If you catch the Tube to Bank and walk down Walbrook towards Bloomberg’s Mithraeum it might be worth casting your mind back almost 2,000 years to when the Romans arrived.
Under your feet is the River Walbrook, which was the limit of the first Roman settlement, but as the swampy land around it was reclaimed, then so it expanded. A map of Roman London shows that the brook eventually dissected Londinium into two and played an important part in Roman life. It brought fresh water downstream and discharged waste into the Thames. It was also navigable up to a point near to where the Mansion House now stands.
Around 200 years after the Romans arrived, the Temple to Mithras was built on the east bank of the brook, possibly by an army veteran called Ulpius Silvanus. The question has to be asked who was Mithras, and why build a temple to him here? The answers can be found in a visit to the London Mithraeum.
The Mezzanine level will give you information about the mysterious Mithras and the cult that followed him. It seems that the Romans (particularly soldiers) were fascinated by the Persian’s idolization of the god Mithras and they built temples to him throughout the Roman world. As with most of these sorts of tales, they are probably just myths, but one stands out in particular – the killing of a bull by Mithras, now known by scholars as Tauroctony.
That’s enough mythology for now, and we can fast forward to the 1950s. It was the bombing of the City of London in WWII that exposed the remains of the temple. Every cloud has a silver lining as they say, and archaeologists, at least, were excited with the discovery. Their excitement also seemed to capture the public’s imagination, but the thorny question of what to do with it had to be addressed. In the end, development of the site commenced and the temple was physically moved to a site 100 metres from its original location.
In 2010 Bloomberg acquired the site to build its new European headquarters, and to their credit they took the Mithras Temple responsibility seriously. They got expert help to move it back to its original position and have now incorporated it into a public area within the new building.
The temple opened to the public in November 2017 and is free to go in, but it’s best to book beforehand if possible to guarantee entry, as they limit numbers to ensure a more rewarding experience. It has to be said though that some people find the experience somewhat underwhelming, but I wasn’t sure what to expect and so I can’t say that I was disappointed.
On entry you are welcomed by staff who seem proud of what’s been done here, and after a brief introduction you’re free to follow your own agenda, but it’s worth knowing that you won’t be allowed into the temple area until given the all clear. If I was to go back I think I’d follow a different routine to the one they expect you to do. I would head straight down the stairs (what’s referred to as ‘Descend through Time’), and find out how long it would be to the next temple viewing. The intermediate time can then be spent in the Mezzanine area exploring the information screens which give some background information about Mithras and Tauroctony.
Viewing the excavations are much like you would imagine, except that subdued lighting is used in a way that is supposed to add to the mystery of Mithras. There’s no doubt that a lot of thought has gone into the re-construction of the temple, but most people wouldn’t need much more than twenty minutes to enjoy the experience.
On the way in you would have seen a display of objects that were found around the site, and this is where I spent quite a bit of time on the way out. The guides will provide you with a tablet that gives details of all the objects on display.
The site on which the temple stands was used as a waste dump by the Romans for reclaiming the land around the Walbrook and archaeological finds during the 2012-2014 excavations have unearthed over 14,000 different artefacts and around 63,000 sherds of pottery. Much of it went to the Museum of London, but there are somewhere in the order of 600 objects here, and if I’m being honest I think I spent more time here than I did at the ruined temple.
Also on the ground floor is Bloomberg Space, which showcases contemporary art. My visit coincided with Isabel Nolan’s ‘Another View from Nowhen’, but as I hadn’t come here to see art I wasn’t too bothered about it.
All in all, I enjoyed what I came here for, and although I can see why some people might not be over-enthusiastic about it (especially those who are used to seeing substantial Roman remains), for me I thought that Bloomberg and those who helped out should be applauded in the way they’ve tried to bring the past back to life for everyone to see without it costing a penny – and I reckon that with a few tweaks here and there, the experience will improve as time moves on – after all, it’s only recently been open and there’s 2,000 years of catching up to do.