Newly discovered Temple of Mithras makes Turkey’s Diyarbakır a touristic attraction

A 1,800-year-old Roman-era temple to the god Mithras, accidentally discovered in southeast Turkey in 2017, has become a centre of attraction for both archaeologists and tourists.

The ancient mystery religion of Mithraism has long been a starting point that conspiracy theorists link to the Illuminati, a secret society that some believe to run the world, the Knights Templar, a large organisation of devout Christians during the medieval era, and Masonic societies.

The ancient religion is thought to have been inspired by the Persian god of the sun, Mithra, whose worship is said to have been spread to the Roman Empire by soldiers who took part in military campaigns against Persians.

Mithraism’s importance to conspiracy theorists may be down to the complex system of initiation and rituals that its adherents had to undergo. Only men were allowed to join, and to do so, they had to endure 12 torments which included cutting and stabbing body parts and long periods of hunger and thirst. 

Mithraism was suppressed by the Roman Empire at the end of 4th century, as it was seen as a rival to Christianity, which had come to hold official status in the empire over the previous century.

The temple discovered under Zerzevan castle in Turkey’s southeastern province of Diyarbakır is well preserved compared to others previously discovered across the former Roman Empire. 

It is believed to have been designed according to the movements of the solar system. Some say the temple has its own magnetic field, a claim that may explain its popularity with practitioners of yoga, who have been known to visit it hoping to partake of its mystical powers. 

Other beliefs about the temples of Mithras go even further out of left field, with some claiming they contain doors to other universes. 

All the mystery around the temple has brought some 352,000 visitors to the site last year, with one million expected in 2019. Hotels are fully booked months in advance, and demand is so high that tour companies have asked for a helicopter landing field to be built near Zerzevan castle. 

The ancient Roman-era military base, also known as Samachi Castle, is located on high ground 13 km from Diyarbakır’s Çınar district. It covers an expanse of 60,000 square metres. 

This strategic Roman border garrison, which for years had guarded a huge and important valley, was invaded by Muslim armies in 639, and was left almost entirely abandoned for the 1,400 years since, until archaeologists began work on the ruins.

Zerzevan castle
Zerzevan castle in Turkey's southeastern province of Diyarbakır.

Only one percent of Zerzevan castle has yet been unearthed since excavations started in 2014. A 21-metre high observation tower, a church, an administrative building, residential buildings, an underground temple, bunkers, rock tombs, water channels, and 54 water cisterns in the castle are expected to shed light on its history. Some even call the site “the Ephesus of the East”, referring to the well-preserved Roman city near Turkey’s Aegean coast. 

Aytaç Coşkun, the head of the excavation team working on the ruins and an archaeologist at Dicle University, said the castle lay on a route of commercial, political and strategic importance during the Assyrian, Persian and Roman eras.

Some artefacts dating back to the third century have been found in the excavation, which according to Coşkun will last 50 years, and is likely to unearth many more objects of interest. 

“Many things that were used in daily life in the Roman era are being discovered. In times of war, the castle hosted a population of more than 10,000. It includes both an overground and an underground city. They brought water from eight kilometres away,” Coşkun said. There were “arrowheads, military belt buckles, ornaments used on dresses, even surgery tools, necklaces and hair clips that are products of elaborate work … There is a magnificent collection,” the archaeologist said. 

“It is regarded as an important temple because it is the only one on the Romans’ eastern border. We know that such temples existed in Roman territories, including in today’s Spain and England,” Coşkun said.

The temple, which was carved into the bedrock under the castle, is seven metres long and five metres wide and has a single entrance. “Here we see the traces of both pagan Romans and the Christian Romans,” Coşkun said.

According to Coşkun, the findings shed new light on the existing body of knowledge of the Mithraic religion. “The temple has many Mithraic symbols. After the temple was discovered, we have been able to answer many questions,” he said. 

Coşkun said that people had travelled from as far afield as western Europe, the United States and Japan to visit the temple, while movie and documentary producers had also been seeking permission to film at the site.

Zerzevan castle
Water cisterns in Zerzevan castle.

The International Council on Monuments and Sites’ team selected Zerzevan as one of four sites in the world for a documentary on cultural heritage, while National Geographic is planning filming a documentary in 2020 in Zerzevan castle titled “The Story of God”, the archaeologist said.

The excavation work and interest from tourists have helped boost the ailing economy of Diyarbakır, which has been hit by both the country’s financial troubles and the more than three-decade long conflict with Kurdish rebels. 

At the moment, some 75 people are working at the excavation site. “This place was empty in the past. People brought their animals here for herding,” said Mehmet Kızılton, a former farmer who has been working as a warden for three years. 

“Now, after the excavations begun, thousands of people are visiting. I believe when the castle is open to tourism, it will contribute enormously to the region’s economy,” Kızılton said.  

The castle had faded into obscurity over the centuries since its use, but it was not completely abandoned when the archaeological work began. A family that moved to the area from the southeastern province of Mardin settled in the castle in 1890 and established a village there. 

Those villagers lived in houses they built inside the castle and eked out an existence by farming livestock, but had to move 2 km away in 1967 because of water shortages and difficult living conditions. 

The villagers are happy that the castle is becoming a centre of attraction and hope the site will provide employment to their young residents, who otherwise have to seek jobs in other parts of Turkey.

Selim Ata, one of the villagers, was born in Zerzevan castle and lived there until he turned 15. According to Ata, there were many gold and silver coins in the area and that was why it was named Zerzevan, as “Zêr” means gold and “Zîv” means silver in Kurdish. 

“When I was living in the castle, I was a child and we used to play games. We would build ourselves houses using the stones in the castle. There were many copper things in the castle. Some copper coins had figures of women on them,” he said.