London Mithraeum review
Have you ever returned to your old hometown just to see what it's like? To see if anything has changed, see if your family house is still standing, maybe sit at a bus stop for five minutes and try and recognise your teachers? Mine is just charity shops and crappy cafes now. The rough pub I used to work at is a boarded-up barrow of skips and bricks with weeds curling through them. Imagine if an old Roman tried to do the same in London... apart from a few bits of the old city wall and the crumbling stumps of a military fort there's hardly anything left above ground for him to remember. He might recognise the bathhouse underneath an office block in Lower Thames Street. The amphitheatre where he spent his Saturday afternoons is underneath an art gallery, and his temple is buried beneath a big building by Bank.
The Romans built the Temple of Mithras on the banks of the old Walbrook river 1,800 years ago. When they abandoned Britain four hundred years later the city stones eroded and took the temple with them, until some builders rediscovered the lower levels in 1954.
The new site owners decided that they didn't fancy having an ancient temple in their underground carpark so they lifted the whole thing into Queen Victoria Street and the Museum of London plundered the busts for themselves. Roll on another fifty years and their unloved office block was itself torn down, and the incoming Bloomberg company decided to restore the temple to its original location. So what we're looking at now is the original temple, in its original location (give or take a few feet), but reconstructed from the 1954 plans.
I used to loathe the new Bloomberg building but I'm starting to warm to it now. I think it was just the colossal size of it that wound me up -- it's too huge. It's a solid block of copper-coloured walls and you can spend ten minutes just walking around the outside trying to find the right entrance.
Things begin to get a lot more interesting when you descend a set of stairs into a black room full of misty, wispy projections. Joanna Lumley then starts reading some history out of the speakers and you sit there listening to her until it's time to descend the next set of stairs to the temple. They only admit about twenty people at a time because it's quite a small space and it's extremely dark. In fact, it's darker than dark -- you can hardly see a thing. You can't see the walls, the floor, your legs, nothing. Then ever so slowly a moon-coloured light illuminates the gloom and you can start to pick out a few lines. A silvery picture shimmers at the altar end and spotlights start hitting bricks in midair to throw vertical shadows in the shape of columns. The temple then rises up to its full height using sheets of white light -- it's almost like looking at a hologram.
It's quite well done and they've squeezed about as much interest as it's possible to get out of it, given the tiny size of the remains. When the main lights finally switch on at the end you can see that it's basically just a rectangle of short walls with some steps at the altar end. Then you take a few pictures and go home. The whole thing only took me thirty minutes.
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