Did you know you can visit a Roman temple right in the heard of London? First discovered in 1954 in an old bomb site, the Roman Temple of Mithras was a sensation with huge crowds coming to see it but then the site was redeveloped and the temple was dismantled, moved and seemed to be an unloved treasure.
Then came Bloomberg, building a shiny new HQ on the same site and announcing plans to return the temple to its original position and open it up to the public again. Bloomberg has delivered on their promise and a fully reconstructed temple is now open to the public and London has another important piece to add to its Roman jigsaw.
As you approach, your eye is taken by the stunning artwork: a bright, colourful tapestry by Isabel Nolan, and it’s hard to imagine there is anything ancient under this new building on Walbrook. Also known as the London Mithraeum, your visit to Roman London begins in one of the most modern buildings in the City.
You start your visit with all wall of artefacts and with a new inventive touch you are given an iPad to help you understand what each one is. Click on the symbol on your iPad which matches the artefact in front of you and a page opens with lots of good information about that item which works really well. However, you do have to give the iPad back once you’ve finished looking at the wall!
You can see pots, fishing hooks, hairpins, paddles and some of the oldest writing tabled found in Britain so it’s worth taking your time here although it is really tempting to rush downstairs to see the temple.
Walking down the stairs the walls on either side of you have plaques reminding you of key dates in London’s history, counting down to Roman times. The first room has information about the cult of Mithras including an audio track by Joanna Lumley’s lovely voice but it was hard to hear her over the excitable school party around us. I did pick up some usual info from the displays and it seems the cult of Mithras is a bit of a mystery. What we know comes from the artefacts and temples found here and elsewhere in the Roman Empire. At the heart of the cult is the mythological scene of Mithras killing a bull in a cave, the Tauroctony, although its meaning is unclear, it does appear in every temple. Mithraeums were underground, dark, private and definitely male only temples where they gathered to seek help with their lives and to bond with other followers but what the followers actually believed remains unknown to us.
One of the displays has a replica of the marble head of the young god Mithras. It dates from AD 200 and we are told it was found on the very last day of the 1954 excavations, confirming at last that this was indeed a temple to Mithras. Can you imagine the excitement of that late find, what an extraordinary moment that must have been! You can pop over to the British Museum to see the original marble head so it’s great that the real thing was kept in London. Interactive displays help guide you through the story of Mithras and Roman London.
Entrance to the temple area is on timed slots every 20 minutes but we felt we had enough time to enjoy the temple room and we not asked to leave so this is not a worry. The reconstructed temple is a very atmospheric experience due to the Latin chanting which fills the room and the dust which hangs in the air as the lighting fades and returns over the temple ruins. In the long room you can easily see the outline of the temple building and a Tauroctony gives us a focal point, a kind of altar to their god.
I had been meaning to visit the Mithraeum for some months and was really pleased to have experienced this significant piece of London’s history. I might even go back to sample more of the artefacts and feel that spooky atmosphere again!
As you leave the area, don’t miss the trio of artworks at either end of the Bloomberg building as they are modern day representations of the old river Walbrook, once a vibrant river flowing past the Mithraeum and into the Thames but now lost under the buildings of modern London. Here water flows again across the bronze greenery in these unusual fountains.
To find out more about visiting the Mithraeum, check out their website: www.londonmithraeum.com. It’s free to visit but you do have to book a slot in advance and you cannot just turn up and hope to get in as it’s usually busy.