the block, waiting patiently to view the muddy foundations.

If the Mithraeum had already had it rough and literally as the saying goes, been through the wars, then worse was to come.  Planning permission had already been given for a thoroughly modern concrete office block to built on this very central and valuable piece of real-estate.  Post War London wasn’t rich enough to put safeguarding previously unknown ruins over the rebuilding process and so it was for a short time due to be totally destroyed.

Excavation of the Temple of Mithras in 1954 Photo by Ivor Noel Hume. The bombed out buildings of WW2 clearly visible in the background.

Excavation of the Temple of Mithras in 1954 Photo by Ivor Noel Hume. The bombed out buildings of WW2 clearly visible in the background.

However, some sort of middle-way was agreed.  The public excitement and the keen interest of the then prime minister Winston Churchill forced Legal & General to abandon plans to demolish the foundations  and instead, after eight years in storage in a builder’s yard, in 1962 the walls were partially reconstructed 100 yards from the original site, inaccurately and incorporating new stone brought in to fill gaps and material lost over the years. The god’s head and other beautiful carvings went to the Museum of London and the original timber benches, which archaeologists now regard as rare treasure, were thrown away.

 

Then in 2011, Bloomberg decided they wanted to build a new European HQ and they picked London for their base and more particularly the original site of the Temple of Mithras, just a few minutes walk away from the Bank of England.

The decision was made at the early part of the planning process that provision must be made to relocate the Mithraeum to its original location and make it open to the general public.    It is the law in Britain that when construction work takes place that the owners of the new property must pay for archeological research, unluckily for them, they had decided to build their property in one of the most historic Roman sections of London and it took years to properly excavate and catelogue around 14,000 finds.  The fortunate part is that Bloomberg can well afford it!

For the last 5 or 6 years the sorry Temple of Mithras has been missing in action as it was painstakingly relocated, restored deep underground in a new free public museum whilst a brandnew office complex was built on top.

The temple opened in November 2017 but being so busy, I found myself walking past it every day without ever having the time to pop in and so by the time I did, I was genuinely excited.

 

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Part of a 2,000 year old door and the oldest sruviving financial transaction in London.

 

The experience is laid out over 3 floors with the entrance at ground level containing works of modern art as well as around 600 of the 14,000 Roman artefacts discovered during the construction of the new building.   There were bits of pottery, shoes, coins, mosaics and various tools and weapons.  Most fascinating I thought was a wooden tablet on which contained the very first record of a financial transaction in the city of London from around AD 49.   It basically states that Person A owes Person B money and what we would now call an IOU.  From this object sprang 2,000 years of commercial activities, insurances, trades and banking for which London has always been famous for.

 

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Just a few of the artefacts on display

 

The Temple of Mithras is now around 7 metres underground as visitors descend down a steep black marble stairway, on the side of the walls you can see what was happening in history as you go further downwards.   So much history in London and yet only the building of the first St Pauls Cathedral in 604 AD is remotely close in terms of age.

The second level which is now underground consists of an audio and visual display giving details about the temple which builds up anticipation to visiting the ruins itself.  Having visited lots of Roman ruins and even a few underground most notably the world famous Roman Baths in Bath,

 

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Using light and shade to recreate the walls of the temple

 

Small groups are let in every twenty minutes and the cavern in which the temple is situation is almost pitched black.  You hear the sounds of worshippers, recital prayers and giving offerings to the god.  By cleverly using very narrow bands of light and shadow, the walls of the temple can be seen rather like a shaft of moonlight in the darkness.  I’ve never seen anything like it and it was spectacular.   Later on, after the audio plays out, the lights come on and you’re free to explore the temple ruins from all angles.

It really is fantastic and in my opinion, if you are visiting London and haven’t got time to visit Bath tne this makes for a great alternative.   But what of the London Mithraeum itself?

It is known that the god was seen as being as virile and he was beloved by soldiers who worshipped him by the light of flaring torches in underground temples, where the blood of sacrificial animals soaked into the mud floor. The reconstruction of these rites are included on the soundtrack with shuffling sandalled feet and voices chanting in Latin the names of the levels of initiates taken from graffiti on a temple in Rome: the god still guards many of his secrets.

 

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Behind the Altar at the Temple of Mithras

 

Sophie Jackson, the lead archaeologist from the Museum of London, who has spent years working on the excavation and reconstruction said “It was a mystery cult and its rites remain very well guarded mysteries. There is nothing written about what went on in the temples, no book of Mithras, The one thing we do know is that no bulls were sacrificed there. It was a very confined space and I don’t think anyone would have got out alive.

Bloomberg itself reported the opening below:

Michael R. Bloomberg, Founder, Bloomberg LP said: “London has a long history as a crossroads for culture and business, and we are building on that tradition. As stewards of this ancient site and its artefacts, we have a responsibility to preserve and share its history. And as a company that is centred on communication – of data and information, news and analysis – we are thrilled to be part of a project that has provided so much new information about Roman London. We hope London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE will be enjoyed by generations to come.”

The immersive temple reconstruction uses carefully directed lights, haze and sound to bring the temple’s remains to life, and to evoke the rituals and activities that took place within its cave-like walls. The memorable reconstruction marks a new direction for the interpretation and presentation of archaeological ruins.

 

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Standing on a raised platform amidst The Temple of Mithras

 

 

A team of skilled archaeologists, stone masons, conservators and designers have created the reconstruction working from original archaeological drawings, models, photographs, first-hand testimonies and newsreel footage. The project has taken ten years to complete and has been funded and created by Bloomberg, working closely with the City of London and a team of conservation specialists, in consultation with the expert team at MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology). The immersive display within the temple was created by an interdisciplinary team led by internationally-recognised design firm Local Projects.

Sophie Jackson from MOLA, Lead Archaeological Consultant for London Mithraeum, said: “London is a Roman city yet there are a few traces of its distant past that people can experience first-hand. London Mithraeum is not only a truthful presentation of the archaeological remains of the temple of Mithras; it is a powerful evocation of this enigmatic temple and a fantastic new heritage attraction for the capital.”

You can see a short video I made below:

A digital book titled Archaeology at Bloomberg reveals the findings from MOLA’s recent excavations of the site and the fascinating story of the Temple of Mithras. It is free to download at www.londonmithreaum.com.

If you’d like to explore Roman London with me on a fabulous private, guided walking tour then do check out https://stephenliddell.co.uk/ye-olde-england-tours-2/our-tours/london-tours/roman-london-walking-tour/

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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4 Responses to Londons newest attraction – the Roman Temple of Mithras

  1. blantonn says:

    Amazing. Thanks for the virtual tour!

    Like

  2. Pingback: The Roman Ruins Under A London Hairdressers | Stephen Liddell

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