Mithraism May Become a Bit Less Mysterious with New Temple Discovery in Turkey
In ancient times, there was an Aryan religion, Mithraism, so veiled in secrecy that only rumor of its beliefs and rites were recorded. Archaeologists are hoping to shed more light on the mysteries of the religion of Mithra in the ruins of an ancient Roman outpost in eastern Turkey.
The followers of Mithras included people across the breadth of the Roman Empire. But its roots were in Persia and India long before, when those two peoples’ cultures and ancestry were closely related.
A 1902 book by Franz Cumont stated:
“In the [sacred texts] Avesta, Mithra is the genius of the celestial light. He appears before sunrise on the rocky summits of the mountains; during the day he traverses the wide firmament in his chariot drawn by four white horses, and when night falls he still illumines with flickering glow the surface of the earth, ‘ever waking, ever watchful.’ He is neither sun, nor moon, nor stars, but with ‘his hundred ears and his hundred eyes’ watches constantly the world. Mithra hears all, sees all, knows all: none can deceive him. By a natural transition he became for ethics the god of truth and integrity, the one that was invoked in solemn oaths, that pledged the fulfillment of contracts, that punished perjurers.”
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Excavations ongoing since 2013 at Zerzevan Castle in Turkey’s Diyarbakir Province have turned up secret passages leading to an underground Christian church and shelter that could hold up to 400 people.
A story in the Turkish online newspaper Daily Sabah says the most recent work at the castle has found the temple to Mithras, whose ancient religion was supplanted by Christianity.
Zerzevan Castle is about 55,200 square meters (594,000 square feet) and has walls 12 to 15 meters tall (39.37 to 49.2 feet tall). The watch tower is 21 meters (69 feet) tall. The walls stretch for 1,200 meters (3,937 feet).
A reproduction of a banquet involving Mithras and the sun god, who are seated on a bull hide. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The huge complex includes a church building (aboveground), ruins of homes, buildings for administrators, and storage facilities for weapons and grain. The castle also has tombs and water channels cut into the rock.
Zerzevan Castle has views of the cities of Diyarbakir and Mardin. Çınar District Governor İsmail Şanlı said the castle is almost as old as Diyarbakir. In ancient times, the district’s eastern marches were strengthened against armies who wanted to reach Diyarbakir, he said.
Another bull image—from Persepolis, possibly of Zoroastrian origin. Mithras had associations with bulls and is believed to have derived from Aryan-Persian-Indian religions. In this relief, the lion and bull are engaged in a mythic battle. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Professor Aytaç Coşkun of the Department of Archaeology at Dicle University, who is head of the excavations, said he and his team think this is the only temple to Mithras on the Roman Empire’s eastern border. As such it is crucially important, he said, adding Mithraism was popular among Roman soldiers.
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The professor told the Daily Sabah:
“The followers of this religion are from a closed community because their religious ceremonies are completely secret and no information was leaked to outsiders. Mithras represents both the sun god and also "consensus." Their temples are usually built underground. There are three niches on the eastern part of the temple. A very thoroughly constructed one is in the water basin. There is also a pool. We believe water was very widely used in Mithras ceremonies and about 40 people attended ceremonies held here.”
The temple to Mithras dates to the peak times of the religion, about 1,700 years ago. It is 35 square meters (114.82 square feet) and 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) tall. Like other underground temples, it is smallish, the professor said.
Top image: The complex includes both Christian and Mithraic places of worship, a huge castle, underground features, rock-cut tombs, and water channels. (Daily Sabah photo)
By Mark Miller