A visit to the London Mithraeum when I was a child was pretty underwhelming; a pile of bricks hinted at the foundations of something grand, but was open to the elements alongside a busy London road. It just didn’t do any justice to what is one of London’s few monuments to the remaining Londinium. Though to be honest London doesn’t really do justice to any of its Roman ruins! There are a few bits of wall poking out of the sunken gardens of the Barbican, some drains at the Tower of London and some baths off The Strand which are only visible from a low window on the street. Not terribly prepossessing.
So I have been dying to visit the newly revamped and reinterpreted Mithraeum. But what, you ask, is a Mithraeum? Around 2000 years ago a new cult formed in the Roman Empire dedicated to the god Mithras. As Joanna Lumley’s dulcet tones will inform you on the mid-level, we know relatively little about this ancient cult, but the acolytes were men, they had initiation ceremonies and a banquet.
Back in 1954 the ruins of the temple were discovered during some excavations and brought to the modern ground level to be displayed to the public – not with a lot of panache as I mentioned earlier. Fast forward to 2010 when Bloomberg decided to restore the Mithraeum to its original site as part of their new European headquarters. And what a smashing job they have done!
A visit to the Mithraeum is free but you have to book in advance online. The ‘experience’ is spread over three floors. When I arrived there was a temporary exhibition on the top floor (ground level) by Pablo Bronstein. London in its Original Splendour was a graphic installation of aspects of London architecture in temporal juxtaposition; the buildings were a mixture of eras and styles, very much signalling a London-esque vibe.
Around the corner was a wall of objects from the archaeological site, leant by the Museum of London. To one side were a few interactive ipads where you could find an image of the object wall on the ipad and choose an object to learn more. Some of the artefacts were unique while others were domestic. Mostly it was the half-familiar and rather mundane detritus from Roman Londoners.
A timeline led me down steps onto the next floor where I was plunged into relative darkness. Three replica Roman objects sat in front of touch screens so you could find out more about Mithras. I sat on a bench and watched the projection while Lumley told me all about the history of Mithras and the Mithraeum. It’s hard to describe the effect but probably ‘haunting’ comes close. The projection of misty people coalesced and then disintegrated, evoking ghosts of worshippers past.
At a certain point the docent let us know that the final experience was ready. A small group of us (five) had gathered at this point and we walked down more steps to the original level of Roman London. Here the temple had been reinstated for our viewing. But first we had to experience what is all intents and purposes a Son et Lumiere. The room was filled with a water/glucose mist and light was projected through the mist to create the ‘walls’ of the temple. As the ‘walls’ materialized we could hear voices of men, speaking Latin, arriving at the temple and reciting chants and prayers. As a denouement a light sculpture of Mithras killing a bull was lit up. At the finale the houselights came up and you could putter around the ruins.
It is very difficult to photograph the low lighting effects but it was dramatic. They had cleverly created ‘windows’ in the light wall to close in the temple.
Each level had a strong unique interpretational style, not so much that you were overwhelmed but enough that you got a sense of drama and importance of the ruins. Bravo to Bloomberg for imbuing this important site with gravitas and mystery.Ticket price - free