LONDON — An ancient temple to Mithras in the heart of the city of London was re-opened this month after a significant amount of renovation.
The original temple was built in 240 A.D. by the Romans in order to honor the Middle Eastern god Mithras, who was popular among soldiers. It was not the only Mithraeum built in the UK; others include the Carrawburgh Mithraeum dated to the 3rd century Mithraeum,the Rudchester MIthraem on Hadrian’s Wall, and the Caernarfon Mithraeum in Wales, which was featured in the Merlin series of novels written by Mary Stewart.
These temples, like the one in London, were all situated underground.
In 2010, the Bloomberg company opened its new European headquarters on the very site on which the original London Mithraeum had once been.
That building lies over one of London’s lost rivers, the Walbrook, which marked the limits of the Roman settlement nearly 2,000 years ago. As the town increased in size and importance, the banks of the Walbrook were reclaimed, and Roman London became not only a major port of trade but a successful economic center with a population of around 30,000 people.
Parts of these walls survived in an area which corresponds roughly to the ‘Square Mile’ of the City of London and it still exists as London’s center of commerce today.
The Mithraeum itself was discovered in 1954 after the Second World War had ended and the effects of the Blitz were still being felt. Although there was substantial interest in the temple, the site’s preservation did not take priority. It was moved to a new location in order to allow for new office construction at the Walbrook location.
When, in the last stages of the archeological investigation, the stone head of a beautiful young man was found, thousands queued to see it. However, Britain was still recovering from the effects of the war, and there were comparatively little resources available to treat the temple properly.
However, Prime Minister Winston Churchill prevented the Legal and General insurance company from destroying the walls, which were kept in a builders’ yard until 1962.The god’s head and other artifacts were sent to the Museum of London. The wooden benches discovered at the site, which could have told future archaeologists more about the temple, were reportedly discarded.
In 2007, there was renewed interest in the temple and there was talk of relocating the temple back to its original location. However, that did not become a reality until the Bloomberg company purchased the Walbrook site, where the temple originally stood, and the project to reconstruct the temple.
Michael Bloomberg, the company founder, stated that the company regards itself as the steward of the site. “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,” he continued. “We hope London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE will be enjoyed by generations to come.”
Sophie Jackson, the lead archaeologist for the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), has been working on the site for years. Speaking about the site itself, she told The Guardian, “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.”
According to sources, one tenth of the Roman finds exhibited in the Museum of London come from the Bloomberg site. The very name of the Roman city, Londinium, was found here, in very early texts on wooden tablets, preserved by the boggy, waterlogged ground.
Further finds include the first financial document from Britain, which is also etched on a wooden tablet. There is a tiny amber amulet in the shape of a gladiator’s helmet and a hoard of pewter vessels, possibly used in rituals within the temple.A digital interactive resource giving further examples of the archaeological discoveries from the dig is accessible via mobile devices.
British pagans, regardless of specific religious affiliation, are excited by the rebuilding of the Mithraeum. TWH spoke with Payam Nabarz, a member of the organization Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD) that is, according to its site, “a British initiative that advocates respect for what are commonly called ‘human remains’ and their related funereal artefacts.”
The organization’s “focus is the physical evidence of ancestors who don’t fall into the protective cloak of the Church, these being for the most part those ancestors who lived and died before the seventh century when Christianity began to spread through Britain.”
Nabarz is not only a member of HAD, but he is also an expert in the Mithraic tradition. He said, “I was part of the HAD meeting with the museum and project when it started. HAD became involved in the consultation over the fate of the temple.”
“I gave a number of suggestions about how the temple could be recreated to capture the spirit of what occurred like light, sound, and interactive aspect,” Nabarz explained.
“I gave them a copy of my book. And also suggested they look at the Newcastle museum reconstruction, and [that the] temple should be a living temple that you can visit.”
The London Mithraeum project has taken nearly years to complete, and includes a contemporary art installation, featuring works by Dublin artist Isobel Nolan. While the modern additions are helping to attract crowds, it is the temple itself which is exciting UK Pagans.
As Sophie Jackson states: “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.”