Excavations at Zerzevan Castle in the Çınar district of Diyarbakır, southeastern Türkiye, have revealed an area where participants of secret rituals stayed in a 1,900-year-old underground temple belonging to the Mithras religion.

Zerzevan Castle, located near the Demirölçek neighborhood, 13 kilometers (8 miles) from the district, was a “military settlement” during the Roman Empire and is among the city’s important tourism values.

The castle, where the world’s last Mithras temple was uncovered, sheds light on history through scientific excavations.

Excavation work, initiated in 2014 with contributions from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the governorship, Diyarbakır Museum, the Çınar District Governorate and Dicle University, continues at the historic castle, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List.

To date, remnants of walls 12-15 meters (39-49 feet) high and 1,200 meters long, a watchtower and defense tower 21 meters high, a church, an administrative building, residences, grain and weapon depots, rock tombs, water channels, 54 water cisterns, an underground church, an underground shelter that can accommodate 400 people, residences, secret passages and an underground temple belonging to the Mithras religion, which lost its importance after the adoption of Christianity in the A.D. fourth century, have been unearthed.

This year’s excavations have reached the area where guests who came to the Mithras temple for secret religious ceremonies and rituals stayed.

Rare Mithras sanctuary

Excavation director Aytaç Coşkun told Anadolu Agency (AA) that they started excavation work at Zerzevan Castle 10 years ago and are continuing this year in the most important area of the castle, the Mithras sanctuary.

Coşkun noted that the Mithras sanctuary was discovered by chance in 2017 and stated that they did not know there was a structure related to the Mithras belief when they started excavations in this area.

Indicating that this is a very important discovery, Coşkun said: “Because it is the first sanctuary found on the eastern border of the Roman Empire, it is one of the last Mithras sanctuaries in the world. Mithras is the esoteric and mystery belief of the Roman Empire. Its ceremonies and rituals are secret; all these secret ceremonies and rituals were held in underground structures and temples at Zerzevan Castle.”

“During the excavations, we found where Mithras adherents from different parts of the Roman Empire stayed during certain periods of the year. We are continuing the excavations in this area. We will present our work to the scientific community,” he added.

Coşkun recalled that a temple, underground structure and monumental entrance belonging to the Mithras belief had previously been found in the historical castle, emphasizing that the most important structure of Zerzevan Castle is the Mithras sanctuary.

He stated that with these excavations, they have uncovered information about this mysterious belief, which has no written documents, and presented it to the scientific community, adding that they plan to complete the work in the accommodation area by the end of the year.

“We are excited to find the places where Mithras adherents, who came from different parts of the Roman Empire to participate in secret ceremonies and rituals, stayed in the sanctuary,” said Coşkun, noting that they have focused their work on this most curious area at Zerzevan Castle.

“Visitors from every country, especially from the U.S., U.K., Switzerland, Japan and Russia, come to see the Mithras sanctuary. Visitors come here to see the area where the oldest esoteric belief within the borders of the Roman Empire was experienced. This is very important for the region’s and the country’s tourism,” he explained.

Zerzevan Castle, a military settlement on an ancient road route, is on a 124-meter-high rocky hill and occupies a strategic point between Amida and Dara.

Overlooking the entire valley and controlling a wide area due to its position on an ancient trade route, the castle was the site of significant struggles between the Romans and Sasanians.

The settlement, dating back to the Assyrian period (882-611 B.C.), saw its primary military establishment built during the Roman period in the third century A.D. It was continuously used until its conquest by Islamic armies in A.D. 639.

The settlement’s walls and structures were repaired, and some were rebuilt during the reigns of Anastasios I (A.D. 491-518) and Justinianos I (A.D. 527-565).

The Mithras temple, located north of Zerzevan Castle, was built by carving the main rock underground on the eastern wall of the structure, columns carved into the main rock, a large niche in the center and two smaller niches on the sides can be found.

Mithras, known as the sun god, became widely popular in the second and third centuries A.D. in the Roman Empire as a symbol of light, war, justice and faith. However, he was banned from spreading Christianity in the fourth century A.D.

The mystery religion Mithras spread widely throughout the territories under Roman rule, especially among soldiers, traders and aristocrats.

Its religious ceremonies were secret and completely closed to outsiders. Only men were accepted into this religion, and participants underwent seven stages. The ceremonies were held underground in caves or temples.

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