The 4th-century Zerzevan Castle, perched atop a 400-ft high rocky hill overlooking the strategic pathway and trade route between Diyarbakir and Mardin, was built by the Eastern Romans as a military base in what was then southeastern Anatolia. But beneath its fortified ‘veneer’, archaeological excavations revealed a series of underground structures that were related to a mithraea, a subterranean temple dedicated to the ancient god Mithra. To that end, the latest excavation project brought forth the existence of two previously unknown corridors that originally served as underground passways to the mysterious Mithras temple.
Relating to the ‘mysterious’ part, historically, Mithraism (also referred to as the Mithraic mysteries) was a secretive religion with its own brand of enigmatic initiations that were held in subterranean chambers closed to the outsiders. Aytaç Coşkun, a faculty member of the Department of Archaeology at Dicle University and the head of the current excavations at the Zerzevan Castle site, said –
Their [followers of Mithraism] 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.
Quite intriguingly, the secretive scope of Mithraism rather mirrored the complex nature of their deity – Mithra. In that regard, as we talked about in one of our articles about the ancient Roman gods –
Mithra was incipiently a Zoroastrian divine entity (yazata), thus having his origins in the religious system of ancient Persia and related Indo-Iranian traditions. However, pertaining to a fascinating example of cross-cultural syncretism, a mystery religion centered around a particular Greco-Roman deity known as Mithras (a figure which was inspired by Mithra) was practiced in the Roman Empire, with its heydays ranging from 1st to the 4th century AD – thus possibly being one of the early ‘rivals’ to Christianity. And while the name and the initial divinity of Mithras were influenced by its Eastern counterpart, the imagery of this enigmatic deity among the Roman gods along with the related belief system was distinct from the original Zoroastrian entity.
We further added –
Mainly practiced by the members of the Roman military, this mystery religion of Mithraism (possibly transmitted by the merchants from the east) was primarily introduced into the upper echelons of the society, circa 1st century AD. And by the 3rd century AD, the cult, probably open to only males, percolated into different sections of the society, with one of the major bastions being the eternal city itself – Rome. These male initiates, known as syndexioi, probably met in underground temples called mithraea. Interestingly enough, while the imagery of Mithras is well known with the god’s depiction as a youth wearing an Anatolian attire and a Phrygian cap in a bull-slaying scene, historians are still perplexed by a lion-headed figure often encountered in Mithraic temples. Known as Arimanius (a Latinized form of the name Ahriman – a demonic entity in the Zoroastrian pantheon), the cryptic deity possibly represented Cronus (Kronos) or his Eastern equivalent.
Reverting to the Zerzevan Castle, the expansive military base also doubled as a settlement, as could be evidenced by structures like residential buildings and public constructions, including a palace, baths, administrative sectors, arsenals, cisterns and a proximate rock-cut necropolis. Simply put, the fortified grounds and its adjoining areas together served as a garrison town where soldiers lived with their families.
Historically, the settlement was possibly known as Samachi and may have been the focal point of some of the military engagements between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanian (Persian) Empire. Suffice it to say, the Romans were aware of the strategic importance of the fortification at the easternmost border of their realm, with various repair works and reconstructions being done at the site during 5th and 6th century AD.