How we would prefer not to discover antiquity – Durighello and the Sidon Mithraeum

The Mithraeum at Sidon is lost.  Indeed it was never discovered.  Our knowledge of it rests on two things; a small collection of exquisite statuettes in Parian marble, now in the Louvre; and a letter by their finder, a certain Edmond Durighello.

Durighello’s letter was published in the obscure journal, le Bosphorus egyptien.  A year later, in 1888, it was reprinted by Solomon Reinach in the revue archeologique.  It is here.  My transcription and translation are here.

Let us look at what Durighello says:

The “Egyptian Bosphorus” August 19, 1887, published the following article, which had the honour to be reprinted in the official diary of Madrid news. So beautiful a specimen of fanciful archaeology should not be allowed to fall into oblivion.  Three lines of this article are certainly truthful, although they refer to facts already old; we reproduce the rest without guarantee, in the hope that it may prove to be true.

The cult of Mithras is of Persian origin. Mithras is the god Ormuzd of the Persians.  His cultus, which followed the victorious armies of the Persian kings, was established in the conquered countries and was somewhat transformed there, borrowing from the native cults some of their character. Until now, no temple of Mithras has been found intact, as the rage of Constantine broke like a devastating hurricane over every monument of idolatry. The temple of Sidon alone escaped destruction.

It is several meters underground, completely buried in the rubble. If it was said to someone in passing, while walking on the ground under which the temple lies, that under our feet there are beautiful rooms filled with archaeological treasures, he would be legitimately  astonished, because nothing on the surface reveals the existence of these mysterious vaults. I was able to visit this sanctuary, and here is the description.

It seems that the followers of the cult of Mithras in the city of Sidon, on the publication of the first edict of Constantine, were eager to wall up the door of their secret temple. Perhaps they were victims of the politics which caused Constantine to take action against the idolaters. The fact is that the temple remained hidden and unknown until my subterranean researchs in the rubble in Phoenicia led me to its mysterious entrance. The wooden door was destroyed by moisture; it gave onto a long corridor encumbered by earth which had partly filled it. To the height of a man on both sides of the corridor, in fourteen niches, are placed marble statues of 1m, 10 in size, representing the priests, or rather warriors of all ages, armed at all points with a the military appearance.

At the end of this corridor is a large circular room, whose dome is supported by twenty-four columns forming twelve corners. Each of these corners contains a kind of altar; at the foot of these altars, marble beds of bizarre forms still retain traces of the mysteries that were performed here. On these twelve altars are large marble bas-reliefs on which are carved the signs of the zodiac, and in the free space may be seen, painted on the wall, some extraordinary figures it is impossible to describe here, because of their obscenity; some candelabras or torch-holders, of marble and bronze, true masterpieces of execution, are placed on pedestals of excellent work. This room is paved with mosaics of colored glass inlaid with gold; in the middle is a huge marble bull whose horns are plated with gold; before this bull is a narrow opening leading by a stairway of twelve steps to seven rooms underground, carved into the living rock and giving onto one another by iron gates, all rusty, detached from their hinges, littering the thresholds; the size of these rooms decreases more and more until, with the seventh and last, there is only a space in which twenty people may be  cramped; the walls of these rooms are decorated behind many marble altars, bearing groups of statues arranged into scenes which are remarkable for the varieties of figures as for the whole. On all these altars, the oriental Venus dominates, and the characters that compose the scene wear the heads of different animals. White marble, ivory, bronze, silver, and especially gold, are used in abundance. I have sent from all these treasures only a dozen statues that are now with M. de Clercq in Paris.

When the Turkish government decides to honour its commitments to me, scientists will have the pleasure to study and admire this superb temple.

Edmond Durighello.

In other words, “Give me money and I will show you where it is.  You’ve got no chance of finding it without me.”

It is not difficult to see why Reinach was dubious.  So little of this corresponds to anything found in any Mithraeum.

And yet … there is this:

CIMRM 75 - The Sidon Tauroctony. In the Louvre.

And there is a collection of rather less than a dozen lovely statuettes.

It would be interesting to know whether there really was a Mithraeum at Sidon!

2 Responses to “How we would prefer not to discover antiquity – Durighello and the Sidon Mithraeum”


  1. Jun

    This is probably a dumb question. But I just realized all the stuff in this sculpture is zodiac-related. Mithras in the middle obviously must be the Sun, so is the bull the moon? And is that why the cow jumps over the moon in the nursery rhyme?

  2. Roger Pearse

    If you look at the relief more closely (click on it for larger size), you will see that Sol, the sun, is present at top right, second head from the right, complete with his rays. Luna the moon is to his left, with the curve of the moon behind her. The four heads at the corners are the four winds. Taurus the bull is to her right.